Monday, February 16, 2009

Positive Thinking – In life and on ice

I had planned to go on this annual Presidents Day weekend outing to the Adirondacks for several months, and I even secured my partner, Alex, well in advance. This is not like me. I usually wait ‘til the last minute to commit to a climbing weekend, and then scramble to find a partner. This weekend was different. I knew I wanted to climb more ice this year and develop some decent ice skills. My goal was to break into leading Grade 4 (vertical or near vertical ice for extended sections) on this trip. After a decent year of ice 2 years ago, I didn’t climb at all last year. Last year was dedicated to the Vermont 100, and now it was time to get back to my other passion – climbing.

The annual Adirondacks winter trip is such a treat. I love these mountains, and they are exceptionally beautiful in winter. The ice climbs are amazing and there is no shortage of good ice. While I consider myself to be a very experienced and proficient rock climber, I’m still a relative newbie on ice. I struggle to hold a stance long enough to get a screw in for protection. I have a hard time getting good sticks with my tools. I don’t trust my feet, etc., etc. However, each time I get on ice, I improve exponentially. This weekend would be no exception.

I trained as much as my busy life would allow and felt pretty good about my skills for this weekend. I figured I could lead some easy Grade 4, and Alex would show me the hard stuff (Grade 5 – extended vertical pitches). On Wednesday, Alex mentioned his interest in climbing “Positive Thinking” or “Powerplay” – two of the classic “hardman” routes in the DAKS. I only know 3 people that have climbed Positive Thinking, and one of them is Alex. This is the climb featured on the cover of the guidebook for the region. It’s a prize to be coveted! I swallowed hard. Was I up for the challenge?

Alex and I are equal on rock and share a passion for alpine climbing and mountaineering. On ice, it’s a different story. He’s way more experienced on ice and wicked strong. Last time I checked, I was a 134 lb. weakling that runs a lot. As much as I’d love to climb Grade 5 ice, I secretly thought, “I’ve got no business roping up with Alex this weekend. He’s on another level. Who are you kidding? He’s a lot younger than you and is built like the Terminator.

Alex suggested we warm up on an easy Grade 4 route near Positive Thinking on Saturday, so we could check out the ice conditions and get a feel for things. “Warm up on Grade 4? That’s my goal for the season, and you want me to warm up on it?”, I thought to myself.

“OK”, I said, “let’s do it!” You just can’t say no to your partner…that’s just the way it is. You trust your partner with your life. He knows your abilities as much (or better) than you do… Anyway, think positive!

On Saturday, Alex brought another friend, Andre, to climb with us. This was only Andre’s second time ice climbing, but he is super strong and very confident. We started on a climb called Forbidden Wall. It was supposed to be easy Grade 4, but looked more like 3+ to me. I led the first pitch and Alex led the second pitch. The first pitch had a 20 foot vertical section which caused me to hesitate a bit, but I managed to get up it without any issues. The rest of the pitch was fun, and then Alex finished things off. There was still plenty of time for more climbing. So, we headed for a Grade 5 area called Waterfall, and Alex led the one pitch vertical masterpiece. Andre and I followed without any issues, but it was tough! Nice job Alex! We did a little exploring and found a fun Grade 3 climb for Andre’s first lead. He powered up the thing like a champion, and we retreated satisfied. Afterwards Alex said that he had accomplished one of his objectives for the weekend: to expose me to Grade 5 ice climbing. Cool! The fact that Alex had wanted to show me the ropes on vertical ice meant a lot to me. I really appreciated it. Now, what was his other objective?

I knew Alex wanted to do Positive Thinking. I have driven past the cliff and seen the huge ice route a few times. I’m amazed to watch climbers commit to the big monster. A couple guys died on this route a few years ago when the ice fell while they were climbing it. It’s got a reputation for being one of the best and most dangerous routes around. When we looked at it on Saturday, I swallowed hard. Gulp!

Alex suggested we get up at 5AM, so we’d be first on the climb in the morning. You gotta be kidding me! Goat, my roommate for the trip, busted my chops by telling Alex we might want to consider 4:30AM. Ugh!

The next morning I found myself eating an egg sandwich at a Stewarts gas station, trying to put in my contacts from a plastic cup (forgot my case), and chatting with a local about what time the sun comes up. It was 6AM, and the sun wasn’t coming up for another 30 minutes according to him. Alex was pumped and ready to go! I was half asleep and ready to crawl back in bed.

I gotta think positive! You followed Alex on Grade 5 yesterday and this was supposed to be easier. He’ll lead both pitches, and you just need to flail your way up the thing. No problemo! Then, I realized I left my gloves at the hotel about 30 minutes back. Ugh! Luckily, Alex had 3 pairs. What a partner!

While we roped up, I was still shocked that I’d be following Alex up this amazing climb. I never considered myself capable of getting on this route, but considered myself fortunate to have the opportunity. It was a beautiful day, and life was good. Positive Thinking!

Alex did a stellar job leading the first pitch. It was his first time leading pitch 1 which is the crux of the climb. He had followed it a few years back, and thought it was pretty hard. I followed without any major issues, but my arms were getting tired near the top, and my left hand was numb. “How did he lead this?, I thought. It’s hard! Grade 5 for sure!

I looked at the 2nd pitch and thought it didn’t look too hard, but could only see the first ½ of it. I’m not good at judging an ice route yet, and they always look easier to me (very dangerous!). I’m also not good at judging the conditions either. Alex asked if I wanted to lead it. Let’s wait until the blood stops running back into my hands first, so the pain will stop and let me think. Minutes later (after I stopped wheeping like a baby – just kidding) we talked about the pitch….It looked very doable, and I knew I would never forget it if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Are you nuts? This is hard stuff and you lead Grade 3+! “Shut up, it looks doable!”, I argued with myself. Alex agreed with my assessment, but was careful not to push me into the lead. Before I knew it, I was preparing for the lead and discussing where to make my screw placements. Holy cow Batman! I told myself that I could stop and set up an anchor at any point, but knew I really didn’t like backing down. OK, just take it one section at a time – one screw placement at a time.

First 20 feet, and one screw placed. Good! 20 feet more, good! The ice was getting progressively steeper, water was showering in my face as the ice melted in the hot sun, the conditions were mixed depending on where you swung the tool, but I kept calm. Think positive! I made it through the first hard section, and caught my breath on a ledge. I was staring straight at a 20 foot vertical wall with no idea what was on top. I knew I was only about ½ way into the pitch based on what we had seen from the road. I could easily set up an anchor here and bring Alex up to finish the job. On the other hand, I would never forget it if I didn’t try it. Check out the wall and see how it feels. I put in a screw and took a few swings at the wall. The ice was perfect. Positive Thinking! Just get to the top of the vertical section and throw in a screw. You can do this!

Before I knew it, I was looking over the top of the wall and saw Grade 3 climbing the rest of the way to the top. Yes! Just get a screw in and make the exit move! I started cranking in a screw, and then my feet kicked out. I caught myself on my tools, and scrambled to get my feet under me. OK, stay calm, and clip the carabiner. I struggled with the clip. The rope weighed a ton since it was getting soaked with water. I fumbled with the carabiner. I took a deep breath and tried again. Think positive…Got it!

I made the exit moved and enjoyed every remaining step to the top. The hard part was over. I set up an anchor and smiled the entire time Alex was climbing. I thought, “ I must be doing something right to be given the opportunity to share in this spectacular climb!”

Alex reached the top and said, “Great lead!” I think we were both a little surprised that I did it. We talked about the beauty of the climb, and I asked him if he thought pitch 2 was Grade 4. He said, “It’s at least 4+”. Wow! I really thought it felt easy compared to pitch 1. Internally, I half doubted the 4+ rating, but was happy Alex felt it was worthy of a 4+ . I thanked him for taking me on such a great adventure, and knew we had both accomplished our objectives for the weekend. We enjoyed the moment the way all good partners do…there was a sense of peace and satisfaction in the air. All was good with the world due to Positive Thinking!

So, keep thinking positive… push yourself just a little and see what happens. You’ll be amazed at the results!