I finished furiously throwing gear onto my harness and threw it in a clump on the floor while I overfilled my small day pack with our double ropes. I looked at my phone to check the time (10:17 pm). It was getting late for how early we expected to start. I grabbed the gear and bounded up the steps to set it by the front door. Back in the kitchen, I sorted out my food and positioned my camelbak under the faucet. Waiting for it to fill, I glanced at the stove and checked the time (10:31 pm). What else could I do to save time while the camelbak filled? Before I came up with an answer, the bladder started to overflow. I hit the faucet, screwed down the lid of the bladder, and packed it in the bag with the ropes. I stood in the middle of the living room. What else was I forgetting? Headlamp! Shoes! Rain Jacket! Hopefully I wouldn’t need that last one, but I set about the house collecting those items, piling them on my gear stash. I clipped the last items to the side of the pack and took a look at my pile. Not the most organized I have ever been, but it would do.
When I was finally able to crawl into bed, I glanced at my phone one last time (11:22 pm). I set the alarm for 3:30 am, glad that my phone didn’t have the feature that showed me exactly how much sleep that was going to be. It wasn’t going to be a lot of sleep, but it would do. We had big objectives for the next day – the full Mount Tammany traverse.
My frantic pace and rush to bed was the result of a poorly planned day. Eight hours earlier, I hung from a cam lodged in the wall of Mount Tammany. Steve, 20 feet to my right, had me on belay and held me tight as I stretched my hands out into the blank rock further to the left. “Where do you think it was, Steve,” I called back to Steve as my hands traced over the closed seams of rock.
“I think it was lower,” Steve responded, pointing toward my feet. I scanned that area, looking for the remnants of the ancient Bugaboo piton that Steve had ripped out of the wall a few weeks previous.
“That’s not a great placement. I am going to try to get it in right up here,” I said holding a few pitons up to a seam that looked just about the right size. I set the Lost Arrow piton in the fissure and began pounding away with a carpentry hammer. Feeling like a gumby as opposed to a seasoned aid climber, I had some reservations as I drove steel into rock. Was it the right decision to replace this piton? Should we just have dealt with the new runout traverse? Was I even doing this right? I reminded myself of what happened last time we were up here and continued driving the piton further into the rock.
The piton bottomed out a few centimeters from the clipping point and refused to go any further. I clipped the piton and gave a few hard pulls with no movement noted. I breathed a sigh of relief and began my retreat back to the belay.
The last time we were there was the last clear day without torrential April rains, three weeks ago. That day Steve, Chris and I were mounting our first attempt at the Mount Tammany traverse. Mount Tammany is a streak of rock that juts out of the Delaware River. The cliff itself is between 200 and 300 feet tall, but the half mile long band of rock is tilted up from the river, at the left, all the way up to the summit of Mount Tammany, at the right. This tilted rock creates the goal – the traverse, approximately 2,500 feet of traversing over 1,000 feet of vertical rock climbing. The traverse is described in guide books as the Tammany Girdle Traverse. With very little description, the Girdle Traverse presumably blazes as direct a path as possible, which at times means climbing through uninspiring, and at times, overgrown terrain. Our idea was a variation of the Girdle Traverse. Instead of blazing the direct path, we would aim to pick the most inspiring line across the rock of Mount Tammany. The decision to seek out the inspiring line may add hours to our days, days to our attempts, and even years to our efforts.
In the guidebook description for the Tammany Girdle Traverse, the one hint of what previous ascensionists had done at the halfway point was spelled out – “temporarily descend enough to bypass the bleak, dark wall”. The “bleak, dark wall” held the crux of our inspiring line, a route called Spanning the Gap (5.10b). Spanning the Gap features a well protected vertical section and a roof traverse that relied on two aging pitons as the last means of protection before stepping down onto a slab belay. On that day three weeks ago, I watched as Chris powered through the overhang, clipped the pitons, and darted onto the slab. The last time we had attempted Spanning the Gap as a group of three, Steve had to clean it, and this time I figured I would take one for the team and go last. Cleaning this traverse proves to be very difficult and unnerving. If you come off after pulling that last piece of protection, the slab below welcomes a fall from the overhang onto its unforgiving face.
So this time Steve went first, following Chris’ tricky lead. Pumped before reaching the pitons, Steve was unsure of the route that would best avoid a brush with slab. Steve unclipped the first piton and stared into the blankest section of the traverse, only one piton between him and the belay. “Alright, I am going to give it a go. I might fall here,” Steve called to Chris before jabbing his right hand out toward the sloping hold in the distance. His right hand landed, and for a moment, it looked like he might stick the move. But then his left foot started to barn door and he began to peel from the rock. Steve had been through the drill before. He righted himself as he fell and squared up for impact on the slab, absorbing most of the shock with his legs. Right as he executed a perfect landing, the last piton sheared in half, the rope tension releasing Steve onto the face below. Steve rolled onto his back, then head as the remnants of the piton shot into space, still attached to the rope.
“Ooooof! What broke?!” Steve exclaimed as he came to a rest at Chris’ feet. As if by answer, the piton, still attached to the quickdraw, slid down the freshly frayed rope, coming to rest at Steve’s knot.
As Steve gathered himself and scrambled up to the belay with Chris, I swallowed hard and thought long and hard about taking a similar fall. Chris managed to traverse back out and place something a few feet away from the belay, while I stewed in my own thoughts about falls, slabs, frayed ropes and the 200 feet of air underneath us. “Is that gonna prevent that swing Chris?” I asked.
“It’s fine,” Chris responded with a mix of dismissal and cheer. Easy for you to say, you are at the belay, I thought as I set off on the pitch:
That day, three weeks ago, ended with us getting caught under a party climbing on easy terrain above, dropping some larger sized rocks in our general direction. After hiding under a roof, waiting out the missile attack, we set off on the next pitch frustrated over the delay. Perhaps it was the frustration, or maybe it was just bad luck, but we ended up at a veritable dead end. The next belay was stuck against a blank section of wall to the right and roof pitch above us. The roof pitch was our only option and it set us back far enough that we pulled the pin and topped out, walking back to the car as the sun set.
This time around, three weeks later, we were brimming with confidence , despite the fact that we would be arriving with only 4 hours of sleep. We knew that we had the first ⅔ of the route down, we knew we had a fresh piton to protect the crux, and we were getting a 2 hour head start from our previous attempt. We pulled into the trailhead parking lot at 4:30 am and set about racking up for the day. Right before leaving the car, I checked the radar one last time before getting on the wall. My heart sank. During the 30 minute drive to the trailhead, the radar had morphed from a clean shade of white to a looming red blob hurtling east toward Mount Tammany.
Chris, Steve, and I sat back in the car and discussed our options. The rain likely wouldn’t be gone until 10 am. It took some time to settle in, but it was clear; the traverse would have to wait for another day. If we had selected the easier, shorter path, I undoubtedly would have been upset by the weather standing as the only barrier to our presumed success. Instead, we have selected the hard way, the inspiring line. This line may wait for another day, another year even, but it will taste all the more sweet when we set out from our current high point with daylight and stoke to fuel us into the unknown pitches.
Authored by Andy Munas