Gunks Climbing - Update
Monday, May 15th, noon. Shawangunks Mountain Range, New York
Shockley's Ceiling, belay ledge at the end of the first pitch:
Naoko rubbed her hands together, wringing the water from them and trying to stave off some of the numbness. Overhead the dark gray sky spilt water down upon us, catching onto a slight rocky overhang to form a natural rain gutter whose overflow was bathing us in cold splatter. I could see that Naoko was regretting leaving her jacket at the base of the cliff. Craig busily juggled a series of cams and nuts, searching through the slick, wet fissures in the ledge to find good anchor points for our rappel. It was a three pitch climb and we had just finished the first before the rain spilled upon us. There were no rappel rings on this pitch; to bail here, Craig would have to build us a rappel point, and, unfortunately, abandon some of his gear in the process. A hazy, gray mist obfuscated the valley span below; it was a remarkable view of bushy tree lines from our perch 60 ft up. I wondered about the other two climbers who had passed us earlier on a parallel route. Their ropes had been pulled up out of sight about 30 minutes ago, and we didn't hear anymore belay calls from them. Had they outclimbed the storm and found a spot to hike down from, or were they also sitting quietly drenched on a higher ledge, mirroring us, looking out over the rainy valley? Craig coiled the rappel line, peered over the ledge, and tossed the green rope wide over the cliff.
Dallas, PA, 8 hours earlier
I squinted through the darkness at the buzzing alarm, a pillow crumpled half over my head. A soft blue glowing display read 4:45 am. I was wired the previous night from anticipation of the climb, and couldn't fall asleep until after midnight. I got up, stumbled through the morning routines, did a final gear check, and munched on a peanut butter sandwich as a car pulled into my driveway. A knock on the door, then Craig drove the two of us off to the meeting point in Wilkes-Barre at the Wilkes-Barre Rocks Climbing gym. The weather looked dicey, and we had an uncertainty about if anyone would show. After 10 minutes of sitting in the dim light of the early morning packing lot, Naoko's truck pulled along side us. Shortly afterwards, the remainder of the climbers pulled into the parking lot. Splitting up into two cars, we began the 2.5 hour drive to the Gunks, New York.
Spirits were high when we met up at for breakfast in a small deli near the Gunks. A short drive to the Trapps had us park at the base of the Stairmaster. The aptly-named Stairmaster is an extended series of stone steps which form the ascent to the base of the cliff. Since you are loaded up with ropes, water, and climbing gear, it gets the blood pumping. Everyone was a little winded when we arrived at the cliff, and after a brief discussion of group pairings, we split into three groups. My group was Craig (our lead climber), myself, and Naoko. Today would be Naoko's first outdoor climb.
Shockley's Ceiling was our target, a 5.6 three pitch climb which had the quirky tradition of occassionally being climbed in the buff by free-spirited climbers. We decided to keep all of our clothes on. After the usual set-up and pre-climb checks, Craig began his first lead ascent, and soon disappeared beyond the roof of the initial couple moves. I followed, removing the gear as I went, with a second rope trailing from me. This would form a top-rope route for Naoko. The first of the three pitches was graded 5.4, although a few of the corners, and, in particular the initial roof, I thought were harder. Naoko had no problems with them though, and soon joined us on our ledge 60 ft up. Craig pulled out his guidebook and began mapping the second pitch, choosing a traverse to begin. In no time he had his first piece of protection placed. Just then he said, "and I just felt a few drops of rain."
A uneasy moment passed as me and Naoko looked up, and I heard the soft pop of raindrops on my windbreaker. "Yeah, me too," we both said. We wondered if we should continue and try to make the second pitch, or figure out how to get down. After a short discussion, we decided to wait a few minutes on the ledge and see if it was a false alarm. Craig back climbed to us, removing the piece of protection he placed. Over the course of the next ten minutes, the fine mist evolved into a steady light rain, and the rocks started to glisten with wetness.
Shockley's Ceiling, 1st pitch ledge, 12:30 pm
Naoko was about to take a literal leap of faith. Holding onto the rappel rope with both hands just under her ATC, she needed to toss herself off the ledge, with 60 ft or air and rock below her. Craig had already descended and had her on a firemanâ€™s belay, and, with it, could stop her descent if she had any trouble. This was her first rappel, and she got her lesson on a water covered ledge while shivering during a rainstorm. Although your brain gets its usual logical checklist reassurance of "the anchors are solid, my partner can stop me, everything will be fine, " there still is the overwhelming experience as you peer down over the cliff you're about to jump off of that says "you want me to do what?" Naoko does a great job and descends smoothly. I follow aftwards.
On the ground, Craig sees the other climbers descending I'd been wondering about earlier, Chris and Julia. Craig calls up to Chris, and he agrees to stop on our ledge and retrieve Craig's gear. The two climbers had made it to the next pitch before the rain hit, and sat soundly under a rocky overhang trying to wait out the rainstorm. The rain didn't let up, and they rappelled out like we did. As this was going on, I tilted my head back and stared up at the tall, dead tree near me. My green rope was wrapped high in its branches. The first rappel line to be thrown, it was rendered useless when it got tangled in the tree. It was brand new, and, like all climbing ropes, expensive. We were talking about cutting the rope to salvage part of it, but I was determined, and began jumping up and putting all my weight on it. The dead tree bent and protested, and, after the third yank, snapped at a thin point right on the top. The rope thudded down with a 12" section of branch. I cheered. We all collected our gear, met up at the cars, and headed to someplace warm and dry to get some food and hot tea.