It’s 6 a.m., and bells are chiming. My eyes peel apart from four hours of unconsciousness, a few hours too early after a few beers too many. I slap around for my phone to turn my alarm clock off, cursing the late night game of high stakes trivia that got me into this predicament.
But it’s not my phone making the noise. Maybe it’s the alarm clock? Nope. Sounds like a doorbell? What doorbell? My doorbell! Growing tired of waiting at our normal meeting place, my climbing partner David decided to trek down to the source. A common rule among the crew is that anyone that doesn’t make it to the meet-up is considered dead or immobile, but will be given the opportunity to correct their actions at the price of paying for breakfast. Since I was both of those things a few minutes earlier, ham biscuits would be on me. After a shotgun packing job I was in a car and bound for West Virginia.
The New River Gorge in West Virginia was not our original destination, having just the night before made the call to scrub plans to go to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky due to a little snow. In this case “a little snow” was 20” of a traffic jamming, ice forming, road ruining weather system known as Thor.
Days of pouring over guidebooks, watching videos, and dreaming of rice bowls at Miguel’s fizzled before our eyes as news came in that Lexington, a town 45 minutes away from the Red, was reporting the most snow since 1943. Luckily for the trip, the New only got around ten inches, so we closed one guidebook and opened another. After a cold winter of training in gyms, sneaking outside only to freeze stiff, and staring at pictures of Lynn Hill on Quinsana Plus, I was pretty excited to get back to the New and get on the nuttal sandstone cliffs that pepper the side of the valley.
David and I rolled into the parking lot at the New to find we were alone save some tire tracks in the deep snow. The tracks told a story of attempts at parking, spinning, pushing, and retreat. A bit of a concerning start to the day, hopefully the hike to the other side of the hill would be a bit better. We unpacked and repacked our climbing gear as the last member of our crew sauntered in. The sun was beaming and it was already in the high 40’s. The temperatures would turn the friction up to 11, ideal conditions, so long as we could find some South facing, sunny rock that had already shivered off the thick layers of ice that could be seen from the bridge. Luckily we had just the place in mind.
The Cirque: an amphitheater of brightly colored, bullet-hard sandstone, it is the crescendo of the 4.5 mile stretch of Endless Wall. Containing some of the hardest, most technical routes in the area, it’s not uncommon to pass a few broken dreams when walking the base of the cliff. Due to its concave shape, lack of tree shade, and South facing orientation, the Cirque is an ideal winter climbing location. Today it was host to a chaotic symphony of shattering glass. A hundred feet above us, giant icicles were warming up, losing their footing, and cascading to the floor below. The steep overhang of the wall kept us safe from the icefall, but every time a refrigerator size chunk of ice dislodged from the top and came roaring down I felt the need to duck and cover.
Climbing at the Cirque is nothing less than perfect, albeit on the difficult side. We warmed up on a route aptly named “The Warmup”, where a less than easy start leads into a steep roof that burns the forearms and wakes up the brain cells. After a few laps on the climb we were ready to head to our respective projects for the day. Ricky (our tardy third member) was first on the rotation. A winter of living on homemade cheesecakes had apparently not hindered his superhuman pulling power as he danced up “Trebuchet Jr.”, a technical thinker of a route. Making it past the crux, a botched hand sequence sent Ricky down to the tight end of the rope. A quick rest and he was back on the wall and at the top. “one hanging” a project, where a climber only falls once during their attempt, is considered the last step before actually sending a route. It was Ricky’s first run of the day so he was off to a solid start.
Next up was David, my partner for the next 3 days of climbing and sleeping in the slushy mud. David is an odd cat, full of try-hard, physics equations, and grape nuts cereal. David and I had our sights set on a route called “Hasta La Vista” located at the end of the massive wall. Just to the right of the route was a beautiful waterfall, spraying bits of ice and water from the melt above. Chandeliers of ice bordered the spray, making for a beautiful setting for the climber but a nervous belay down near the drop zone. David styled his way through the route and after a few attempts he had the thing mostly dialed.
It wasn’t until I was standing below the route tying in that I had the old familiar feeling of dread that comes from not climbing outside for a while. As a personal confession, heights terrify. that might seem weird in a sport where the very name of the game is heights, but in practice it rarely affects me. It’s only when I’ve been away for a while that the fear creeps in. Luckily I have learned to manage away this fear by assuring myself that nothing will break, my belayer is competent, and that as long as I take care to remember the fundamentals I shouldn’t end up like all that ice tumbling down around me.
With fear pushed to the back of my mind I tied in and got ready to throw myself outside of the comfort zone once again. I had spent most of my winter training and I was excited to check and see where my fitness was after being away from real rock so long. On my first attempt I fell at the second hard throw, making it a bit further than I had expected for a first attempt. The fall had reassured my mind that falling is a normal part of climbing and my anxiety quieted down. After a few attempts I made it through the throw and up to the anchors. I managed to get on the route a few more times that day but was never able to put it all together. With the light fading, we all hopped on a few more routes, took some pictures of the ice, and discussed what to do next.
The day ended like most of our trips to the New, at Secret Sandwich Society talking about how amazing the day was. The secret to climbing with a full tank of stoke is that every climbing day is the best climbing day you’ve ever had. This leads to a lot of enthusiasm and odd looks from non-climbers a table over as you pantomime your favorite moves of the day with a mouth full of french-fries and an IPA sloshing about the table. Ricky was heading back to Roanoke to do some sort of lumberjack woodworking project; as for David and I, we were about to drive into the dark of night, through the back roads West Virginia and into Kentucky. We had heard that temps were on the rise and most of the snow was gone at the Red. It was a bit of a foolish gamble for us to leave dry routes and cozy tents to head into questionable weather. But as soon as we pulled into Miguel’s campground at 1am and saw the fire blazing and tents strewn across the field I knew we made the right decision. That night we were so pooped that I slept in the passenger seat of my truck and kicked David to the bed of the truck with a sleeping pad and a guidebook. As the driver, I had first dibs on car sleeping spots. The next morning with a hunched back, soggy from sleeping in a steamy cab I asked David how he fared in the bed, he said had slept great with a perfect view of the Kentucky sky. Chalk that up to karma and all that gibberish.
We rounded out our trip with a few more equally amazing days of climbing. Heading into Muir Valley the first day there and getting on some of the classic routes in the Solarium, “Air Ride Equipped” “Manifest Destiny” and my personal favorite “Super Best Friends”. The second day we finished off the trip by venturing into the Motherload. After spending a good bit of time staring in awe at the Madness Cave, we headed over to Buckeye Buttress to hop on a few more routes before packing it in. We finished off our trip with a few Ale 8’s and a 5-hour drive filled with conversations on climbing, the importance of pi, and how bad we smell.
The beginning of spring is always a kick-start for the psych. With a crew of motivated friends, a rope, and a half a dozen routes bouncing around my head, I’m ready to soak in all the good things that spring has to offer. The ice is thawing, bluebird skies are becoming more and more common, and the stoke couldn’t be any higher.