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In Search of Limits – My Afternoon as a Pioneer

 In Search of Limits – My Afternoon as a Pioneer

by Mike Rawdon

August 15, 2002

Photo by Mike Rawdon.

They say that once you stretch your mind, it never returns to its original size. I guess that’s true in climbing too.

I’ve been a “cragger” for more than half my life. Hell, I’ve been a climber since I was tall enough to grab the lowest branches of the pine tree behind the house where I grew up. Some folks are just born to climb I guess, be it trees, buildings, or rocks. But for all that time I followed in the footsteps of others, climbing published routes at popular climbing areas. Over the course of 25 years I’ve built up a full arsenal of climbing, protection, and route finding skills. While the Gunks are my regular playground, frequent travel to other venues exposed me to a broader spectrum of rock types and techniques.

Throughout the hundreds of routes I’d climbed, there remained an underlying motivation. It’s the reason I climb. Why I tolerate the heat and humidity, the bugs, the cold. I simply love walking up to a piece of steep rock, laying my hands on the cool, rough stone, and moving up on it. The ten year old boy that pulled on those tree branches now pulls on rock edges.

With this simple understanding, it’s not hard to appreciate the common expression that a nice rock feature “begs to be climbed”. Yes, the rock begs me, calls me, to climb it. And last summer it called me in a new direction.

My brother had told me about a big granite slab that he’d seen on a hiking trip in the Adirondacks. It wasn’t in Don Mellor’s guidebook - the bible of Adirondack climbers - so I took a look at it over the winter. Standing 500+ feet tall and twice that in width, with legal access over state land, this was a piece of rock that begged to be climbed. The fact that I would have to find my own way did not seem to be a significant obstacle.

Back when my college buddies and I first started climbing, we struggled on the Adirondack region’s 5.3 and 5.4 routes. These were hard for us, and we often fell on top rope, or pulled on gear while leading to get past a crux. With few exceptions, the hardest routes on those cliffs were graded 5.7, and I couldn’t imagine how the first ascensionists were able to put those lines up. How did they know it was 5.7 before they committed to the moves? What if it were harder? As a newbie I was scared stiff at the notion of getting on something a couple grades harder than I had bargained for. How had the FA parties managed to find the 5.7 way? How strong were those guys anyway? Was 5.7 really so easy for them, when it was virtually impossible to us in our bumbly apprenticeships?

I never found the answers to those questions, and years passed as I worked my way up through the grades at the Gunks. Even as a 5.10 climber, though, I am humbled by the strength of those putting up hard routes and double digit boulder problems. To try a 5.12 is to appreciate the talent and strength of those who climb routinely at that level. I don’t know, maybe I’m still a gumbie, and only the number scale has changed.

In any event, here we are at the base of this beautiful slab. There are four of us, but I’m the one with the most experience, especially on friction slabs, so I get to dictate our route. I waste little time walking past the mossy corners and wet features; no sense trying to climb those. Near the left end of the face, however, the rock is clean and smooth. Too smooth perhaps. There are no cracks to offer protection for the first 25 feet, and then only a tiny corner that might offer a seam. Sixty feet higher is a cluster of birch trees. That becomes the goal: get to those trees. But first, get to the base of the corner. But first, get to the pockmarks up there. But first, get off the ground. This is really smooth stone, much smoother than the surface of, say, the slab at Poko or Chapel Pond.

Back when 5.4 was the limit of our little band of college Outing Club climbers, the best multi-pitch climbs were the friction slabs. As a result, we quickly learned to deal with insecure climbing and long run outs. Like 60 foot runouts. We told ourselves that we wouldn’t fall, or that if we did it would be a controllable slide. Fortunately we never found out if that were the case. We also learned how to smear. You climb granite friction routes in Fabiano Black Beauties with their full-length, absolutely rigid steel shanks, or the marginally more flexible Yosemite RR’s, and believe me, you learn how to smear.

A big part of friction climbing, at least in my experience, is knowing when and how to trust your feet. This sounds obvious. If there are no handholds whatsoever, you’ve got to trust your feet or you’re not going anywhere. But it doesn’t come naturally, and I’ve seen several climbers, getting their first taste of pure friction climbing, protest that they can’t do something. Then they resign themselves to the situation, and do the move cleanly. Sometimes it’s funny:

Climber at blank spot on slab: “Is this the right spot? I think I’m stuck”.

Belayer above: “That’s right. I came up there”.

Climber: “There aren’t any handholds here”.

Belayer: “No, there aren’t, not there. You’re good though”.

Climber: “There aren’t any footholds here”.

Belayer: “Yup, it’s pretty smooth there. Just a couple moves”.

Climber: “But there aren’t any holds here”.

Belayer: “Yea, just come on up”


To this day, a little bit of “trust-the-feet dialog” plays in my head as I climb slabs. “Where can I put my foot? Will it stay there? What am I going to reach for? Where’s my next stance? How far to the next gear? What if I fall? Could I reverse this next move?” It goes on automatically, step after step when I’m leading delicate friction.

The route description in the guidebook has nothing to do with it.

So the fact that there is no published route on this slab has become irrelevant as I scan the rock for features that lead to features that lead to the birch trees. I sweat. I swear. I get scared. But I move up. I get gear in and keep moving up. I’m vaguely aware that this feels like 5.8, but then it gets easier and I reach the trees.

I bring the others up and repeat the process on the next pitch. Again, a series of features links to the safety of a belay in some trees. The climbing is relatively easy and enjoyable, the rock clean and reassuring here.

Another stretch of attractive slab looms above us. The rock begs to be climbed. And so my eye goes from crack to corner to flake, searching for the line of least resistance up to the tree – yes, I love tree belays – at the top of this section of the slab.

The pitch is a serious route-finding challenge. After the first 20 feet, every plan I have runs into a dead end. The black humps going left stop well short of the corner; the crack in the corner itself is too small for fingertips, the water streak going straight up is well pocketed but too smooth, and so on. The pitch ends up zig-zagging wildly, and I pay for it in crippling rope drag. Quite frankly, by the middle of this pitch my lead-head is starting to wither. At one point I test a dicey step-up repeatedly but just can't commit to it. So I move left a few feet and drive a Lost Arrow up under a small overhang. The pin has a profound and immediate effect on my confidence and I motor through the tenuous stand-up move.

Unfortunately the warm glow of the chrome moly protection doesn't extend very far, and by the time I’ve cleaned the dirt out from behind the next flake, I’m starting to quiver inside again. The flake is thin, and I don't dare put a camming unit behind it for fear of blowing it off. What's the ratio, outwards force = 5x the downwards force? The parallel crack in there really doesn't want to accept any passive gear either, but in the end I get a couple nuts to stay.

At this point I'm only 15 or 20 feet below the tree, but the next bit of rock is the steepest we've seen yet. I debate the options, and weigh the consequences of the wrong one. Analysis completed, I traverse left several feet and find the key foothold dimples that hopefully will get me up to the final ledge/corner below the tree. This is when the rope drag nearly defeats me. The crux move is a high step with the right foot, and with the heavy rope over my thigh, I can’t get my foot totally up on the hold. It gets maybe halfway on, and just as I try to work it further onto the hold, my lower foot starts to slide off its hold. I knew then that I was going to fall. I just hoped the sliding, pendulum swing under that creaky flake wouldn't be too bad. After pushing myself to get that far, the frustration and failure I felt was crushing.

To me, falling is a lot like puking - it's the anticipation, the knowing that's it's coming, that is the worst part. By that analogy, at this point I was on my knees in front of the toilet.

This move is really hard, and I don’t think I can downclimb out of trouble entirely. Still, I’m not going to fall off without a fight, so I hop that bottom foot back on and re-stab that upper foot at its hold. This time it makes it onto the little sloper. Knowing that I’ll fall soon if I stay there any longer, I hold my breath and step quickly up onto that foot.

It holds. I get my hands on the positive edge of the ledge that arches up to the tree. I made it.

On the drive home I am floating in a sea of satisfaction. This climb called upon everything I have learned as a climber and took me places I’ve never been before, both physically and psychologically. I’m worn out yet energized by it. I have been changed by the experience. It is the latest step in my development as a climber, to be sure, and yet it has taken me backwards, back to the origins of climbing. For a few hours I was a first ascensionist, figuratively walking in the steps of those Adirondack pioneers from 50 years ago. And at the same time, I’m not following any footsteps at all.

So just how did those hardmen put up those leading edge 5.7’s in their hobnail boots? How did they know it would go?

I don’t think they knew at all. I think the rock just begged them to climb it.

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