Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Route finding in tie land

By Rod Smith

I can see the woman in red stretching for a crimp on the slabby surface of the speckled granite.

She is metres above her last piece of protection and her belayer has that happy-and-clueless look that is typical of leaders and the led.

There is no sound and no wind. Despite this silence, I can’t hear the woman breathing, as I know she must be on this steep and demanding line.

Nor can I hear the jingling of the hardware that she has racked around her harness.
In fact, despite the precariousness of her position, she is controlled, still.

I notice the brilliance of the reflecting rock and the way the woman's face is in dark shadow, but from where I'm seated there is little chance that I'll be burnt by the sun’s glow.

About the only glow I’m receiving is a low radiation pulse from my computer screen as I pause in the middle of the working day to look at the woman on the climbing calendar pinned next to my work station.

This is how my weekdays are spent, gazing at this image, its predecessor or sequel, month after month.

This is the promise of the weekend to come. Not that I will ever be as good as her, but that like her I will be outdoors on rock, lost in a moment, on the sharp end of a rope.

It’s the same reason that I sometimes, self-consciously, take a small length of powercord to work and ferverishly practise my knots. Hidden away from my co-workers, fearing their jibes, I onanistically tie bowlines, figures-of eight – on a bight and rethreaded – clove hitches, water, overhand and fishermen’s knots.

Once, during a time when I hadn’t touched rock, or even gym-rock, for two weeks, I smuggled a carabiner into work and practised munter and one-handed clove hitches until my eyes bugged.

For the desk-bound climber there are other ways to dull the ache of not being tied to the end of a rope: there are over-priced US climbing magazines.

Even the punishing exchange rate won’t deter my hunger and I’ll grab and within minutes visually devour the likes of Climbing and Rock & Ice, sometimes simultaneously. Despite caterwauling about their almost $20-per-issue price-tags, like an addict I crave them. I need my fix and somehow I find the money.

But all of this is just window-dressing for the main event. All of these placebos do nothing to replace the sweat, adrenalin, laughter, fear, challenge and technicality of that one or two stolen days a week when we touch real stone. When time stops or passes by unnoticed and unremarked and the all-consuming art takes over.

Still, when I sit at my desk, gazing at the two-dimensional rock on my wall, the tie around my neck and the stiff shirt on my back feel a little less bearable.

My breathing slows and I’m sure my pupils dilate as my mind absorbs the visual reminder, the weekend's promise, of what’s outside the square box and harsh light of the workplace.

At these times the only thing I fear is December, when the last page of the calendar will flip and leave me with nothing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Pledge of allegiance

By Rod Smith

It’s an eons-old jagged scar in the Earth’s exposed bones.
It’s a compact and beautiful, in a mathematical way.

Its reptilian rock skin contrasts sharply with the postcard surrounds of the hammerhead peninsula on which it stands, just a few traffic-jam terse words north of Sydney city’s madness.

Like many climbing routes it bears a name that is dripping with machismo, but like them its primeval sternness will persist long after the fleeting human bravado that labelled it has turned to dust.

There is no doubt that in the world of climbing Pledge A Legend is an insignificant sandstone jam crack on the Barrenjoey headland, on the Northern Beaches.

It is a mere 16m high and carries the modest Ewbank grade 14. But it is magnificent in its insignificance.

It starts, fittingly, on a stone altar. Solid hand jams allow you to leave the too-flat earth as you stem with your feet on either side of the line. For non-jammers there are plenty of tiny finger ledges that offer enough security for an upward haul, although this seems like a small heresy to the crack aficionado.

It’s at this point that a bit of gear is a good idea. Dust off the passive protection because hexes and stoppers are a possibility here. For others a camming device offers a quick clip from a position where the bulge of the line tends to push you backwards.

Slide the hands in, flex and feel the sandstone’s gentle bite as fists take you upwards to the next increment. The shallow indent, like a belt around a fat man’s waist, provides good feet positions while some generous holds either side provide a good position from which to place the next piece of gear.

For those still stubbornly refusing to jam, getting to this point will lack poetry as fingers roam the edges of the fissure for holds like those below. They’re there, but much smaller. Later on you will hurl some helpful advice at your flailing second: “Just jam, damn you”.

More backwards leaning as you stem you way upwards and suddenly the crack takes a sharp left-hand turn. No longer vertical and jammable, the crack becomes horizontal and off-width. Now we all, jammers and non, are equal.

For the leader the bend in the crack is the point to place some bomb-proof protection, so that the palm-friction traverse leftwards can be negotiated more safely. A large cam, a small cam, a hex and even a medium-sized stopper are all possible placements in this most accommodating break.

Some will simultaneously use several of these options, others will use just one. Regardless of the number of placements, feel assured that the drama of a potential traversing fall will not diminish.

If at this point your belayer is excitedly looking at an exquisite pale-green grass snake sunning itself on a rock, or is ogling a visiting European rock babe, suggest to him that the journey in which you’re involved is equally worthy of attention, especially because he will soon have to follow you.

As you make the traverse breath in the Barrenjoey air and, like the snake, feel the sun on you skin. This will help.

There are many ways to do the next move but for most the key is the small undercling in the top of the horizontal break, near to where the crack returns to the vertical. With fingers on this and your right foot jacked up on some positive holds, it’s a straight forward semi-mantleshelf upwards move.

There may be minutes or tens of minutes before you achieve this, but once done you’ll wonder at the beauty of that one move. With your feet where you hands were on the break, the crux is now behind you, but don’t relax.

As you rise up the crack abruptly ceases and, if you’re a regular to the Barrenjoey, the familiar slab moves commence. A cam in a horizontal break will protect you as you gingerly rise on sloping footholds and tenuous crimps and pressure holds to the final moves of the route.

Feeling exposed after the enveloping crack you’ll be comforted by the appearance of a silver metal head protruding from the rock, just waiting for your hanger, quickdraw and the rest of the chain of protection that ends in you.

The first bit of non-traditional gear and the last bit of protection on the climb, it safeguards that last slow rise on slopers as your fingers search for and find those minute undulations that at the top of Barrenjoey routes feel like jugs.

On top, tied into a couple of new carrot bolts you finally relax.

As you sit three, with your second slowly approaching, you marvel at the simplicity and complexity of it all. Of how this flyspeck of a climb kept you enthralled and entertained, of how parts of it frightened you and exhilarated you, of how you solved the puzzle.

Finally, your second makes the top. He’s managed to remove all the gear. In contrast to you he thinks the climb was horrible. Give him bolts and crimps any day. Your inner curmudgeon feels betrayed: there are as many gaps between climbers as there are in the rocks we climb.

Back at the bottom, as you coil the rope, you ponder how many others will, like you, gaze on that route and want to make it theirs, if only for a few minutes.

And how, at the end, they too will have left no trace, except for a few smears of chalk and a lone, unencumbered bolt that stares unblinking like a reptilian eye.

And another thing ...

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The Winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves." John Muir.

"The Law Of Gravity Is Strictly Enforced." Mt Keira Guide Book introduction. (Mt Keira, Wollongong, Australia)

Monday, May 02, 2005

Essential websites for the aspiring rock person

My favourite climbing website. It features lots and lots of great images taken by climbers. US-based, it contains some hilarious misspellings and hubris in many of its online forums. http://www.rockclimbing.com/

This is an Australian-based database of climbers and their achievements. You need to sign up for free to use it. For a small additional annual fee you can become a supporter which allows you to view and contribute pictures. http://www.thecrag.com

Sydney Rockclimbing Club
The venerable institution’s site has recently been upgraded. For those headed to Sydney for a climb this is a great way to hook up with a partner/group. http://www.sydneyrockies.org.au/

Sun, Surf and Sandstone
It’s rare to be able to access quality, free crag guides but this is a big exception. For the Sydney climbing fraternity this is an essential link which provides detailed route descriptions and access information on the dozens of suburban and coastal crags not covered by commercial guide books. http://www.sydneyclimbing.com/

This Victoria, Australia website is a mighty resource. While primarily concerned with climbing in that state its members roam widely and contribute images and stories from all over. It also includes technical articles, gear reviews and a link to a great online climbing shop. http://www.chockstone.org/

It comes out four times a year, and is a lean offering but Australia’s only rockclimbing magazine remains a must-read. The site doesn’t give away much. http://www.rock.com.au/rock/core.htm

By the time Climbing arrives in Australia the bulk of this US magazine is on the web. Especially readable are the tech tips. http://www.climbing.com/

Rock and Ice
The other giant of world climbing magazines. It provides a more limited access to articles from past issues. http://www.rockandice.com/index1.html

Simon Carter is one of the best rockclimbing photographers in the world. He lives at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains near Sydney but travels the world snapping rock stars. http://www.onsight.com.au/