Monday, April 21, 2014

Endless Wall Wildfire

33 hours ago, EC and I were sipping Kona coffee and watching the sun rise from our baller bungalow in Maui. Since then, we saw the sun set then another sun rise and then another sun set, so I'm pretty tired but wanted to post some pictures and an update from the forest fire that picked up today at Endless Wall. I swear, I can't leave this place unattended for a week without something happening.

Pretty much as soon as I got home, I saw a picture that Jay Young posted on Facebook of the fire. I quickly confirmed the legitimacy of the notorious prankster's claim by looking out the window for the smoke plume and then hopped in the rig and headed to the Hole Overlook on the Kaymoor side of the gorge. I ended up spending most of the day there and even managed to stumble up Lactic without puking...barely.

The photo above is from early in the day, maybe around 1:00, and the fire had burned about halfway down the gorge from Endless Wall.

This is a closer view of the fire around 1:00. The prominent buttress to the left of the thick smoke plume is Idol Point. The overlook from the top of the Hole had a few locals stationed on it and we all watched the action from a perfect vantage point. Within an hour, the fire spread upstream (right) to about the Flashpoint Area which is the orange streak near the right edge of the frame. It was also slowly spreading downstream as well as downhill toward the river. 

This Peregrine Falcon grabbed a to-go lunch and peaced out. His distinct Peregrine call rang out, "Ain't nobody got time for that!"

By late in the day, around 6:30, I got back up to the overlook and chatted with some NPS rangers that were there watching the fire progress. It had grown considerably but still didn't appear totally out of control. The spread is slow and steady. 

If you're interested in what's going on with the fire, here's what I know based on watching it all day and what the Rangers told me. I won't necessarily claim that it's 100% legit or that it's "factual" info...just what I know right now.

Pretty sure the fire started somewhere around Mellifluous/Party Buttress at the base of the cliff during the late afternoon/early evening of 4/20. No one knows for sure how it started and there's not really a reason to send in the CSI team so we probably never will. It was almost certainly caused by some human doing something dumb like flicking a cigarette butt over the edge of the cliff, but that's speculation. Hippies, of course, can't be logically ruled out.
We've had some outrageously low humidity levels lately and I know that even a month ago the rangers were keeping their eyes peeled for fires. But even despite the dryness, this fire isn't burning like how a western desert fire would. It's moving pretty slowly and it's really just burning the underbrush and leaving the big trees pretty much unscathed. As it moves down the gorge, the burned areas left behind look pretty good. My guess is that a lot of it will recover pretty quickly, especially as the leaves come back on the trees. We probably won't even notice for the most part. 

It moved most quickly upstream with the wind. I'd watch the front line slowly creep downhill into a drainage, then hit the bottom, catch a little breeze and skyrocket up the other side. It also burned downhill, which to me is fairly impressive considering how steep the gorge is, and it crept downstream toward Fern Buttress.

As far as I know, I saw no efforts by the NPS or wildland firefighters to put out the fire within the gorge. From what I understand, they immediately drew the line at the cliff, which makes sense, and starting working on keeping the flames inside the gorge between the cliff and the river. Working to put out the fire within the gorge is very difficult because of the steep terrain and inaccessibility.

At some point around 3:00, the fire hit the cliff just downstream of Diamond Point and jumped to the top. My understanding is that this may have occurred at the low angle corner to the left of Shudder Bugger. It's a relatively low angle gully clogged with dry green brier as I remember. I didn't see it, but apparently it happened quickly and the fire took off along the top of the cliff burning a lot of ground above Diamond Point.

Fire crews contained that fire pretty quickly and I believe that the top fire is currently under control. When I stopped watching it around 7:00, some cloud cover had come in, the sun dipped down, temperatures dropped, and humidity levels increased. The fire slowed down a lot. It appears to be holding on its own between Fern Creek, the river, the cliff and the ridge below Diamond Point. It could very easily cross Fern Creek or the Diamond Point ridge, but it did appear to be holding on its own there. 

The area within those benchmarks described is pretty burned up and there doesn't appear to be a lot of small fuel left. The trees are intact and there were large areas where the fire had run out of fuel and just moved on. The forecast is calling for rain in the early morning hours. It seems like rain would put it out pretty quickly. Even some high humidity would really slow it down...but I'm not a fire expert.

Damage to the rock? I personally doubt it. This isn't the first brush with fire that the cliffs have had and they've done fine. The sandstone here isn't really that porous so I doubt a little heat would cause any exfoliation. It's not like there were 100 foot high flames licking at the walls, just some little campfire-sized flame ups at the base. But again, speculation from someone that's not an expert and it's possible that the flames were bigger than they appeared from across the gorge.

As for closures? We'll have to see about that. My guess is that the Endless Wall trail was closed to the public today but I didn't check. I would guess that it will be closed tomorrow as well. Beyond that, I imagine that once the fire is out, we'll be allowed to hike out there pretty soon after and go climbing.

I might be able to find this stuff out, but I'm going to sleep now. I'll add an update tomorrow, or when I find out, in case anyone's planning a trip and would like to know.

Take home point: I love this cliff a lot and I'm going to sleep pretty well tonight believing that it's all gonna be fine. It's a bummer, especially if we lost some of the beautiful forest or large Hemlocks, but it's part of nature's cycle and will make for a healthier forest in the long run. 

That said...dammit people, be careful and don't burn the woods down! 

Update: I said I was going to go to bed but couldn't help but search around. Here's a link to some legit news that says the trails and climbing areas are currently closed:

Update: 4/22 9:24
Great nighttime photos from Jay Young and a morning update that says the fire is still burning. Click here.

Update: 4:23
I went out last evening around 6:00 and hiked in to the Cirque overlook from Beauty Mountain. At that time, both of the Endless Wall parking lots were closed. The fire had spread upstream of Diamond Point but it was hard to tell how far upstream. Jay Young was over at the Hole overlook and estimated that it hadn't quite made it to Honeymooner's Ladders. It definitely appears to be dying down.

Though both parking lots are closed, it's hard to say exactly how much of the cliff remains closed to climbing. Surely they'd want to keep people away from Diamond Point and Snake Buttress but it would be possible to hike into the Cirque from Beauty Mountain. It would be worth stopping to ask officials at the Endless Wall parking if that would be permissible. I haven't heard any news today yet. It was a pretty bad view from the Cirque last night but here's the photo.


Monday, April 7, 2014


I finished my new line in the Coliseum yesterday. It’s a gem, of course, and if it wasn’t so much of a cliché at this point to say it, I’d likely spray that it’s “the best route I’ve ever touched” or “hands down the best climb of life.” But searching for those terms within my blog turns up more hits than google searching for “Demi Moore 80’s bush.” (Don’t do it, I warned you)

It all started about two weeks ago when I went out to clean up the clutter of tattered draws on Still Life and replace the hardware with glue-ins and steel permas. While doing it, I just couldn’t get over how crappy of a route Still Life is. It’s just terrible.

Had I been around 20 years ago we wouldn’t be in this mess, but I wasn’t, and that wall fell into the hands of Porter Jarrard. Porter is known for his complete lack of vision and sloppy work ethic. It’s unfortunate that he was around early enough to pretty much ruin most of the climbing potential in the Southeast, somehow managing to always bolt inferior quality climbs and even ‘squeeze jobs’ despite his routes often being the first routes on the wall.

 Visual clarity on the left. Beer goggles on the right. The eyes behind those glasses are only able to see chossy routes destined for poorly-placed bolts and unpleasant movement. 

Consequently, most of his routes have fallen into obscurity. Ever heard of routes like Apollo Reed, Pod, Mercy the Huff, or Table of Colors? I didn’t think so… It’s because they’re terrible routes. That last one, Table of Colors, is at some backwater crag called the “Red River Gorge” that no one ever goes to. At some point in the 90’s, the “visionary” Porter Jarrard bolted some routes there thinking that someday people would be interested in climbing steep, pocketed rock in Kentucky. Boy was he wrong!

Anyway, Porter is responsible for bolting Still Life, a solitary line up the small, steep buttress at the right end of the Coliseum, an area that I would have called the Thunderdome but first come, first served I guess. In typical Porter style, he chose the absolute LEAST aesthetic way to climb the wall. He chose a path that follows barely there holds that all face the wrong way. Not to mention, the holds are too far apart.

There are a three qualities that determine the difficulty of a rock climb: how steep the wall is, how big the holds are, and how far apart they are. Still Life is steep with bad holds that are far apart. That’s why it’s hard, but also why it sucks and doesn’t suit my style. If I had to define my style, I would say that I’m best at climbing low-angle rock with good holds that are close together. Maybe you can relate if that style also suits you. Unfortunately, Still Life doesn’t fit ANY of that criteria, so in my humble opinion, it kind of sucks. Most people that try Still Life, myself included, lower down bitching and moaning about how bad it sucks due to those characteristics. When the holds are far apart it’s generally classified as “reachy.” When the holds are bad and small on steep rock, we’d call it “uncomfortable,” “thrutchy,” or “awkward.” NOT FUN, that’s for sure! Conversely, when the holds are close together, big, and on less steep rock, the route usually gets rave reviews using terms like “flowy,” “aesthetic,” and “fun.” 

So I set out to fix what Porter screwed up 20 years ago by bolting a more flowy and aesthetic path up the wall. My “more fun” and superior version breaks left after the 3rd bolt of Still Life and engages a way better crux sequence through the tiered roofs. But wait, there is another reason that Still Life is terrible and his name is Joel Brady, the guy that eventually climbed Porter’s project.

Joel is a total degenerate that started slopping around at the New River Gorge back when hair bands were still in vogue. He made a name for himself by thrutching his way up hard routes like the 2nd ascent of Mango Tango and, of course, the first ascent of Still Life. It’s a miracle he was able to do it. His footwork is atrocious, but, somehow, he was able to get by with just muscley shoulders and temper tantrums. I guess Still Life does suit his style: aggressive, thrutchy, and ugly!

Click the image for a video montage of Joel demonstrating arrogance, poor footwork, and temper tantrums.

Joel and I have interacted on numerous occasions and if I had to label our relationship, I might say “arch rivals” or, more accurately, “mortal enemies.”

It was very important to me to complete my superior route, which in turn would immediately transform his route, Still Life, into an inferior, squeeze job, variation eliminate. I’m happy to say that I’ve achieved success!

I named my route Prohibition as a final blow to Joel. When asked why he named his route what he did, Joel responded, with the intellect of a third grader, “Durrr, it’s pretty like a painting.” Very clever mortal enemy, but little did I know that Joel was about to drop a double entendre on my ass. “Also,” he said, “the day I did it, I was a bit hungover.” Get it? Still….like where alcohol is made.

Well guess what Mr. Brady…I have bested you once again with an unprecedented TRIPLE ENTENDRE! Prepare to wallow in the depths of my esoteric grandeur.

1. Prohibition was a response to the “still life” that was ruining Americans, just like my route is a response to your trashy, irresponsible, reckless lifestyle and route.

2. If you are the type of person that is “prohibited” from reaching the chains of Still Life due to the reachy, thrutchy, and awkward cruxes… this route is a fun and pleasant alternative.

3. I “prohibited” all innocent and fun-loving teenagers, which included the Horst brothers and Kai Lightner, from getting on my route until I redpointed it. I used a proper red tag, the way the climbing Gods intended. Nothing spells humble like looking a kid in the eye and telling him to go bolt his own project!

I think the choice is clear.

Here’s a simple breakdown of my route vs. Joel’s route:

First three bolts: Same, same. It’s unfortunate to have to share with Joel but such is life. It would have been a far inferior sequence to try to force an independent start. The first three bolts of Still Life are, admittedly, Porter’s only decent contribution to climbing.

Exiting the undercling move: At the third bolt, you do a powerful and, unfortunately, “reachy” move off an undercling to reach a hold up and left. For Joel’s route, you immediately move back right. Whoa there Joel! What’s happening? I was going left, now I’m going right? What is this, a carnival ride? Don’t run for office Joel, you’re a flip flopper! He’s a flip flopper folks! And you’re skirting the issue Joel. It’s much easier to go right. Why are you always shying away from a challenge and taking the easy way out?

My route on the other hand flows so perfectly, you cross up and over to a good hold, clip, and engage a much harder sequence to snag a door jam-sized crimp followed by a wild dyno to a jug pocket. Two more moves on good holds and you get to a rest beneath the roof. It’s 13c to here, a notch harder than getting to the rest on Joel’s inferior version.

The Rest: The rest on my route is a tad better than the rest on Joel’s route. You get a nice shake with a good foot beneath. The rest on Joel’s route isn’t as pleasant. A high heel toe in the horizontal just below your hands. ACL damage anyone? Any takers?

Crux 1: The first roof crux on my route is a mirror image of the crux on Joel’s route. On Still Life, you reach off a pancake flake to an uncomfortable sloper (gag), get a heel and bust a hamstring trying to lurch up and over. Gross! On my route, you reach off a pancake flake with the opposite hand to a nice 1/3 pad sloping crimp with delicate texture that just begs to be beared down upon. Heel hook with the right leg and make beautiful precision bumps from an intermediate non-hold, to a gorgeous 3-finger shallow pocket intermediate, then a final stab for the door jam depth horizontal. The first crux of both routes are exactly the same difficulty whatever that is. V7 or 8?

Crux 2: This is the worst part of Still Life which is a funny thing to say since it’s all so bad! That’s like saying, “the worst part about being eaten alive by a pack of hyenas is…” It’s true though, the last crux of Still Life is just awful. I’ve never been able to do that section because the holds are pretty bad and far apart. Too reachy! But if I had to guess, it’s probably V8 or V9. No need for footwork up there, just arm power and grunting. If that’s what I wanted from climbing, I’d stay home and campus. Boring!

My route, on the other hand, is a nice flowy V6 dyno from a perfect sidepull plate in the roof, up and over to a nice jug. When you stick it, you’re just dangling there by one arm like Stallone on the front cover of Cliff Hanger. It’s so rad. All the bikini girl spectators bust into a frenzy of applause when you stick it.

Pretty much exactly how the last move goes on Prohibition.

Top out: Joel’s route is pretty much over. You do a couple of stupid moves and you’re at the anchor. On my route, you do a fairly rad lunge before scurrying up some close together jugs on low angle rock. Did someone say “aesthetic?” I intentionally placed my anchor a little higher that Joel’s anchor cause longer routes are better. It’s about 6 inches higher than Joel’s and you really have to stretch to make the clip but I think it’s totally worth it.

You make the call folks. Face hair and goofball climbing to the right? Or aesthetically pleasing handsomeness to the left. 

Prohibition is certainly ¾ of a notch easier than Still Life. I would say that if Still Life is 5.14b.5, then Prohibition is 5.14a.75. It’s also an absolute classic. 4 stars all day. The only thing that mars Prohibition is the inferior eliminate variation that breaks off at the third bolt. But now that you know which way to go when you get to the fork, just try to ignore all the overchalked and broken holds, glue, and garbage climbing that goes right.  

Here's Kai Lightner starting up his project Still Life. In all seriousness, Still Life is an incredibly difficult and beautiful route and Kai is all in on sending it. I got to spend the weekend climbing with Kai and Connie and they are some of my favorite people in the climbing world. Kai is such a boss! Watching him climb is incredible. He naturally floats on the rock, but this past weekend, just when you think he was going to hike to the chains, he'd unexpectedly drop from the last move. It was a heartbreaker for him but he handles himself so appropriately, internalizes it, analyzes what he can improve on, and tries again. He's kind of the opposite of Joel Brady. ;-) Thanks for letting the old man have his FA Kai!