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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in CT » CONNECTICUT (all topics) » Monster Wall
The Author Enjoying His Well Earned View     BY: Matt Mager
Monster Wall

Over The Border in the Shawangunks

By John Bateman | December 12, 2014

I am terrified of heights. Let me reveal that little secret now. After reading this, you will believe one of two things: 1) I’m a liar or 2) I’m a masochist. Admittedly, I’m a writer, so perhaps I’m both.

Despite that fear, or perhaps because of it, I love rock climbing. Not gym climbing, where I compete for a spot on the wall with ambiguously sexual 20-something Brooklynites. No. Actual rocks. Those heavy things littered around the base of cliffs on hiking trails. Perhaps God is a lesbian. Who else could keep a 26,000-mile diameter ball of dirt, water, and gas together as it spins around the sun? Gravity is God’s duct tape. But that’s another essay.

A View of Mohonk Tower

Let me confess something else. I may have started climbing because a former Chippendale dancer turned yoga-instructor named Zev invited me. Like a puppy chasing a red ball, I went. Fortunately, I did not wet myself like said puppy. But I almost did, the first time I looked down on a wall that could have been Spiderman’s breakfast.

My first experience was a converted grain silo in Texas with a 120 foot route for beginners. Yes, one hundred and twenty vertical feet up for a beginner. That’s like telling a six-year-old on the high dive in duck floaties: “Do a cannonball, it’s easy.” That’s easy only in Texas, except I didn’t have floaties.

In climbing lingo, the route was rated at a difficulty of 5.5, which is basically like a sturdy step ladder with legs that don’t wobble.   Which is basically better than any real ladder I’ve seen.   In other words, easy by any standard.   But when staring into the recesses of the cement tower, searching in panic for the end of this 120 foot ladder, I knew I was beginning something, but that something was nothing easy. I also questioned whether I would truly enjoy it, except for the fact that Zev would break my inevitable fall and we’d live happily ever after.

But I didn’t fall, Zev turned out to be straight (mostly), and I was oddly hooked (on the climbing). So there began my rock climbing.

As I ascended walls at the gym, and, eventually, sweltering Texas canyons, I realized a strange serenity. Me and a quiet that I never knew existed. Don’t get me wrong - I am hardly a Buddhist monk. Rather, a 70-foot drop terrifies me. I believe that it has been precisely that fear, however, that gave the quiet wimp hyper focus to climb uber rock.

Monster Push

That fear also taught me trust. Climbers seek solace in high places but most require - and want - assistance getting there. It’s an experience of collective moments shared in retrospect, yet involve the ability to communicate with someone else in tandem to reach that solace. Skills definitely not taught in corporate conglomerates. Even among climbers, there are degrees of trust: I won’t climb outdoors with anyone who is more likely to check out the West Point cadet nearby than the harness I’m wearing.

I didn’t look down for the first two years of climbing. Instead, I found keen interest in pebbles too small to serve any purpose other than my own distraction. At first, I wore a baseball cap. One day, I paused during a climb to wipe the sweat from my head and tossed the cap to the ground. The next 3 seconds were the longest 3 seconds of my life (other than perhaps when they were followed by “No, Officer, I haven’t”).   When I - finally - heard the cap hit the crash pad, vague memories of high school physics tumbled like bingo numbers that wouldn’t match. I couldn’t remember how to calculate if I was twenty or two hundred feet above ground. I never wore a baseball cap again.

Maybe it’s an addiction. Adrenaline is undoubtedly a powerful drug.

One of my favorite places to climb is the Mohonk Preserve outside of New Paltz, New York, on the eastern side of the state. One of the oldest climbing areas in the country, it’s part of the Shawangunk Ridge in the Appalachian Mountains, affectionately known as The Gunks.   The name, which sounds less enticing than irritable bowel syndrome, is crude compared to the view it offers. The Preserve looks like a crumbling mesa as you drive west from the crunchy college town and rises to an elevation of more than 2000 feet.   Somewhere, perhaps most noticeably around 1600 or 1700 feet, the rock breaks free from the rising treeline to smirk at would-be adventurists. It quickly crests under another stunted forest just below the clouds.   If fairies exist, this is their Camelot.

The Gunks are where I experienced my first multi-pitch climb, which is basically another way of saying “there ain’t a rope long enough.” If you understood the implication of that description, then you correctly ascertained that when one is stuck on a ten-inch ledge 150 feet off the ground, there is no changing one’s mind to go back.   More significantly, there are no bathroom breaks. It’s not like the bar exam, where you can give up and walk out at any moment. You either keep climbing or wait for Santa and Rudolph to swing by and say hello.

Looking Down From The First Pitch

Two climbing pals (Matt and Eric) and myself ascended a popular climb affectionately known as “Minty” in three pitches. The first was a meandering 120’ that passed a ledge, and then another ledge, giving false hope of safety in the unlikely event of a fall. Eric took the lead, being more technically advanced of the three, and climbed the traditional way: ascending 8-10 feet, setting an anchor into an otherwise invisible crack before climbing again to set another.   Anchor, climb, repeat. For ten stories.

I followed and clipped in a second rope that Matt would use after I reached the anchor station (fancy term that really means “place to stop because we ran out of rope”).   Matt cleaned (picked up) the gear.   Matt was my belay.   In other words, I trusted Matt to help me from ending up on the park ranger’s report of casualties and the six o’clock news.   To describe Matt another way, I would climb blindfolded with him, I trust him so much.

For the end of our first pitch, we anchored into a crevice near a knotty pine that grew out and down from a flat rock that wasn’t even a foot wide.   The relative elevation of this pitch didn’t hit me until I was forced to turn and sit, anchored with my back to the cliff, feet dangling far above tree tops, holding onto a tree that curved and arched downward.   Fortunately, I have no ass and squeezed onto the tiny perch. I looked out across the tree line as it sloped east, and dripped away from the mountain, a couple miles toward the town. My ears throbbed as I tried to slow my breathing. I refused to climb halfway up this cliff only to hyperventilate and pass out.   For a moment, I could barely speak to Eric, a tall Scandinavian-looking teacher from Colorado who seemed to have a significant advantage holding onto the rock with his wingspan.   After my heart stopped beating at the speed of light, I had the strangest urge to urinate, although Matt, still on the ground, would not have thought to kindly of it. In most circumstances, relieving one’s self onto one’s belay is not kosher.

“Could you make some room?” Matt asked incredulously as he finished the first pitch.

“Sure, let me get the first class cabin ready for your Grace,” I said, moving about three inches along the ledge.   “There you go.”

“If you hadn’t eaten all those vegan carbs, you’d fit,” said Eric.

“Because those six chocolate Entenmann's donuts you had for breakfast help your girlish figure?” Matt retorted as he anchored into the rock.

We banter because we love.

Somewhere Along the Base of Minty Copyright Matt Mager

Somewhere on second pitch of this route marks the closest to nirvana I’ve reached in forty, no, thirty years. After a water break and bag of trail mix, three of us traversed ten feet along our unforgiving ledge for a giant “flake” (only rock climbers make a slab of stone sound puny) that bowed out two feet. In other words, we had to climb out before up. This flake is highly exposed, leaving climbers open to the wind and weather without sight of the ground or the top. Or each other.

I felt naked in front of the world, only this was no dream.

I nervously made a few lateral moves to climb around the rock that was more haggard than a celebrity DUI arrest photo, and crawled up a curve that resembled a giant contact lens. Grabbing onto jagged blocks of protruding stone, I stared at tiny grains in the rock as if studying for open-heart surgery.

“Breathe,” I whispered to myself.   Sometimes a lot, but particularly on this pitch.

After a few minutes, I could see neither Eric above, who’d longed since disappeared from sight, nor Matt below, who maintained just the right amount of slack in my rope.   As my hands felt a solid hold, I rested on my feet, sitting back with my arms extended straight above me.

“Just look,” I told myself. Being “in the moment” on a cliff is critical for safety. It also proves that I am very much alive. So I turned and inhaled. My glance outward (why look down?) along the ridge revealed that buzzards flew eye level with me. Not that my avian friends gave me a feather-to-fist bump, although I took comfort noting that they did not circle above me. Perhaps God found compliment in the instinctive “holy shit” that I sputtered on looking eye-level with soaring birds while dangling above the Hudson Valley floor on a rock that had no opinion whether I held on or fell.

Anyone who tells me that she/he doesn’t believe in God simply hasn’t been strapped into a harness and suspended by an elastic rope fifteen stories high with an unobstructed view of the horizon. Only the most devout atheists could maintain a lack of faith in something conscious in the attic. Realizing that the universe doesn’t revolve around the self is simply one step toward recognizing the existence of some sort of higher power and order. Some people just don’t require cliff dangling.

So, yes. I pray. Especially in spring when spiders and millipedes crawl from hiding onto my fingers to say “hi!” When I’m face to face with a furry critter who is not interested in making way for my grubby fingers to find something to hold, I definitely talk to anything that might be listening. I’m. on. a. cliff. for. pete’s. sake.

The Monster Descent Copyright Matt Mager

I’ve never been to the summit of Everest, but I can only imagine how humble a person feels after standing on the shoulders of Atlas.   At my much more diminished altitude, my present moment became simple and sharply focused: I completely forgot that I had to pee.

“Breathe in, John.” I’m fairly certain I said that aloud.

After another half hour of crawling up the second pitch, staring at tiny cracks and pebbles, with the sky wrapped around me, I reached the next anchor station point.   This ledge was a nice flat area covered in grass.  

“How was it?” asked Eric.

I opened my mouth but couldn’t speak.

“I know right?”

Firmly anchored in, Eric belayed Matt up the pitch, looking eastward.   The sun had descended behind us on the other side of the Ridge, casting a long shadow that reached halfway toward the town six miles away. Tiny cars puttered like lady bugs along country roads between Lego farms. I no longer remembered what I’d been so upset about that week.

After the three of us soaked in the view, realizing that the sun descended more quickly now, we tackled the third and final pitch. None of us wanted to have to walk down the mountain at dark.   We had already climbed 180 feet above our starting point and needed to conquer an overhang.   This was not fun. Bats are meant to hang upside down. Even vampires. Not humans. Not near the top of a cliff. With dusk approaching.

Slowly, but surely, each of us climbed, clawed, scrambled, scratched and scraped our way up, out and around this lip onto a gentle slope of rock covered in slippery lichen.   With careful footing and trusting hand holds (ignoring any thought of some furry crawler coming out to say hello), we each made it to the top. Here, the ridge flattened out into a grassy forest of wind-swept, diminutive oaks that may have been older than their giant cousins sheltered at the base.

Ropes still tied in, we sat until the edge of sundown.   I saw the shadow of the mountain cross the valley and reach the town.   Thoreau had nothing on this visual. After three hours of climbing, the view and the exhilaration became an infinite, yet ephemeral, moment.   I couldn’t stop smiling as I looked down at tiny buzzards keeping watch over a thick canopy of hemlock and chestnut oak that covered the ridge.   I’m sure we talked about something or nothing at all before we rappelled back down. Either way, the view was worth 10,000 words.

The dark terrified me as a six-year-old. At my grandmother’s house, my cousin and I played a game where we’d sit at the end of a long, dark hallway. A light switch waited at the other end; we had to find it without running. I always knew it was there, but couldn’t imagine reaching it. Palms sweating, heart racing, my mind played tricks about creepy crawly things in the shadows.   Yet, I steeled my tiny nerves, focused and trudged ahead, reaching the end and hitting the light.   That’s always when I remembered, even if the fear felt real, the monsters were imaginary.

This is what I learn climbing walls.

John Bateman is a board member of CRUX Climbing, Inc., a LBGTQ rock climbing group based in New York.

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