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Rock Climbing in the Gunks

Posted Sep 14 2009 9:50am
Yesterday I finally went to try rock climbing for the first time in my life. I've been planning this since around 2007... when I paid for the introductory lesson, but I just didn't have time or favorable weather to do it. I really procrastinated, but finally I decided to call the EMS Climbing School and use my credit. I think I was naturally attracted to rock climbing since I love mountains and hiking so much, but I was a bit scared at the same time because there were so many things that I couldn't understand... like how do you anchor the rope to the rock, how to you climb when there are no visible holds. I also didn't understand very well how safe it actually is, as long as you're not the lead climber.

I picked the Gunks after a random suggestion, and I later found out that this mountains in Upstate New York (less than 2 hours from us) are a famous climbing destination. You wouldn't think that, considering it's some small cliffs that can't compare to anything in the Rockies, but I guess people like the availability of many climbs of all difficulties, from the easiest (rating 5.0) to the hardest (5.15), all in a very concentrated and accessible area. The Gunks are around the Mohonk preserve, and it only sounded familiar to me because of the SOS advanture triathlon which takes place here.

And here is how climbing relates to my triathlon blog (besides being a multi-sport activity, or cross-training at least). I thought I might ask Patty (my guide) if she heard of that race, and if she happens to know where does it take place, and she replied that I couldn't have found a better person to ask about it since she's done it 3 times! So over the entire day of climbing we talked a lot about triathlons, marathons, half ironmans and so on and I learned a ton of things about the SOS. She pretty much explained it to me leg by leg, she showed me one of the run trails (which is the carriage road we took to the climbing spots). At the end, she took me over to the hardest part of the bike route, and eventually drew a map of the course so I can come and practice in case I end up doing the race. There's a very good possibility now that I'll try to get in the race for 2010 (it sells out a year in advance, the same day registration opens), even if, after hearing all the details, a sane person would try to stay away from it.

But a sane person also doesn't go rock climbing just because he likes cliffs and saw it on TV. I wasn't even sure if I'd be afraid of heights! But Patty was very patient, she explained every thing, of course starting with the safety part. For a newbie, probably the most important thing is to be safe and trust your belayer.

After a short hike from the parking lot, along the Trapps section of the Gunks, we stopped at what would be my first climb ever. It was the Black Fly, rated 5.4... A bit high for my first attempt, but probably Patty wanted to check my abilities. Plus it had an easy walk-up, so she quickly set up a top rope. This way she could stay down, watch me, and guide my tiny step by tiny step. For me, the rock looked impossible to climb. It's true that it wasn't as bad as I imagined.... I thought cliffs would be vertical plain rock faces, with no other features. But actually, when you get closer, there are many cracks, small holds and other unnamed things that you can use to make your way up. Of course I didn't have any clue about how to take advantage of this.

The beginning was a bit easier, for a few feet up, but then I had no idea what to do anymore. So Patty had to direct me step by step. Left, right, up, turn, change balance, grab, etc. It probably looked like I barely left the ground, and I think I was living some of the most stressful moments of my life. I was maybe 20 feet off the ground. I was standing on a very thing ledge, and my fingers where hanging for dear life from a tiny rock. And I had no idea what to do next. Somehow I managed to get up there, but now there was nothing else left to do. I was afraid I'd fall down. My heart rate was through the roof. Despite the chilly morning, buckets of sweat were pouring down my face. My entire legs were shaking, barely able to stay still. And even worse, my hands were shaking, I couldn't even hold that rock anymore.

The best thing that Patty recommended was to take a leap of faith, and let myself fall. After a few minutes of convincing I did this, I let go. Of course, I didn't go anywhere. I was strapped in my harness, and the rope was very tight, so as I let go off the rock, I sat back away from the cliff hanging in the air. I had to do this a few more times until I finally realized nothing's gonna happen if I lose control. There won't be a fall, or nothing more than a couple of inches. And this was good because I could relax my feet and hands, shake them until blood would come back into them and I could regain control of my fingers.

Now that this was settled, I was more relaxed to concentrate on finding a way up. But my climbing skills were 0, nil, zilch, nada. Patty was trying to explain me what to do, but I didn't understand the terms, and anyway it didn't seem possible to do. But she finally convinced me that as flat as the rock wall looked like, there were some tiny bumps in the rock, no wider that half an inch or less, that I could use. But there were two things I needed to do: First, to carefully look down to see where I'm putting my foot. Oh wait, I thought I'm not supposed to look down. What if I'm scared of heights?? Luckily I wasn't, so from then on, I started watching my steps very carefully. Second, I had to learn to trust the huge friction that the rubber soles of the climbing shoes had. Even on that quarter-inch edge, if I pressed the side of the shoes into it, they would grip and not slip!

Next big obstacle were the hand holds. Often they were not so obvious, I didn't know how to grab them or how to use them, and because I was so tense, my hands and fingers were shaking out of control. I don't know how long it took. Maybe 15-20 minutes for about 20 feet? Once I was past that flat section for the wall, it was a cakewalk to the top. I learned that the most difficult part of a climb is the crux, and then everything is easy. And I was soooo happy to be on top! It was my first achievement in climbing. I was on top of the world!! Probablt 80 feet off the ground! To get there, I had to drop from the rock and relax at least 4-5 times, I passed through some very scary moments, I was hurting like hell, but I couldn't be happier! Since it was my first climb, Patty lowered me herself, I just sat back and "walked" down backwards on the rock.

Then I climbed again the same rock, on a very different route, which didn't feel any easier, but at least I had more confidence and in between Patty explained a few basic techniques that I could use. Besides learning to trust the safety of the rope, I had to learn to trust the friction of the shoes. I understood that I can use the smallest bumps in a rock to support my weight. And with a good hand hold, I could just walk up the vertical rock, using the friction of my toes.

One of my fears about climbing was that I don't have a great upper body strength. The image from most movies is that climbing relies on huge arms that pull you up. But it's not like that. It's the legs that do most of the workout, not the arms. The only part of my arms that had to work hard, unfortunately, were my fingers, and I have no strength there.

So after I was done climbing twice, I had to learn how to belay, so Patty can climb up and retrieve all her gear. Belaying is really easy once you understand it, I just had to pull the rope tight as she went up. Next, we walked to the next climb, the easier 5.2 Betty. Every little climb here has a name, and often they are just 10-15 feet apart. And I was surprised at how busy all this section was. There were groups of climbers at almost every location, and more groups were heading down the road. There must've been hundreds of people on the Trapps, even if it was a Monday. Most of them were talking foreign languages, especially French (there were mostly Canadians), German and Russian, and that showed how famous the Gunks are, if people from all over world flew to New York to come here and climb.

So on Betty we went up like a real climb. Patty went first to set up the route. I belayed her by feeding her the rope, as she went up to place the anchors. The lead climber goes up unassisted, anchoring the rope wherever it feels safe. If she drops, I'd stop her fall, but she'd fall to the last anchor, plus all the slack in the rope. It can easily by 8-10 feet, but of course she had no problems on these easy climbs. Here I finally understood how you anchor the rope. She had cams of all sizes and shapes, that could fit in any size crack, where they'd lock securely. Until just a couple of years ago, I had the impression that climbing involved big nails that you hammers into the rock. It appears as this is a very ancient technique which hasn't been used in civilised countries for many decades. The idea is not to leave any trace of human activity on the mountain, everything must be taken away when you're done. So once Patty was up and secured the ropes, it was my turn to climb as she belayed me from the top.

To make it harder this time (although the climb was easier), she couldn't watch me and guide me on every move, so I had to find my way up all by myself. I also had to remove and unclip every anchor she placed and take them with me. I had to say I had for the first time a lot of fun climbing! I could remember everything she told me, and made my way up with no assistance. Althought it was hard, I found all the grips and holds, and didn't even need to sit back and rest. And following her pitch and removing the gear almost felt like actualy climbing. In all climbing, one of the climbers goes up first, to a good place to stop and anchor, then the other follows up, and then they repeat until the top. One such section is called a pitch, and if the climbers are equally skilled they'd alternate. On my first day though, we did only one-pitch climbs (so up and down), mainly so I don't freak out from being too high up in the air.

From the top of the Betty climb, which had nice views around, I learned how to rappel down all by myself. Patty used a secondary safety measure, leaving the main rope connected so she could catch me in case I do anything wrong. But I don't see what you can do wrong when rappeling. You just have to control the release of the rope, as you "walk" back down the cliff. I gotta say that going down this way was almost as fun as going up!

Next, we went to the 5.2 Easy-O, another easy climb. It had a new feature for me, a chimney, which is a large crack, big enough so you can inside and climb in there. Having the back wall makes it easy to rest, plus it gives some feeling of protection and safety. So once the chimney was over and I had to slide back to the outside of the cliff, I freaked out a bit, especially since it was the crux of the climb, but I made my way up again without any problems. I really enjoyed these last two climbs, because I had no assistance about finding the route, and I didn't have to "drop" in order to relax. But my legs and hands were already in big pain... feet were cramping and I could barely control my fingers. Patty said it might not be a good idea doing the second pitch to the top and instead I should try one more climb, maybe a more challenging one.

A lot of my "learning experience" today was about tying knots. I learned a few, but what I still don't understand very well is the logic of setting up the rope and setting up various anchors. Probably once you understand the concepts, it sounds logic, but I had too many other things on my mind today. Anyway, to get off Easy-O, Patty did a different setup, where the rope was doubled over, and we both rappelled down on the same rope, first her and then myself. It was a big harder to rappel down here, since there was that huge chimney and I didn't want to get stuck inside, so I had to walk down more carefully, directing myself over the chimney.

Anyway, we went back a bit, through the larger and larger crowds of climbers, to the Rhododendron, which had a 5.6 rating, my highest yet. It loooked really scary, a very vertical wall, with almost no places to grab or step on. The only distinctive feature was a big vertical crack which snaked all the way to the top. It really looked like something I couldn't possibly do now. Patty went up first, and I tried to memorize all her moves... She set it up like a top rope, so she came down to direct me. I told her that if it's too late and I'm really stuck with nowhere to go, to just lower me and call it a day. Somehow it looked like a selection of all the cruxed I had today, one after the other. My feet were cramped and hands hurt really bad, but I was able to go up, slowly but surely. The last two climbs got me a lot of confidence, and I could find every tiny step, every small rock to grab on to. It was harder than anything before but I was able to use that small crack to pull myself up quite smoothly. There were a few times when Patty shouted stuff like "great move", "that's awesome", "nice climbing", which encouraged me to move even faster. I only dropped once, but that was on purpose, to shake and relax my hands. I never felt stuck and I got to the top faster than on any previous climbs. That really got me a big sense of satisfaction, too bad it was just at the end.

And this is my first rock climbing experience... I'm quite sure I want to try this again, but it will definitely be after the Rev3 HIM. My whole body is hurting, my knees are quite badly banged up, I have bumps, bruises and red spots all around my knees. For the rest of the day and even this morning, I have a feeling reminiscing of my first marathon... or first half Iron... But I'm sure I'll do more climbing this year, and the Gunks looked like the perfect location. Not to mention I'm toying more and more with the idea of doing the SOS race as well.
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