Editor's Note

Posted on: March 1, 2003


It had been a terrible summer for climbing. Actually, that is generous. Work and a torn rotator cuff had limited adventures to two times on the Grand, both via the 1898 route.

It was a Saturday in October. We were in the Gunks, and it was raining. The Near Trapps were teeming with climbers and their stuff—groups, couples, boulderers, children, topropes strung up, packs leaning against cliffs, dogs tangling themselves in people's mornings. The Gunks: intricate rock, storied crags, an hour and a half from Manhattan. It was to be expected.

The rain continued. The crowds thinned the farther G. and I walked from the parking lot. We followed a faint trail slick with leaves up through the trees to the walls, and then just walked, guidebook buried in the pack, keeping an eye out for compelling lines.

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A serpentine crack snuck past overhangs to what looked like a ledge where the foliage crowded in. We upended our packs, contents spilling out onto patches of dry rock.

"Climbing is hard," a friend points out. Slack for a moment (or two months) and the next time out the neglect is appallingly clear. I knew I should go up and left because chalked-up holds followed a series of edges in that direction. But down left was more inviting. I traversed accordingly, then made my way to a tree sprouting from a horizontal shelf.

G. followed with no respect for the difficulties. The clouds had become less malevolent. A piton jutted out from a roof to the right. The holds looked big. I mulled it over. G. was nonplussed. I began.

Pocked with rust, rutted with time, the pin frightened me clipped at least as much as if I had not clipped it at all. I poked a yellow Camalot at a horizontal crack and staccatoed a foot over the roof.

The route unfolded above, a four-foot swath of clean stone through an abundance of ancient lichen. Thirty feet higher I could see another piton jutting out where the route steepened, and I padded up, slotting tricams, a TCU, a number one cam in the horizontal cracks. The cracks ran out as the angle kicked back, but the pin up ahead lured me on.

I reached it, the distance to the last piece by now magnified by imagination. The pin looked like it should fail under the weight of its own history.

As I rigged slings and equalized hopes, fifteen minutes passed. To the right, another horizontal seam accepted part of a cam. I swallowed, and looked up. A gentle undulation diagonalled from left to right. I ran my fingers up it like playing a piano, finding a good edge two feet higher, chalked and notably small for the grade of the route. Enough runners were arranged below that they might serve as a net should I fall, but regrettably they were clipped to pieces I did not trust.

By now my toes were near the pin and my eyes were alternating between what certainly had to be a thank-god hold four feet higher and the oh-shit holds two feet below that.

The moves were not particularly hard, but they felt both hard and scary. I could lock off on a hold to my right, but the problem was letting go, committing, forgetting about the gear and the fall and making the moves I knew I could do.

It's surprising how perspective comes flooding back once you downclimb to your protection. I looked out at the deciduous trees of upstate New York in autumn, the land rolling away from the cliffsides. The rain (it had stopped by now) made the countryside shimmer. A thin gauze of mist rose up from the trees. G. was below, patiently waiting; I hoped she was wedged in the notch of the tree, supported, paying out rope in soft, lazy loops more appropriate to summer.

Guilt (it was her first multi-pitch climb) got the better of me. I climbed the now-familiar holds, reached my high point, moved toward holds I'd studied before. The pounding increased, crowding the margins of my vision. I likely stopped breathing. I reached for an edge with my left hand, my fingers nervously sliding up and over, not knowing what I'd find.

Paul Pritchard gave a slide show in Llanberris in May 1996 in a cinder block outer room surrounded by the Welsh countryside. He had been active—or prolific—of late, and the seacliffs of Gogarth received much of his attention. His new routes had a signature of boldness, and on this evening he showed slides from his various adventures. One of them was blurred around the edges, spinning, everything but the absolute center whirling like a top.

"I've thought of how to describe the feeling of being run out," Paul said. The concrete walls reflected the light of the slide. Paul tilted his head, transfixed by the image. "Seventy feet out with the ocean crashing in the zawn below feels like this."

Visions of Paul, and the slide, came to me now. I moved into the thin holds, walked my feet up, moved again.

Inspiration takes different forms. I'd like to say balance and grace possessed me then, but they didn't. It doesn't matter. For a moment I saw what Paul saw: a glimpse of a space so large it was a void. Paul knew he could leap the void at will, and did so, until a hurtling rock struck him down. Now he pursues adventures in the interior, documenting them for us in his books. I continued up and girth hitched a small tree.

Many of the climbs contained between the covers of this magazine are beyond the range of ordinary climbers. The majority of us will never reach the summit of GIV, establish free routes at rarefied grades or climb the modern desperates on stone needles thousands of feet high. But to read Walter Bonatti describe his summit effort, with Carlo Mauri, on GIV's first ascent is to realize a capacity for human longing rare in the quotidian. To listen as Voytek Kurtyka recounts the hallucinations that overtook him and Robert Schauer high on the west face of the same mountain is to witness men willfully adrift in the void. Kurtyka's assessment of his failure is raw and honest in a way I can only imagine. But that is precisely its inspiration. Imagining such encounters with the improbable allows us to take on the long odds of our own adventures, even if our struggles take place on smaller climbs in smaller places.

I called off belay to G. Confirmation echoed up. The mists had risen a bit higher now; they looked like tendrils gently knotting above the trees. It felt good to be back.

—Christian Beckwith

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