Monday, December 24, 2007

The Magic Purple Cam

November, 2006. Shawangunk Mountains, New York. Damn! The shiny new Black Diamond cam I had just unclipped from my harness slipped from my fingers. I watched as it sailed down, bounced off the cliff and disappeared into the leaves on the talus. I was nearly at the end of the second pitch of Beginner’s Delight, one of those wonderful easy climbs found only at the Gunks, and had been feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’d gotten up the first tricky (tricky 5.3, Bill?) jam crack, led the famed traverse, and had been tying to impress my long suffering belayer (daughter Karen) with my expertise in placing cams for protection (an art I had practiced exactly once before). Oops, I thought, now I look stupid. She’s going to be less than “uber” impressed with old Dad for dropping one of our brand new cams. Oh, well, I told her, trying to recover a bit of lost dignity “We’ll just finish the climb and go back to the bottom and retrieve it.”

We finished the climb, but I couldn’t find the cam. A guide who happened to be in the area helped me look, but with 8-10 inches of leaves covering the steep talus, I was slipping and sliding all over the place. I soon decided to give up before I pushed the whole slope down onto the carriage road. Anyway, the cam would cost $70 to replace, but a wonderful weekend climbing with my daughter in the Gunks was, as the credit card company says, priceless.

The following day, Karen stopped by the bulletin board at the Uberfall. “Dad, there’s a note here. Someone says she found a cam at the base of a climb. It might be ours. There’s an email address.” Sure enough, some extraordinarily kind woman named Jean had found a cam and was offering to return it to the person who could identify it. Wow! I copied the address and shoved it in my wallet.

I emailed this Jean person a few days later explaining that I had dropped a cam off Beginner’s and asked if the cam she found had been near the base of that climb. It had been, but Jean did not seem to be one to return cams precipitously. Or perhaps she was becoming fond of the shiny piece of rock jewelry. Who could blame her? Finders are, after all, keepers. In any event, she needed more information to be sure the cam was really mine. What size/color was the cam I had dropped? Was it a c3 or c4? Was it the old style or the new? This, from my perspective, was a revolting development. Having just resumed climbing after a brief, 35 year hiatus, I knew my chromolly from my soft iron pitons, and could describe in detail the nightmare that was climbing on a Goldline laid rope. (It came pre-tangled. Can you say rope salad?) But all I knew about that cam I had dropped was that it cost $70 at EMS. I had forgotten its color, and had no idea of the differences between c3s and c4s, or between old and new styles.

I decided my only option was to come clean. I wrote back and explained I was a refugee from climbing in the ‘60s who had just started back in the sport a couple of months before at Karen’s urging. I confessed that I had just bought the ill fated cam at the little the climbing shop right under the cliffs, but really knew nothing about it except that it was purple. (I had discovered the color by checking at the store to see which color I was missing.) Jean wrote back saying that she supposed the cam was mine and would send it to me. But she insisted that, if I were a famous Gunks climber from the 60s, she would have to get my autograph. I would love to have been able say, “Yes, I pretty much taught Jim McCarthy and Dick Williams how to climb.” But honesty compelled me to admit that I had been at best a mediocre climber of no distinction whatever.

My purple cam came home to a joyous reunion a week or two later. But it had been preceded by a most surprising email. Jean wrote to say that she and her climbing partner Annie would like to meet and climb with me and Karen sometime. I’d like to think it was my honesty, my humility or perhaps the elegance of my writing that attracted their interest. But, more likely it was the father-daughter, two generations climbing together motif.

In any event, Jean, Annie and I did meet and climb in the Gunks. Our first climb was Horseman; Jean led. We climbed Madame G’s, and I got to lead a couple of pitches of Hawk. Jean led Ken’s Crack. Annie got up it; I couldn’t. So much for my ego. Jean taught me how to build an anchor using an equallete, and checked me out on placing cams. I learned even more just watching them climb. They introduced me to their 9 inch high climbing friend Tori. I had a great time. Since then, we’ve climbed together in New Hampshire and the Gunks several times. They have this neat VW camper van and are both such great, fun people. I consider them good friends. Knowing them has enriched my climbing life.

I hope and think that Jean and Annie have also enjoyed knowing and climbing with me. Although, …… I would not be surprised to hear Jean say, perhaps with a twinkle in her eye, “I gave up a brand new Camalot and got in return what? The chance to climb with an old relic? What was I thinking when I posted that note on the Uberfall bulletin board?”

And it all began when that purple cam slipped out of my hand and bounced to the ground off Beginner’s Delight.

Photos from top - (l to r) Jean, Annie, Karen and Lois (Bill's wife) in the parking lot at the Gunks; Annie climbing Limelight; Jean leading Limelight.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Close to Home Again

I was going to be the great trial lawyer of my generation. I had read the lives of Clarence Darrow and Louis Nizer, studied books on cross examination and, as a law student, haunted Boston courtrooms to study how it was done. I didn't make it, of course. Instead I became a "civil litigator," someone who goes to court to try a case only on those rare occasions when the damn thing doesn't settle. I console myself that I spent 21 years of my litigating career enforcing the Federal laws that make and keep our air breathable, our water drinkable and our soil safe for children to play in. When my grandchildren visit me in the nursing home and ask what I did with my life, I'll say, "You know that air outside you can still breath? I helped keep it that way."

But a casualty of my efforts first to be a great trial lawyer and then to be a competent enforcer of our environmental protection laws was rock climbing and mountaineering. I started climbing in the Shawangunks as a kid in 1963 (I think), and continued through 1972. I was never very good; 5.8 rock was about my limit (but almost no one was climbing harder than 5.10 then). I made trips to climb in Yosemite, the Tetons, the Cascades and New Hampshire crags. I pounded chromolly pitons, wore knickers and Royal Robbins boots, tied the rope around my waist with a bowline, and caught many falls with a hip belay. I never meant for it to end, but it did, displaced first by law school and then by 16 hour days at the firm in the ultimately futile pursuit of "greatness." I just didn't climb anymore.

Thirty-five years later, as I was starting to surrender to inevitable physical decline, my older daughter got me back into rock climbing (see Return to Easy Overhang, below). What started as a one-time excursion turned into a passion. Translation: I've been climbing a lot for the last 18 months. I've also spent some time considering what it is like to pick up at age 60 a physical activity I gave up at 25.

There are, of course, the obvious differences in the sport itself. (I don't think we even called it a sport in 1970.) The shoe rubber is stickier now and the shoes are a lot less comfortable. Pitons are out and these camming gadgets are all the rage. (It took a couple of leader falls to persuade me they would hold anything.) Someone has invented things called climbing gyms and "sport" climbing, which latter I have learned is different from "trad." "Mountaineering, the Freedom of the Hills," my bible in my first climbing life is still published (I bought my daughter the newest edition), but it has been supplemented by eleven-thousand books by John Long, most of which appear to be about how to use chocks and cams to build an anchor. How solid can these things be if it is that hard to get them to hold onto the rock? I created a mild, carriage-road sensation on my first trip back to the Gunks by using a hip belay. So I broke down and for the next trip bought a "belay device" and harness, which my daughter showed me how to use.
But, the essential experience has not changed. My beloved Gunks still look and feel much the same. I approach a climb with the same mixture of excitement and fear that I remember from the '60s. I still look up at the first moves and wonder if I will be able to do them. I tie into and trust my life to a rope that looks and feels very like the red Edelrid rope I used in Yosemite in 1972. I still look for cracks to use for protection, and try to keep track of how far I am above my last piece (although years ago I would have said "piton" not piece). I have a very similar sense of accomplishment on finishing a pitch and getting to the belay, even though once there I now have to "build and anchor" not just slam in a piton. Trad climbers now face the same truth that I did in 40 years ago: to get better we have to do something risky (lead a route) at a harder level than we have ever done before. Our safety still depends on awareness, judgement and preparation: recognizing when the situation is beginning to deteriorate, knowing when to back off and how to downclimb, having the right gear to cope with the unexpected (e.g., headlamps for a retreat in the dark, warm clothing to keep an injured party from shock, etc.), rechecking the simple stuff (like the rappel set up).

Best of all, for the most part, the rock has not changed. When I put my hands on Ken's Crack in the Gunks, I am grabbing the very same holds I did when I was 16. Last year, Karen and I sat on the same belay ledge on Easy Overhang that my college friend Mick and I used in 1968 when I took him on his first rock climb. This past summer, Karen and I climbed Thin Air on Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. I have a picture of my wife on the same route in the early 70s. I suppose it is true that you can't go home again, or as James Taylor put it, "We'll never be here again." If home hasn't changed, you have, so the essential experience can never be recaptured. But for me, returning to rock climbing is awfully damn close. In a way time at the cliffs seems to have stood still. Have Ken's, Thin Air, Baby, and the rest just been waiting, frozen in time, for me to return? Of course not. But last winter it felt that way when I stopped by the Gunks on a cold, icy day just to look at and touch the rock once again.

There is, however, one thing that has changed: I am having more fun climbing now than I did when I was 20. Why? Its probably the sticky rubber on the shoes. Not! No, I think it is because, I have given up, along with my dream of being a great trial lawyer, the effort to be a great or even good climber. I am now less focused on how hard I can climb and more on the thrill of simply being able to do it at all and the feel of moving on the rock, using my body to make one interesting move after another. Oh, I still want to get better, and I have improved modestly. But, what sticks in my mind after a good climb is how the moves felt and the world looked from that vertical environment.
Its good to be [almost] home again.
Pictures: Top - me starting Baby at the Gunks. Bottom - Lois at the Gunks this year, photo by Annie Rubright.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's Valerie's Fault

It was the Spring of 1998. On my return from a week long trip to take some depositions in Salt Lake City, the women of the family (wife Lois and daughters Valerie and Karen) made it known that "Mom" needed a new car. So the next day, a Saturday, the family Hutchins went car shopping.

Lois, being practical and thrifty, would have settled for an economical vehicle with a good service record as reported by Consumer Reports. But not, it seems, Val. She had brought home several car enthusiast magazines and been talking up sporty models, such as the Camaro and the Mustang. Lois didn't cotton to the Camaro, but admitted the Mustangs were snazzy. So, we found ourselves at the local Ford dealer climbing into a dark green, convertible, V8 Mustang. Lois put her foot down. Fun! We put the top down. More fun!! After a day of shopping around and driving other cars, we were back at the Ford dealer to buy that green Mustang. Lois named her Beatrice and we still have her. Good car. But that was only the beginning of the rest of the trouble.

I drove her from time to time and liked the power. I had never had a "fun" car before. Val must have noticed, because she started pointing me to the articles about Corvettes in her car mags. Pretty soon, she and I were discussing how much fun we could have in a Vette. Several months later, I bought a really pretty, white 1989 Vette with a red interior. I named him Yeti because, despite all his great features, he was an abominable snow car.
This is where the real trouble begins. I went looking on the Internet for somewhere I could let Yeti run. I found it: Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia, a 10 turn road course where they have something called Friday At The Track (FATT). FATTERs get to take their street cars out onto the race track with an instructor who shows them how to hustle the car faster and faster through the turns and down the straights. Yeti loved it. I was as bad at first on the track as he was in the snow. But persistence pays off. After about 8 FATTs, I was getting the hang of it. A fellow who had described me on my first day as, "Driving like Grandma" came up and said I "Looked pretty good out there. Almost like a racer." But of course, FATT is only practice, not real wheel-to-wheel racing.
Yeti and I spent three seasons going to FATT and similar events. But it was a rough life for the Vette. After several crashes and much time in the body shop, Yeti caught fire one day on the track and burned to a hulk. I was very sad, but undeterred by the crashes or the fire.

Two weeks later, I had acquired a 1997 Miata and a plan to convert it into a real race car and go wheel to wheel racing with the Sports Car Club of America. I spent most of the summer of 2002 doing the conversion: stripping out unnecessary stuff (e.g., A/C, power steering, interior, soft top, etc.) and installing roll cage, racing seat, stiff suspension, hard top, kill switch, and more. My single bay car port beside my suburban house served as my race shop. My neighbors were very understanding. I did the whole conversion myself and was I thrilled when the car passed technical inspection and was ready for my two required racing schools. I did both schools in the fall and got my racing license.

I have spent many weekends over the last five years racing at Summit Point, Watkins Glen, Virginia International Raceway and other East coast tracks. I do almost all the maintenance and repair work (necessitated by the occasional crash) myself, still in my car port. I'm a mid pack driver who does it for the sheer fun of wheel to wheel competition. When I am on the track dicing with another car, it just doesn't matter if it is for 7th or 27th place. Its just pure fun, if a bit scary. Sure, when I get back to the paddock, climb out of the car, drink some Gatorade and walk over to look at the result sheet, I always wish I had been just a little faster and finished just a bit higher. But the real reward is the doing of it.

My renewed interest in rock climbing has curtailed my racing this past season. Recently the County building inspector threw up another impediment to my racing in the form of an order to remove my race car from the premises. It seems vehicles not registered for the road are not permitted to be kept in my too spiffy neighborhood. But now that I have retired, I am hoping to overcome this hurdle and do a lot of racing and climbing.

And what about Valerie, who started this thing going? She has graduated from the University of Pennsylvania where, in addition to earning a degree in economics, she lettered all four years in crew and was chosen an All American. But, all is not lost. I think I may get her into the racing game yet. I took her riding in the race car on a practice day at the track a couple of years ago. After several sessions where I was pushing the car pretty hard. I asked her what she thought. Now, everyone else to whom I have given race car rides says something like, "Oh my god! That was incredible. How do you do it?" But Val just looked at me and said in a bored sort of voice, "That was OK, but I wish we had spun out. I wanted to see what a spin feels like." Gotta love her.

Photos: Top - Yeti at FATT. Bottom: Bill racing the Miata at Virginia International Raceway.

Return to Easy Overhang

August 2006. Decked out in shiny new rock climbing gear, I huffed and puffed my way up the talus slope toward a technical rock climb called Easy Overhang. If my daughter Karen, who followed behind, had doubts about this enterprise, she had good reason. I was about to try to lead her up a 200 foot vertical cliff in the Shawangunk mountains of New York. It had been 35 years since I had last done anything like this.

The roots of our adventure lay in a phone call Karen had made to me several months before. "Dad, guess what? I went to the rock climbing gym yesterday." I had heard that, in the years since I had stopped climbing, someone had invented the rock gym, but i had never actually seen one. Karen explained she had "Done a 5.7 and gotten half way up a 5.8!" She called me several more times to report further progress climbing what I learned were plastic holds bolted to a plywood wall. I had not led an active life for many years and had pretty much resigned myself to growing old and feeble. Nonetheless, I finally asked Karen if she would like to climb something outdoors with me some time. She answered "yes" with what sounded like genuine enthusiasm, so there we were, several weeks later, roping up at the bottom of Easy Overhang.

Easy O is a very easy, but steep and exposed climb. The kind of exciting, easy climb one finds almost nowhere but the "Gunks." I had done it many years before, but that was when I was a strong 20 year-old; and we pounded nice strong pitons into the rock for protection. Now, I am a fat old man and, in the interest of saving the rock from destruction, climbers use little things called chocks and complicated cams that are supposed to stick in the cracks by friction. It would be fair to say I was a tad nervous as I stepped onto the rock for my first lead in many years.

As I struggled to make the first move into an easy gully, I thought, "I don't remember this being quite so hard." I made it, though, and worked my way up the gully. Finding two nice, solid bolts into which to tie at the first belay ledge was a great relief. Karen followed without difficulty and seemed quite comfortable on a ledge 100 feet off the ground.

The second pitch is steeper and much more exposed than the first, but I found myself less sketched (a climber's term for scared). I put several of the new "protection" devices in, wondered if they would hold a fly, wished for some of my old chromolly pitons, and soon found myself making the last moves to the top! I belayed Karen up and realized,


I had led a real rock climb again. I could still do it. And I had shared it with my daughter. Doing that easy climb with Karen was one of the most rewarding, thrilling, empowering experiences of my life. It gave me a whole new way to relate to my daughter: not as a child of whom I took care, but as a climbing partner whom I trusted with my life and who trusted me with hers. I have looked at myself differently every day since: I am someone who, within limits, is still physically capable. Beyond that, I have gained a wonderful sense that my life is expanding, new possibilities are opening for me.

And, yes, I have kept climbing and worked my way up to doing somewhat more serious routes. But none will ever mean as much to me as that August day on Easy O in my beloved Gunks.

Here is a picture of Karen following Richard Goldstone up a more difficult climb in the Gunks called Limelight. Richard not only led, but also rappelled part way back down to take the picture.