Thinking happy thoughts
By Brian Mann
As Colin Loher leads the way up through thick birch and maple, his climbing gear chimes with each step. “OK,” he says. “You have to kind of do the limbo here.” He ducks under a downed tree, maneuvering his heavy load, which includes a coil of bright-blue rope, helmets and soft shoes that resemble ballerina slippers.
It’s a cold, blustery morning as we reach a clearing at the foot of Hurricane Crag, a gray precipice that juts above Route 9N between Keene and Elizabethtown. We’re here to climb a route called Quadrophrenia. It’s known in climber’s jargon as a multipitch ascent, which means we’ll go up the length of the rope, rig an anchor to the side of the mountain, then climb again.
The prospect is more than a little intimidating. I’m new to this sort of thing. The idea of clinging to a vertical face of rock still feels a bit nuts. But there’s a method to this madness, a complex system of tools and techniques designed to keep us safe.
“These are the chocks here,” Colin says, laying out a series of tiny metal wedges. Each has a distinctive shape and a slightly different size. Technical climbing is a little complicated, but it works something like this. Colin will lead the way up the cliff. As he goes, he’ll fix these wedges into niches and crannies. The chocks are attached to carabiners, metal loops that guide the rope. When we’re roped in, the chocks will work like anchors if one of us falls.
“With climbing,” Colin says, “you want to ask yourself two questions. If that anchor fails, what do I have backing me up? Or if this piece of rope cuts, what do I have holding me? And if the answer is nothing, you don’t have a good anchor.”
Colin is a professional climber and guide with Adirondack Rock & River in Keene. He’s a young guy, not burly or imposing. His hands are a hard patchwork of scars and scabs, but he handles the gear gracefully, stacking the rope, throwing knots, clipping carabiners onto his harness. After double-checking each piece of gear, he sets off up the rock. It’s fun to watch. He moves slowly and smoothly. While placing the first chock, he stands on a shelf no wider than a pencil. He stands there casually, as though he’s waiting for a bus. When he jams his finger into a hairline crack, it’s like he’s grabbing a suitcase handle.
Soon, Colin anchors the rope on the first ledge, then reels in the slack. He’s ready now to catch me if I fall, but this first section is manageable. I struggle a bit at first, finding the footholds. The grips feel shallow and slick. But slowly I get my bearings, and every few moves I find a place to rest and catch my breath. In a matter of minutes, we’re balanced side by side on the ledge.
Again Colin checks my harness. He inspects each knot, each link in our chain of safety. We set off again, and this section is a little easier. We scramble to a shelf about 150 feet up. There’s no place to sit, so we perch there, hanging against the rope. As we sway in the sharp wind, Colin points up at a pair of overhangs, ceilings of rock that seem to block the route.
In the language of climbers, each route has a crux. It’s the riddle, the part of the climb that needs sorting out. “That first roof is the hardest move,” Colin says. “It involves some under-clinging and some hand jams, and it requires some working around, kind of leaning back. It’s kind of strenuous. And then you climb up a corner for 30 feet and then you come to another roof.”
It doesn’t just look strenuous. The snout of fractured rock is terrifying. Peering up from the relative safety of the shelf, I find it hard to see a way past. I imagine myself freezing up, slipping and dangling hundreds of feet over the treetops. But Colin tells me the crux here isn’t so much physical as it is mental.
“Some of the better climbers aren’t necessarily really strong,” he says. “They just have really strong minds, and they’re able to entertain happy thoughts while doing these scary things.” He laughs and shrugs. “You know, you just have to think little happy thoughts. You bring yourself to that happy spot when you’re in a scary place.”
Colin goes first. The awkward angle of the first roof doesn’t phase him. He slips over and disappears. I can hear him far above, scratching rock, jangling gear. When it’s my turn, I try to match his confidence, but the rock closes in above me. It’s strangely claustrophobic, like pushing against a stuck door. There’s a good foothold, and I dig in with my right toe, balancing my shoulder against the wall. Lodged there, I hit my first big snag. One of Colin’s safety chocks is set so deeply in a crack that I can’t pull it free. My hands are tired, half-numb. I glance down at the gulf below, then call out to Colin.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he calls. “Be patient. Wiggle it gently.” After long minutes of struggle, the plug of metal comes free. My fingers are raw. There are tiny, bright-red beads of blood on the rock. I can feel myself starting to wobble, knees shaking, concentration fogged by weariness. I move as quickly as I can. There’s a deep crack, perfect for a hand jam, and I go for it. I make it, but it’s not pretty. Picture a clumsy 8-year-old shimmying up a tree.
On top of the first roof, I catch my breath. The second roof is easier, a bigger overhang but with better hand grips and footholds. Before I know it, I’m seated next to Colin on a sort of natural park bench, hundreds of feet above the valley floor. “Here we are,” he says with delight. “We’re pasted on the side of a cliff, we still have a hundred feet to climb. I do this because of the places it takes me, because of the perspectives I can get.”
Rock climbers have a reputation as thrill seekers. But learning a route is really about detail and focus. Good climbers know the geology of rock. They know what it sounds like, what it feels like. A good climber might spend weeks mastering a tough passage. Learning the stone’s shape, reacting to every contour. Fear is a part of the experience, Colin says, but it’s this discipline that drew him to the sport. He started climbing seven years ago, when his life was in free-fall.
“My family died in a plane crash,” he says. “After they passed away I went out on a trip with their ashes, and I went climbing. I spread their ashes all over those cliffs, and I felt closer to them. I felt like they were proud of me for doing the things I did.”
As we work the final pitch together, it starts to rain. I can smell the chalk dust and the wet rock on my hands. There’s something pure about a cliff—maybe even a little spiritual. A face of granite stands remote and unforgiving, so that even the raw fun of climbing seems a kind of physical meditation. It forces you to come at the world from different, sometimes tough angles.
The truth is, I’ll probably never be much of a climber. It’s a fresh way to explore the outdoors, but it’s also demanding. Good climbers spend years polishing their craft. Still, I like to think I’ll find my way up a rope again, now and then, chasing the solitude and the views of a wild Adirondack cliff.