Friday, February 15, 2013

Coal Train

Back when I used to be a climbing guide, I had an impactful and memorable encounter with a woman I'd taken out for a full day trip at Endless Wall. I always enjoyed those rare one-on-one days with a reasonably fit person because I could take them away from the roadside top-rope crags of Bridge Buttress or Junkyard. I felt like the Endless Wall experience was more valuable for them due to the remote location and superior quality of the lines.

We roped up beneath some classic and I was excited for the lead/free solo since you can never trust their belay. I said something like, "You're going to love this route. It's a four star classic." The response I got still sticks with me. "What makes a route good?" she asked. I stood there a bit taken aback and honestly unable to answer the question on the fly. What makes a movie better than other movies? What makes a particular meal better than other meals? There are characteristics to routes that we all agree make them 'better' or 'worse' but, like a food preference, there are also feelings and sensations that accompany certain climbs that are hard to define. You could argue that vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate, or vice versa, and never be right.

I finished my Beauty Mountain project yesterday and my opinion is that it's the best route at the New and the best climb I've ever been on in my life. I'll go on to attempt a defense of that statement, but first a little history of Beauty Mountain.
Why is Beauty Mountain not part of Endless Wall? The answer is this little devil right here: Short Creek. One of the most beautiful streams in the region tumbles through the cliffline cleaving off the last mile of Endless Wall. That last mile is Beauty Mountain. Hiking down short creek is like a step into a magic forest with boulders, ferns, moss, and falling water everywhere.

Beauty is my favorite crag at the New. The quality and concentration of routes is unparalleled, even compared to Endless Wall in my opinion. Furthermore, the history of Beauty is a microcosmic display of overall New River history. You can look at just Beauty alone and get a feel of the progression of New River climbing. While some of the very earliest ascents were being done at Bridge and Junkyard, Beauty also saw late 70's action. In the early days, access was from the upstream end, and the core group of pioneers, including Bruce Burgin and Nick Brash were top-roping in the boulder field upstream of the descent gully. In 1979, the duo descended to the cliff base for the first ascent of Screamer Crack, a wide 5.8 on the Thunder Buttress, and a year later for Supercrack, the New's best traditional pitch of 5.9.  Steve Erskine, Hobart Parks, and T.A. Horton climbed Welcome to Beauty in big wall style, bivying half way up the 120 ft. pitch! Nowadays, climbers wonder why Welcome to Beauty is one of the last climbs they get to after hiking in for nearly a mile.
The next wave of development hit the Burning Buttress with early 80's ascents of Burning Calves, Wham, Bam, Thanks for the Jam, Happy Hands, Spider Wand and Rod Serling Crack; a line-up of the New's best moderate cracks. Just before the sport climbing craze took hold, boldness ruled the era. In 1986, Mike Artz and Andrew Barry established Will to Power, Steve Martin's Face and Chorus Line; all hairball  runout face climbs that connect discontinuous cracks and letterbox slots. And how could I forget Chasin' the Wind in '85!
Pat Goodman does some mini-trax mixed climbing to warm up on the ultra-hyper-mega-classic Chasin' the Wind.

As the late 80's approached, bolted climbs appeared like Doug Reed's Grace Note and Sportster in 1990. It was 1989 that two Frenchman showed up. As Porter Jarrard recalled, "We couldn't believe those Frenchmen had the audacity to fly over here with all that bolting gear. To hike the cliff and see that there was a line there. At the time it was too intimidating to even try it."

Porter spoke of Stabat Mater, located on an upstream facing wall on one of the first walls you'd come to when approaching from the upstream end.  When Pierre Deliage and Nicolas Richard established Stabat, they reportedly suggested 8a+ for the route which translates to 5.13c and the hardest route in the region at that time. Later that same year, it was flashed by America's best climber, Scott Franklin. It was one of the hardest flashes achieved by an American and possibly the impetus for its current and legit grade of 5.13b.
One of the best 5.11d's in the region. David Gibbons on Disturbance.

Onward through the 90's, every major player in New River history left their mark on Beauty Mountain. Rick Thompson, Kenny Parker, Porter Jarrard, Doug Reed, Eric Horst, Eddie Begoon; they all established classic routes at this beautiful crag. Significant ascents in Beauty history include Cal Swoager's back-to-back, in-a-day first ascents of Left and Right Sons of Thunder, Dan Osman's free solo of Gun Club, and Harrison Dekker's ascent of Travisty (the New's hardest for many years). Of course, no historically significant crag is complete without controversy like the chipped holds on Travisty, who actually got the first ascent of Happy Hands, and did Gus Glitch really climb Super Whiny Bugs (5.14a) in 1991?
Leslie Timms on Genocide (5.12a)

In recent history, Beauty's naturally seen the addition of some harder trad routes like Blood Meridian (5.12d), as well as Pat Goodman's Thundering Herd (5.13b) and his new 5.13 project that he'll finish up soon.
For the past 5 years, I've focused nearly all of my efforts at Beauty. It's likely that I've climbed at Beauty more days than I have at all the other crags in the region combined. And, fortunately not without productivity. Beauty now has four 5.14's and one more on the way. That's the same number as all of Endless Wall including the Cirque. That's also more than the Red River Gorge's Motherlode.
 Pat Goodman climbing above the only bolt on his 100 ft. project left of Gun Club.
It took me four years to finish off the Travisty Wall, adding in Climax Control (5.13b), the Tradjedy (a silly 5.13b variation), Mono Loco (5.14a), Picket Fence (5.14b) and finally Super Whiny Bugs (5.14a).  This conclusion in fall of 2012 left me wandering Beauty in search of a new project. I realized at some point that I'd never done Stabat Mater and needed to finish it off.
Picket Fence. Old photo from 2009 or so. Matt Stark photo

My first bout with Stabat was in  2008 with Porter Jarrard. Revisiting Porter's early impression of Stabat, he felt some unfinished business with the intimidating and proud line. Our first day working the crux was futile as I remember it. Porter claimed he needed a stiffer shoe so he returned home and dug through his boxes in search of an old pair of board-lasted Scarpa LeMenestrel's. He couldn't fit his aged and bunioned feet into them so he soaked them in water and put them in the microwave. Porter is a genius in many ways but this incident does not adequately display that. The microwave got the brass lace holes sufficiently hot to burn the shit out of the top of his feet, but it worked, and days later Porter was high-stepping solidly through the crux and clipping the chains. I gave up and didn't revisit the line until this past fall.

I was jonesing to climb at Beauty with not much left to do. I reopened Porter's Broken Dreams (now 5.13b) which hadn't been done since the first ascent in 1990 due to a broken hold that happened ten minutes after the FA. A few days later I went out for Stabat, figured out the crux and finished it that day. The upper face offers many opportunities to shake out and gaze left at the brilliant white wall that would become Coal Train and I knew then that I had to at least rap it to make sure it didn't go. It looked impossible.
Coal Train on the left, Stabat Mater on the right.

Back in 2008, Porter and I spent quite a bit of time discussing that wall. It truly was one of the last great faces to be climbed at the New. The really discouraging characteristic was the 12 feet of white glass about 1/4 of the way up that blocks any passage to the upper bit. I believe it was he that suggested coming in from Stabat and skirting the shield. But the terrain, even by that method, looked only marginally possible.
Of course when I rapped the wall the first time I nearly cried with giddy excitement. There was definitely a line, but there were also some big unanswered questions. Once the bolts and chalk are on a route it's all so obvious, but before that, there are so many questions. There are actually two lines on the upper face, each linking barely-there features. The left one looked slightly easier but would require another ten feet of traversing and the right one looked like one section might not go. Furthermore, the big question was the traverse off of Stabat. It looked very difficult. So difficult that I didn't know if I'd be able to do it at all. I hoped and prayed that a tiny chip would just snap off with a light tap of the hammer revealing a crimp, but was dismayed to hear it ring solid. If that section wasn't climbable it would still be possible to do the crux of Stabat and then traverse in higher but the true line climbed through that lower section.
I hadn't made any firm decisions yet when I put in my application to the NPS for a bolting permit. I actually put in three. One for Coal Train, one for a project left of Chunky Monkey that will be the fifth 5.14 at Beauty, and one for the wall right of the Rabbit Almost Died. Hurricane Sandy blew through and halted any progress on the permits for a month due to the all-hands-on-deck state of park recovery. I waited anxiously and during that time I'd climb Stabat, do a long hand traverse left, plug gear in a horizontal and lower down to top-rope the face. After a few days of this, I'd done the upper cruxes and finally figured out the lower crux. The line was there...barely.
In mid-December, after five weeks of waiting, I got word from the NPS. My permit for the Rabbit wall was denied but I didn't care. Only one route really mattered at that point. My Chunky Monkey permit was granted but the anchor had to be moved down 20 feet from the cliff top to protect some moss. No worries, I didn't want to climb that shit anyway. But I was devastated to see that my Coal Train permit was granted with the stipulation that the anchor be moved down 2 meters from the cliff top. That is simply not the route. That would be like painting the Mona Lisa but stopping before you add the smile.

The reason for this requirement was to protect lichen species that grow most densely in the upper 2 meters of cliff. A recent cliff ecology study done by Pete Clark and WVU suggested that many cliff side plants enjoy the light and water runoff of that last 2 meters. Since no lichens were present on this route, I saw this as a serious step down a slippery slope towards a blanket policy that might prevent climbers from climbing on the last few feet of cliff. That would be a terrible policy for climbing management in my opinion. I'm all for the installation of top anchors to keep people off the fragile cliff top soil and I'm understanding of a case by case analysis for each particular route, but shutting down the last 2 meters of cliff for no reason seemed like a bad call.

So, as part of the ongoing Coal Train saga; I read Pete's thesis, armed myself with knowledge, organized a meeting with NPS resource management, and walked out with a permit in hand to bolt Coal Train the way God intended.

These may seem like petty and irrelevant steps in the story, but to me they're important. There is so much more to establishing a route than what some people see as the easy way out. It's just rap bolting right? It's so much more than that. The vision of the line, the exploration of the wall, the permits, the equipping, the climbing... I cherished every step of the process. I've done this enough times now that I know it has to be enjoyed because even a three-month process of climbing one route is so fleeting. I almost ceremoniously prepared for the day that I'd sink the bolts. I used 10mm Petzl glue-ins for this masterpiece and waited for a perfectly enjoyable sunny day to install them. The view from the route is breathtaking, perched high above the trees with a long view upstream above the Keeney's rapids and the quiet breeze of winter intermittently broken by the distant sound of coal trains chugging by. Each hole was painstakingly analyzed for the perfect location and every drop of glue was meticulously wiped clean. The whole thing is just perfect.

Starting up Stabat/Coal Train.
The rest of the story is the same old stuff you've read 100 times. Small links, progress, regression, snow storms, good days, bad days, big links, finally a one-hang, then another, then a week of snow, then the perfect alignment of good days and good partners. Pat Goodman and I climbed out there together for a while as he worked his project to the left of Gun Club. Then he bailed to climb tepui big walls in Venezuela so Nic Spruill stepped in to work on Stabat. Yesterday was Valentine's day and I jogged out to the rig to meet my sweetheart (the rig, not Nic) around 1:30. The air was dry, the sun was baking the wall and I knew the conditions were perfect when I warmed up on Stabat with barely a pump.
As far as climbing goes, the only thing I truly pride myself in is my ability to keep it together under stress. I knew before I set off that if I kept it together mentally it was in the bag. Just knowing that is reason for nervousness and I felt so solid through the first crux that I almost scared myself off. But I shook it off and for the first time, stuck the 2nd crux on link. I smiled and gave a holler to Nic, "I'm doing it!" and laughed and smiled. It's very possible to fall at the next 13a crux because you're pumped, but I pulled it together, then again for the last 12d crux and the 5.12 victory bulge at the top. I enjoyed every second of it. It was one of those times where the pump is comforting, the rock is sticky, the confidence soars, you're light as a feather, and it feels impossible to fall off. It's that feeling for me that is the culmination of everything that leads up to it and I'm always sad as soon as it's over.  
The good shake before the final hard crux getting to the break.
Maybe a month ago, I boasted to original guidebook author and New River climbing historian Rick Thompson that I'd found the best route at the New. He responded expectedly with "...that new project sounds stellar. That's such a spectacular stretch of stone! Just remember, just because it's the hardest doesn't mean it's the best." It brought me full circle to the memory of the woman asking, "What makes a route good?"
Rick's right of course. Just because it's hard doesn't make it good. I can think of some terribly hard routes that suck! So why does Coal Train top my list as the closest thing I've experienced to perfection?
Rock: My belief is that Nuttall Sandstone is the best climbing medium on the planet. The rock on Coal Train is the best I've ever seen anywhere in the region and thus the world. If I had to look at a sample and guess what it is, I'd probably think marble. The route starts up a black and golden pillar of stone shared with Stabat Mater. At the fifth bolt you gain a flat jug and shake out for either the crux of Stabat, going right, or the crux of Coal Train, going left. At this point the rock transitions to white glass. I've never seen anything quite as smooth or bullet hard. It has to be seen to be believed. But climbing glass would suck. Fortunately the holds you use are textured. Consistent the entire way up is this pattern of a sheet of vertical white glass with a miraculously textured serious of crimps that lead to a shake at a textured horizontal.

Sustain: a musical note that is prolonged. Possibly the greatest downfall of New River routes is the lack of sustained nature. The Racist, for example, (that is world class anyway) is amazing and sustained 5.13 climbing to a huge rest to more 5.13. It breaks the flow. This is not to say that good routes don't have rests, but in my mind, anytime a route has a stopping point it detracts. I hate standing on a ledge and resting up for the next section. The 6 bolt section leading to the 9th bolt of To Bolt or Not To Be is probably the most sustained climbing I've experienced. It's never hard but you can never stop. Coal Train does have stopping points but you're never hanging out for long. There is nowhere to hide from the pump and not a kneebar in sight.

Design: This is why I think hard is better in some cases. Take a 5.10 and it's likely that you can climb it 30 different ways. Remove any one hold from it and it would probably maintain its grade, or at least close to it. The rock is most likely highly featured and offers many options. The moves on Coal Train are remarkable. You use every hold that's there and if any of them were missing, it might not go. Consider the 2nd crux. Your hands are on a horizontal. You reach as high as you can with the right hand to a half pad undercling/sidepull, put your feet where your hands were and jump to the next hold which is 7 feet above your feet. If that hold wasn't wouldn't go. The next section is the same, campusing left and smearing feet on glass leads to a lunge for a crimp rail and a huge lockoff to a right hand hold that looks like someone took an ice cream scooper and scooped out a chunk, leaving just enough room for some fingers. Then you cross to another similar hold and set up for another dyno to overcome the blankness. The moves are incredible and unique. Speaking of the distance between holds, I had nicknamed this route Child Proof. I don't think Ashima can do this one. In fact, if you're under 5' 10", I think this route might be very, very difficult.

Position: Coal Train faces upstream and basks in the sun all day. On winter days when it's 40 degrees and the sun is out, climbing in a t-shirt is perfect. As I mentioned, the view is incredible and there is no one ever around. Even from the base you can see far upstream past Keeney's Buttress and South Nuttall. Once you're up high on the route, it seems like you're above the river out in the middle of nowhere. To get poetic about it, I feel like the route's position at the very end of the gorge is symbolic. It's like the entire wall from Fern Buttress, Endless Wall, and all of Beauty goes out with a bang culminating in a display of what it's capable of. It's as if it took everything that makes it great and spat out one wall, right at the end, that possesses every attribute of perfection.

History: I started out describing the history of Beauty Mountain from the very first 5.8 crack, through the era of boldness, to the modern day head points and hard sport routes. I feel like Coal Train is the cherry on top of Beauty's history. The biggest, baddest wall at the crag didn't go up until 2013. It's not the hardest, nor the last new route to be done at the crag but it does symbolically mark the end of an era of development. After studying the entire cliff line with Pat, I believe that his new route and this one are the last really good routes to be done.

Length: 35 meters. Taller is better.

Angle: starts with some 5 degree overhang up the shared Stabat section then transitions to about 15 degrees overhanging for the majority of the climb and finishes with a final 35 degree bulge.  It climbs like a face but you never get to unweight the arms. It's far steeper than it looks though, and you end up lowering out at about 30 feet from the base.

And there you have it. Take it or leave it, that's my defense of why it's awesome. That's a lot of perfection packed into one wall.

Grade? Of course it's irrelevant but I'm guessing 14a. It took me quite a while in really good conditions and I was barely able to pull it off just after climbing Stabat easily. I felt like it was harder than To Bolt or Not to Be which is my most recent 14a benchmark but this route is probably less my style.

Breakdown: 12b to where it breaks off of Stabat, then a hard techy crux that is 13c if the crux of Stabat is 13b. Then a bit of 5.12 to a 5.13b redpoint crux, then 13a, then 12+, then 12a? Something like that. What's that add up to? Definitely harder than anything I did last summer but it's not 14b, that's for sure...which reminds me. At the final break before the finishing bulge, it's possible to clip the 2nd to last bolt and climb straight to the anchor without traversing way out left like I did. This would add a V9ish boulder problem that will definitely put this route in the 5.14b range. The line I bolted is "the" line but climbing straight up would be a cool and much harder variation.

Name: I decided not to call it Child Proof because I didn't want to eat my words. J.B. Tribout once famously spouted that no woman would ever climb 5.14. Lynn Hill threw that in his face when she did Mass Critique in 1992. Since then, that quote has been thrown in J.B's face hundreds of times. I did not want to be that guy, made to eat my words when some 11-year-old 5.15 kid jumps his or her way all the way up this thing. Child Resistant would be more appropriate but doesn't have a nice ring to it.

When I first rapped the wall, it reminded me of my dream route Groove Train in Australia. Then I started thinking of the white rock and thought of "clean coal" and it evolved from there. Plus, I've always called Elissa "Coal Train" for some reason. That comes from her last name "Colley." Oh, and of course, it's possible to watch the iconic coal trains go by, far below, from the base of the route.

After traveling all over and seeing many areas and many routes, I realize that this will be the best route I ever put up or even climb on. It simply can't get any better. That's a sad feeling but also pretty cool. It's always about the route for me. That piece of rock always existed but only now is it personified and opened for the enjoyment of everyone. Well, not quite everyone. It's almost a shame that it's quite hard, but that's just the price of admission for getting to climb the best route. You've got to put a lot of time and effort into climbing to get the most out of it. Should everyone in Europe buy a plane ticket to come climb this route? Yes. Absolutely, it's that good. Will they? Eh...definitely not. In fact, it would be pulling teeth to get someone to set aside their crush on the Red for a week and come check it out. I'm OK with that. The climbing here at the New is different. I realize that what I view as the greatest thing in the world might not be seen that way by some others. It's totally understandable to want to dodge human shit piles on the way to the crag, wait in line, clip fixed draws, and break holds off choss. I get that. I mean, this route is straight vanilla and there are a lot of chocolate fans out there.  

Note: Pat shot some photos and video of this rig but he's in Venezuela. I also shot vid of him on his project and the plan is to put something together. I'd really like some good video of this route so if #JoshLowell @Bigupproductions wants to roll out, I'm just saying I'd pose down on it for #ReelRockTour or #Dosage 6 or #Queen Lines or whatever. #Peter Mortimer? #Sender Films? I'm kidding. If you do want to come climb on this thing though, let me know cause I'd like to shoot some video of it.