The night started normally enough, around a campfire with my climbing buddies, planning to go to bed early to beat the lines on the popular classics tomorrow morning. Then things took an unusual turn, and so now here we are.
"I can't believe we're doing this, Christa says."
She has a point! One AM. 300 feet of cliff at our fingertips. The campfire a distant memory. Not even a sliver of moon in the sky, and the three of us standing here, stark naked, putting on our harnesses!
"Yup, this is awesome!" I respond, grinning from ear to ear.
It started for me with a climbing website. Must've been Gunks.com, where I first learned about Dick Williams. I know, the name sounds redundant, but nevertheless, that's his name! Anyway, I learned that he was one of a climbing group in the sixties called the Vulgarians; hard climbers in the Gunks who challenged the way the Appalachian Mountain Club (the Appies) tried to set the rules for all the climbers. Screw your rules, said the Vulgarians! And for the most part, the Vulgarians outclimbed and outmaneuvered the Appies, and history was theirs. Not a bad bet they had more fun, too! Several years ago I found a pic of Dick Williams leading Shockley's Ceiling in the nude, taken in 1964. Why that particular climb? Because it was a popular one for the tourists to watch from the overlook of a nearby road. That guy had balls! Even if you can't quite see them in this famous photo!!!
I immediately liked the idea.
That same Dick Williams who you can see dangling here wrote a series of books that have become the standard guides for climbers at the Gunks. In fact, I had recently purchased his latest volume, a thick guidebook with a gray cover, colloquially referred to as the Gray Dick. I mention this because my Gray Dick will pop up again later in the story. Anyway, since Dick swung his way up Shockley's roof in the altogether, it's become kind of a tradition to climb Shockley's in just that style, and it's been a dream of mine to do so. Seems like it'd be a fun little adventure, so I like to ask around sometimes to see if I can find a willing co-conspirator. Fast forward to about two months ago, when I shared my enthusiasm for the idea of climbing Shockley's in the proper form with a new climber I'd met on the net named Christa. While she wasn't thrilled about losing her bottoms, she seemed excited at the idea of doing it topless sometime. The hook was placed!
Okay, so back to the campfire at the start of this evening. Like I said, everything's pretty normal. We're all chilling, having a good time, and trying to scare each other about the climbs coming up tomorrow, when my phone rings. "Hey Gabe! How's it going?" It's Christa, she's had a few drinks, and she's camping nearby. "Hey, we've got a nice fire going and everything - you should come by." I tell her. "Cool, a party!" she responds. Christa likes to party. She's there in a matter of minutes, with Jeff, another friend of theirs, and the better part of a case of cheap beer.
We're bullshitting about everything under the sun, and Jeff, who's a real talker, keeps bringing up the idea of nighttime climbing. By midnight, the only ones still up are him, Christa, and myself; all my climbing buddies hit the hay an hour ago. From out of her tent comes my partner Jen's voice.
"If you want me to be any use as a climbing partner to you tomorrow, I'm going to have to get some sleep tonight" says she, in the closest approximation of a not-entirely-pissed-off voice she can muster.
"Yeah, shut the fuck up!" agrees Rob from his tent.
"You know - you guys are right," I say. "We should let you sleep. C'mon, let's go." And simple as that - it was decided - Christa, Jeff and I were going climbing, and there was only one destination worth going to.
"Let's do it! Shockley's Ceiling!"
Well the walk up the Stairmaster - the long steep stone steps that lead to the cliff - was enough to clear our heads a bit. The air had that comfortable cool feeling that comes only from a walk on a night that's put to rest a hot mid-summer's day, and now lies free and easy all around you; refreshing, calm and comfortable. Once we arrived at the base of the climb, we stripped down quickly, I tied in, racked up, and then snapped a quick pic of the three of us at the base of the route. Shockley's Ceiling. I mean, we figured we might need these photos just to prove to ourselves in the morning that we hadn't dreamt the whole thing!
I would lead the first and last pitches of the three pitch climb, and Jeff would lead the one in the middle. I was psyched to get to lead the last pitch - the famous one, with the ceiling, (see the pic of DW above) for which the climb is named.
"On belay?" I asked? "Belay on." "Climbing!" And up I went.
It had been at least a couple of years since I'd done Shockley's, so I brought my Gray Dick, and also consulted with Jeff as I quickly climbed the short 5.2 first pitch to the first belay ledge, a nice spacious affair. I can't recall what Jeff and Christa were talking about as I climbed, but Jeff was going at it a mile a minute, and their laughter fit my good mood marvelously. I brought up Christa, and then Jeff. We were really doing it, and we were having a blast!
I've got a pretty bawdy sense of humor, but as we exchanged gear at the first belay station, Jeff's frat-boy style quickly left me in the dust. It seemed well suited to Christa's taste, but by the time he got to the jokes that even he thought were gross (which I won't repeat here) I guess it was beginning to grate on me a little, so I wasn't sorry when he took off to lead the second pitch.
Pitch two is a nice long one that seems to just keep going and going through a series of steep corners. Jeff dispatched it efficiently, with ever fainter shouts of "This is fucking great!" drifting down from the blackness above.
Christa belays Jeff on P2:
And then, without any warning, the rain began.
The first few drops fell as Jeff did the second half of his pitch. By the time it was Christa's turn to unclip from the belay and start to follow him, it was coming down pretty hard. She was a bit spooked! I reassured her "You're on top rope, and the pitch is pretty straight up - it's totally safe. And if you decide the rock up there is too wet for me to lead the last pitch, the two of you just rap back down and we'll clean the anchor tomorrow."
As Christa climbed, the rain intensified. I knew she must be having a hell of a time, but she kept her wits together, and made it up just fine. Meanwhile, I hopped down off my belay ledge and under a small roof to take shelter. While I was waiting, I re-flaked the rope under the roof with me to keep it out of the ever growing puddles on the belay ledge. It was a bit cramped in there, but fortunately, the rain didn't last long, and by the time it was my turn to head up the rain had stopped. Miraculously, most of the rock was completely dry! That explained why Christa didn't have a harder time on the pitch. Made no sense to me how it could be so dry, but by the time I reached the belay ledge at the end of the pitch, I felt confident that I would be able to lead the third and last pitch.
As we were sorting gear, the banter between Christa and Jeff was in full swing. They were laughing about all the slang terms they knew for a guy beating up a woman while (or after - I'm not sure) getting a blow-job. Not my kind of humor. Just the same, I was happy to have Jeff along. I suppose I bore Christa, and it would have been a drag to feel boring on an adventure like this. I liked the energy of the two of them - it matched my internal joy at being here.
Anyway, it was now time for me to set off. Hooray! The rock was mostly dry, the ceiling beckoned, and the air felt positively luscious all around my naked skin. I traded headlamps with Christa, as mine was beginning to run out of juice, and off I went! I had remembered the last pitch as having a few overhangs - the second being the hardest, but tonight it was all float - no effort at all. It's a strange feeling to know, as you're pulling through a roof, that you *should* be feeling exposed and scared. But how can you feel exposed when everything outside of your little square of light is blackness, whether up, down, or on either side? I could no more feel the exposure of the ground beckoning me from two hundred feet below than an observer below could have seen my exposure (keep in mind, I'm still in the nude!). It was as if a blanket of darkness surrounded the little square of light in which myself and the rock existed. Perhaps this is similar to how a free-soloist must feel. There is nothing but the climb as it flows by you. A marvelous sensation.
After we finished, we congratulated each other, rappelled down, collected our clothes (which were in various states of soaking wet), returned to camp, and went our separate ways. I'm very grateful to Christa and Jeff for giving me the opportunity to live out one of my dreams. And I'm grateful to Dick Williams. More than just the joy they got out of shocking people, what was so cool about the Vulgarians, and what can inspire us all, was how they embraced life and climbing as an adventure to throw themselves into fully! Dick Williams, if you're out there, thanks for the inspiration. You remind us that rock climbing is about more than climbing over rocks. At its root, the soul of climbing is the soul of adventure. Thank you for the three legacies you left to us climbers - your routes, your guidebooks, and that spirit of adventure the Vulgarians were famous for. Folks may or may not have noticed, but the pic of me pulling through the roof, by pure chance, captured not one, but two of Dick Williams' legacies. Here it is again, with a certain area blown up for detail:
Final thought: Each of us climbers occasionally has the opportunity to let our Gray Dick hang proudly below our harness! Grab it!