Eulogy for Geoff begun December 29th, 2013
“Stand on your feet!”
My friend Geoff Farrar was a restless soul. He died yesterday from a (presumed) short fall suffered while bouldering on a sunny day in the heart of his own domain, at Carderock Park, on the banks of the Potomac River. He was 69. The painful duty and difficult task falls to me to try to portray him honestly; not because anyone asked me, or because I have any special status as his friend of perhaps 25 years; but just because I feel this obscure obligation, an impulse to give my view of his complicated life and personality; to explain to myself why he was important.
The ectomorph in action.
Putting aside philosophical blathering for the moment, I must explain the concept of bouldering briefly to the uninitiated, because without that, Geoff's driving energies will seem arbitrarily peculiar. Bouldering is the practice of climbing relatively short stretches of rock without roped protection. Above a certain undefined elevation, climbing without a rope is called free soloing and usually exacts a penalty of death for a fall, whereas bouldering almost never does. For many climbers bouldering is a pleasant pastime that conditions the body for more serious climbing, and an opportunity to hone pure climbing techniques. But for many others it is a consuming art form in its own right, and after the rise of John Gill and his ilk, it became recognized that there was far more subtlety inherent to the apparently simple act of climbing than had previously been realized. When I arrived at Carderock sometime in 1984 I had been lead climbing and bouldering for a couple of years and thought I knew something about it. I am a slow learner, though, and it took me a few more years to figure out just how little I really knew. I don't know when I actually started hanging around with Geoff; to me he seemed like a bizarre freak of nature, performing impossible little tricks with annoying ease. He was always willing to show me, or anyone else, just how he did it; but there is a huge gulf between seeing how it is done and being able to do it. And he had no concern for your feelings of inferiority; he just said, you can do it too; just stand up on your feet, keep your butt in, and believe. And once in a while we listened, learned and succeeded; but very few ever approached his level at Carderock.
This winter, after many struggles with arthritis and other problems, Geoff was in decent form, though not by his own standards; I was able to match him for the most part, and I'm ten years younger, though with physical problems of my own. A couple of weeks ago on a nice day we played lazily on the “Welcome to Carderock” patch, a tiny stretch of rock that has dozens of variations of one simple problem, some of them quite difficult indeed. I did a particular version that starts with one hand high and the other waist-high, and felt good because it had been beyond my abilities for a good while; Geoff then did the same version one-handed, first with the right hand, then with the left. He had a couple of abortive attempts due to the delicate nature of his knee joints, but he did them both clean. Ten years ago I used to do the right-hand version occasionally, but I doubt that I ever succeeded with the left. The man was unnaturally strong, you will say, if you are a boulderer and you go and try that move; but although that is true, the real skill was in his toes, for without a high degree of skillful footwork, the only way to do that move is to blast a one-handed fingertip pullup, no thumb, on a mild one-eighth-inch edge. Try that sometime.
Email to John Ely:
By now you know he's died. John, Chris and I were going to keep mum for a while out of respect for family feelings, but now it is public.
I don't know the details, really, and it hardly matters. He fell on the corner traverse near Cripples, and fell in an unlucky way. I grieve, but without regret, in a sense. He lived as well as he could; he achieved mastery of his craft, and he accepted risk and did not fear pain or death. For him to spend some declining years watching TV from a nursing home bed would have been hell. Some will disagree with me, but I think his was a fitting and properly traditional, heroic death for a man. Doing what he wanted to do, and being who he was to the end.
I grieved very differently for our young friend Jesse, who killed himself several years ago out of depression and uselessness. I felt a sharp sense of loss, of wasted life, and some guilt that I had not helped him, though I was not particularly close to him, and no one had real warning of his intent.
Yes, freakish - though Geoff had a long-term history of falling awkwardly, probably due to his confidence that some fairly thin and extended stance or foothold would work for him; his unwillingness to back down from difficulty or confrontation. Most climbers, when working on a very hard spot, have in the back of their mind the possibility of failure, and can often do a last-second bailout of some sort, so as not to land badly, or to grab some off-route hold. What he called his ethics, or integrity, enabled him to achieve more than most mortals, at the cost of more risk. And last year when he fell off the right-edge face of Beginner's Crack area and bounced off the tree trunk, etc., he said he was scared because he had no idea why he'd fallen. I said he should seriously back off and not push it, in general, and to a degree he did back off, but mostly just because of the arthritis.
I could easily have been killed one day many years ago at Carderock; bouldering alone on a very cold day, only maybe seven or eight feet up, about four feet left of Meenahan's, my foothold snapped off (an extreme rarity on the hard, well-polished schist of Carderock) and I pivoted outward and around, landing on my feet and with my hands in front of my face; in that position my face was only a few inches from a large blade of rock directly below. Numerous other possible fall configurations would have been very bad. I had no warning; it was pure luck, and not my time.
Copperheads rely on their camo, so they don't warn you. I came so close to stepping on this guy up behind the X one fall day.
On another occasion, also cold and alone, I fell from halfway up Buckets of Blood, the classic 20-foot overhanging arête said by some to be a V7; I got away with a mild ankle sprain. Falling there is relatively safe; but I never bouldered that one again, having already done it twice after many successes on toprope. And once out of hubris I decided to end my workout by soloing Spiderwalk, the standard 5.7 oblique crack climb, in my sneakers and wearing my small pack. The crack was damp and I fell from halfway up, landed on my feet and bounced up and over like a jack-in-the-box, landing on my head and arms, getting just a few bruises. This is a bad area to fall. And the only other fall I remember taking here was once when I was traversing Jan's Face with my feet about ten feet off the ground. I was talking to Geoff, joking around, and out of sheer carelessness I let my foot slip; I landed on my feet without any injury, just slightly shaken up. Not a bad record for some 29 years. My true stupidities were not falls, but highball solos I did too close to my limit: Herbie's Horror, Golden Staircase, Yellow Jacket, Swayback Layback. I don't call stupid many other solos I did, of comparable quality, because I knew I was master of those: Butterfly, Fingernails, the Guillotine, all the Sterling cracks, Impossible, etc. For an experienced boulderer there is a very sharp red line in one's head as to which climbs are safe for that individual to solo and which are not; the young and strong skate close to the line, sometimes crossing it to extend their sense of mastery; eventually there is a satiation, the sense of having proven enough to one's self, and a knowledge of the value of life and death, and the climber stops taking that level of risk. Occasionally the climber fails to learn these things; the hunger continues, and eventually he is killed, still pursuing that distant light. That is not what happened to Geoff. Believe me.
[another email written before the truth emerged]
On the 28th Geoff fell badly off the traverse near Cripples, hit his head on the rail tie, and later (8:00 pm) died in the hospital of massive head trauma. John Gregory found him, but apparently no one actually saw the fall except maybe Little Dave who took off. There aren't really any more salient details that I've heard; you'll find much comment and regret on Facebook. Paul Hess proposed that a few of us boulder tomorrow afternoon as an informal memorial. I've driving down from PA and won't be there before two.
Kind of knocks you back when suddenly someone with whom you've bouldered many hundreds of times in the past 25 years just suddenly isn't there any more. Though as I've commented already, we all knew he'd used up his allotted lives a long time ago and just seemed to have special immunity, which always runs out someday.
Proof that ghosts cannot be photographed; if they could, Geoff's would be seen here at "Welcome to Carderock".
Facebook comment by Clair Wright:
soloing and bouldering high above nasty rocks is all very nice, fun and cool and whatever until someone falls, breaks his/her skull and has to be found by another someone who will remember it for a long time (forever)...we owe it to the people around us to take a minimum of precautions.
Dear Clair: Bullshit.
January 1st, 2014
Carderock. T-shirt: Alligator Farm. Song of the day: Romeo is Bleeding.
We gathered to boulder and remember Geoff. Present were John Gregory, Chris Mrozowski, Drew Frye, Matt Kull, Paul Hess and family, Dave Nugent and family, Tony Lorenzo, Barry Forrest and some others, not well known to me. It was informally publicized, and I apologize to John Cubbison, Steve Tice, John Ely and anyone else who might feel left out. It was a beautiful sunny day in the high 40s; there were a few toproping teams as well. We did a few easy problems and talked of this and that. Curiously, when I was talking about my last session with Geoff and how he did the Welcome Problem one-handed, left and right, I managed to grunt up the high right-handed version – without use of the thumb, no less. I had not expected ever to be able to pull that one again. Was it because the rock was excellently dry and cool, hence sticky, and my right arm in good shape and well rested? Or should we perhaps sentimentally imagine Geoff's shade standing behind me, telling me to just believe, and press the shoe into the rock just so? At any rate, as I was bouldering a small rock appeared in my chalkbag, a favorite trick of Geoff's, and no one admitted to it – a graceful little joke for the occasion.
Youngest potential member.
John gave me the exact details of his horrendous find, as follows: he (John) was walking downriver past the Nubble Face when Dave DiPaolo ran around the corner toward him. John said “Hey -” and DiPaolo said nothing at all and kept running. John walked around the corner and found Geoff lying with his head against a rock and the railroad tie, directly below Cripples, his head horribly injured. His legs were stretched out towards the roots of the tree just downstream. At first John actually did not recognize him. No one had seen what had happened – except perhaps DiPaolo, who the police are currently trying to find.
We tried to construct some sort of scenario from the little we knew; and nothing popped up as any stronger than anything else. Had he been bouldering just above this spot and slipped, it seems unlikely that he would have fallen to that spot and with such severe head damage. But perhaps he was a bit higher up? Unlikely - there was no bouldering motivation to be higher right there. Odds are very low, though not zero, that he made some sort of mistake and just slipped. Perhaps he experienced a serious medical 'insult' and fell very badly as a result of being unconscious? Another possible scenario, not any stronger, is that DiPaolo ran at him from downriver and strongly shoved him down as he ran by, for whatever reason; he could have caught a heel on the tree root. And perhaps DiPaolo smashed him hard with an elbow, breaking his jaw and spinning him down onto the rock. That would only be feasible if the kid was on PCP; Geoff was bigger and stronger, though not faster. What would be the kid's motivation? He is a magically gifted climber, but otherwise has a very bad reputation, and generally appears addled. Geoff tried for years to turn him around, to no avail. Geoff might have represented to Dave all the condemnation for his monumental failure to become an adult, even though Geoff did not take a condemnatory approach, for all that he habitually needled all of us. But drugs sap our humanity; horrible things happen routinely. We can't make any judgment at this time. Trying to read the mind of Little Dave is a fool's errand.
Geoff is also missing from the no-hands slab.
Regardless, it is a sort of existential insult that Geoff is so suddenly dead in so benign a setting. He still had plenty of strength in his ridiculous hands and arms; he still knew every last inch of his terrain; he had survived so many dangers and injuries and unwarranted risks in the past that we all assumed that it would take some extreme effort on the part of the Fates to actually snip the thread on his life – perhaps some great natural disaster, or a rare and horrible wasting disease of the type that he often liked to think he was contracting. Maybe some bizarre mutant meld of Lyme, West Nile and leprosy that would finally erode his excessive vitality over a decade or two. That would have given us time to get used to the idea that he might be gone some day. As it is, we all stood around complaining about the suddenness and the lack of a satisfying explanation. We're stuck here in this hackneyed but unavoidable situation, forced to see that death is real – something we quite rightly ignore as much as possible so as to live reasonably well. Thoughtless persons in this situation sometimes blame the dead person for causing these unpleasant feelings; perhaps if we all just invariably took “a minimum of precautions” no bad things would ever happen, and if we all avoided all risk all the time, everything would be so ducky, except that we'd shoot ourselves for sheer boredom, thus negating the whole effort.
This group, like a fallen dolmen, shows nothing of the missing man.
It is customary in a eulogy to mention everything good that can be said about a person and pass over the bad in silence. Speaking ill of the dead feels petty or vindictive, and probably unlucky. A curse from the dead man might migrate through the living minds that knew him, somehow. All the same if I am to paint a portrait of Geoff it would be absurd to leave out his cantankerousness, his obstinacy, his outsized competitiveness, and the mean streak that could surface on unusual occasions if you were to seriously challenge his prejudices or political convictions, such as they were. Some found it hard or impossible to get past his challenging attitude and his habitual needling, but most of us could eventually see the underlying good nature that more and more seemed to be skinning over the scars of the young, abrasive tough guy who (I assume) had been raised in a very hard school so long ago. He had a tender spot for squirrels and chipmunks, such that they trusted him and would climb all over him to get the peanuts; but he'd kill a black snake or anything else that might threaten them, without hesitation. One year there was some evidence that someone in his neighborhood was abusing the squirrels, and I still believe that it's a damned good thing Geoff never found that person; although he didn't make his threats explicit, we could tell just from his attitude that there would have been some mayhem.
The Grey Eagle (or Vulture?) on his crag. Either way. best not to cross him.
I can make no claim to knowing Geoff in depth or detail; I knew him only from Carderock, really. On rare occasions I got him to go with me up the river to a few other cliffs on the Maryland side; we never did any lead climbing together, or ice climbing. Once I met him, probably twenty years ago, while riding my bike on the W&OD trail; he gave me a few riding pointers, of course, and went on. And of course, he was not wearing a helmet. We occasionally went out to lunch together – Wendy's, or a standard big diner, or a certain sub shop, until one day he was sure he'd gotten a bad sub there. I am alright as a trencherman, as they say, but he always ate twice what I did, and jealously guarded his mountain of fries, and enjoyed bickering over the tip. He had a large fund of stories of his younger days, but after his knees made it too tough to ride his bike, his life was centered even more strongly around Carderock; his claim of being there every day ending in 'y' was not too far off. His endless stories notwithstanding, he told me little about his family, education, work or personal feelings.
He wasn't fond of having his picture taken. He'd probably find this whole essay pretty annoying.
Carderock Park may seem to the casual visitor like a nondescript little set of cliffs, nicely wooded and set right up against a lazy little channel of the Potomac, with heavily used trails, a decrepit bathroom that is finally locked forever, it seems, and a motley crew of characters sort of hanging around, dabbing chalky fingers at the smooth, quirky schist faces, gabbing amongst themselves and occasionally appearing to climb a few feet up or sideways, then coming down and discussing the activity in minute detail. This is the tribe of boulderers, of which I might be called a dishonorary member, because I do a lot of other sorts of climbing as well, including toproping, which is an activity that is a little too much like work for the true boulderer. The toproper must bring ropes, anchor materials and a belayer of some sort, and he tries hard to knock off many listed climbs of the hardest ratings he can manage. Then he notes it down in his little guidebook. I'm one of those guys too. But the boulderer just drifts along in the afternoon, doing whatever takes his fancy; he sometimes works a particular problem until he is tired or his fingers are bleeding, and then Geoff comes along and shows him exactly what he is doing wrong. So he goes and does some easy no-handed balance problems for a while, or just sits on a log and kibbitzes the topropers. The park is beautiful at any time of year, if you visit it often enough to appreciate all the changes; there is idyllic peace available to anyone who lets his mind drift, disengaged from the ordinary machinery of life. Geoff was a constant human factor at the park; in subtle and not-so-subtle ways he regulated the flow of the place without intending to place his stamp on it (except with regard to his actual bouldering supremacy). If people threw things off the cliffs or into the river he would chide them; if dogs were undisciplined he would chide their owners; if topropers used unsafe belaying technique or really bad anchors he'd let them know – as would some of the other experienced tribesmen. He monitored crime in the parking lot and questionable practices by climbing-school classes. He would welcome every stranger with a grade-school joke, and demand to know why they hadn't brought climbing shoes. It was his domain, and he came by his cognomen of Carderock Geoff honestly. And now it is our domain; we must regulate the flow and protect the idyllic peace.
The Cripples Buttress in winter.
It is a little harder to describe to the non-climber the endless intricacy of the actual bouldering at Carderock. Suffice it to say that it is a maze and a mosaic whose mathematical potential for exercising the human craving for puzzle-solving is vastly disproportional to its size and appearance. In practical terms it is unlimited, because life is not long enough for anyone, even Geoff, to master every possible problem and variation. After bouldering there a few years and learning the basic sets of variations for the major problems, the boulderer is trapped and and cannot leave, but also is somewhat bored and begins to make up his own variations, some of which become popular, and are built upon by others. One might write a thousand-page guidebook with lots of pictures and diagrams and arrows; but this would take a huge chunk out of one's bouldering time and be absolutely useless; these things can only be shown in person, really.
Notice if you will the purely nominal bouldering pad.
January 13th 2014
Apparently now the mystery of the manner of his death is solved, and in the most horrible of the possible scenarios. DiPaolo has been arrested and charged with manslaughter; he has admitted to hitting Geoff with a claw hammer; he claims Geoff assaulted him by choking him, and that he “found” the hammer lying near him on the ground, and used it in self-defense.
Of course this claim is ridiculous. It is murder pure and simple, assuming that the actions of a drug-addled addict with almost no apparent inner life can rise to the level of deliberation and intent. I have no interest in establishing the legal definition of this crime, and not much more in trying to untangle the psychological causes of the event. My feeling of slight relief gained by the knowledge of how Geoff actually died is strongly offset, however, by my sadness for the fate of Little Dave. I'm no bleeding heart; but there is tragedy in the way this kid slowly was lost to us, and how despite the company of older climbers of good character, and Geoff's persistent efforts to somehow turn him around, he just failed to thrive, failed to grow up, and became a petty criminal. No bridge was established between us. He treated me with ordinary courtesy, and never showed a trace of arrogance with regard to his marvelous climbing ability; but we never had a conversation of any substance whatsoever. It became a staple of Carderock to greet a pal with the remark, “Saw Little Dave the other day.” Pal replies, “Oh yeah, how's he doing?” “Whacked out. Worse than before.” And we would agree that it was a damned shame but we had no clue what we could do to help him. And now he's gone – never to return to the little peaceable refuge here by the riverside. Even when or if he gets out of prison, his presence could not be tolerated here; to speak poetically, even the rocks would reject him. But I take for my guide here the line of the Old Man: Even if a man is not good, why should he be abandoned? I took this picture of Little Dave with his scruffy little dog Caesar. For a while, when he would bring Caesar down to the cliffs, we thought that perhaps if he could care for a dog, maybe he could care for himself.
I am an irregular diarist, but I found many excerpts, looking back, that help me round out my sense of Geoff, and give a fuller picture of Carderock. These are unedited except for the occasional excision of tedious irrelevancies. But don't worry, I left plenty of them in.
From the archives:
July 11th, 1998
Gary showed up unexpectedly about noon, in a good mood and wanting to do a quick climb, so he and Eamonn and I went down to Carderock with a toproping rig and Hannah's shoes. The first thing we saw was Geoff Farrar belaying some guy and talking with Angie, who looked very fit. We went over to Beginner Crack and put up our rope, and Eamonn swarmed up it with no real difficulty, no hesitation and no complaining - he did beautifully, and we told him so. After that he sat and whittled while we did the Diamond and several other versions of the easy face to the right of the crack. Geoff came by and razzed me for using a rope, and bouldered up next to me and past me as I was trying to do a version with no good holds worth mentioning, and he grabbed my feet and shook them unmercifully, and then stepped on my foot on his way up; it sounds like asshole behavior, but definitely was not, as everybody laughed, knowing we are friends.
January 15th, 2000
‘Little Dave’ and his father showed up and we had a nice jabber about glucosamine and all our terrible injuries and basically how god-damned old we are. The kid has soloed Serenity three times, and fallen from the top of the Spot; his father seems resigned, or unconcerned. He is from northern Italy, the Dolomites and so forth, and climbing is in his blood and the blood of his ancestors I would guess. At any rate I was not about to criticize, having kept my own life on certain occasions at Carderock merely through chance and not because I deserved to live. After I soloed Herbie’s Horror, onsight and without even an atom of prior knowledge, and entirely alone as well, I lost all right to tell other soloists what might or might not be sensible for them to attempt. From a ‘normal’ point of view this is simply a mental disorder; but I no longer subscribe to a ‘normal’ point of view, if I ever did.
May 29th, 2000
I forced myself this afternoon to go down and boulder after two days of cold, damp weather. As I walked in the sky was broken and dense, with the occasional fugitive gleam, and so was my spirit: I felt odd and shaky, and knew I should start very cautiously. After successfully traversing all the way from Golden Staircase to Trudie’s Terror, including not using the major hold on the first problem, and figuring out a traverse from the Block to Butterfly, which I can’t remember ever doing before, I suddenly felt much better, although I still didn’t plan to do anything high and hard. Walking towards Impossible, I was spied by Geoff and of course he had a marvelous new problem on the X for me, and we immediately fell into our usual relationship of master and student. But first he had to conclude a short lecture to a young couple on the proper method of making a toprope anchor. They were the only other people there, not counting a fisherman and his small son, and the guy had set up an anchor on a tree with a simple square knot, essentially; and he had much of his rope braided up in a daisy chain for some obscure reason. Apparently he had lots of free time but didn’t want to get any actual instruction.
A shadow falls across Merv's Nerve, Butterfly, Flutterby and Serenity Syndrome. No Geoff in picture. Strangeness.
March 1st, 2001
“These are the days of miracles and wonders,
this is a long-distance call.”
Fifty degrees, sunny, light breeze.
At one-thirty I walked down and sat to put on my shoes; all was quiet and peace. Young David shambled up and out like the resident specter; said he had just fallen, not seriously, but enough to make him want to go and do something else. An odd and perhaps tragic character: brilliant on the rock, always dressed in moderate gangsta, hair dark and utterly unkempt and uncombed, nearly natural dreadlock, with the unfocused thoughts and diction of a longtime doper; seemingly simple and mild, he has soloed Serenity Syndrome - more than once. This simple fact lays bare the immense complexity and inherent self-contradiction of the human being. [Not him in particular; I meant all of us.]
March 3rd, 2001
Sunny, 65 degrees.
The long-lost Gary Greenstein dropped by in the morning, and in the afternoon we went to Carderock for a workout. We did this and that on the Nubble face, got a bit warmed up; he has not climbed in many moons and didn’t do much, though still in excellent basic shape. Then we went over to 8-Ball so that I could confirm my triumph and show it off, and of course we met Geoff who gave us both the excellent tutorial on several fine problems and variations; I managed to repeat it after some floundering, and then we did all kinds of cool stuff on the wedge boulder and so forth. John Gregory and Tony Lorenzo were both there and we all chaffed around a bit which was fun; Tony is now one of the old regulars although he may not know it. My fingertips are hot; all part of the new strategy: boulder more, lift lighter, eat less, ride farther. For the elbow tweak Geoff recommends one aspirin with food every four hours for two weeks or so, and no extreme bouldering. I can do that; I can take aspirin on a schedule, but as for not bouldering hard, I’m sorry - it ain’t gonna happen.
March 28th, 2001
55º F., sunny and calm.
A leisurely exercise session from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m.; the place gorgeously deserted except for the laconic presence of Little Dave, who shambled up as I was downclimbing the easy jam crack next to Butterfly, and began traversing from Trudie’s leftward on the greasy-smooth rock. He seemed to casually ooze across the rock, a shapeless cloud of Rasta hair and brightly-colored rags; with no apparent effort crossing Fingernails, Merv’s, Butterfly, Serenity and Jackhammer. I tried to follow, knowing I could not, but I did do several of the moves. In my old Merrills nothing edges really well, as stiff as they are; I use them to save wear on my more favorite shoes.
May 14th 2001.
A cool day of intermittent sprinkling rain. Geoff and I arrived almost simultaneously, and we had the place entirely to ourselves for quite a while, and did a surprisingly large amount of good bouldering. At Whiplash we both did that, and Sex Dispenser, and Geoff did his signature mantels, and we did the corner traverse left to right, and the main traverse both ways, and the shoes were sticking well in spite of the high humidity. The rock and the wooden-beam wall both had numerous clinging dragonfly nymphs in the process of molting into their magnificent flying-machine forms, and we could see it happening right in front of us. Mosquitoes were also here and there, conveniently available to nourish the young predators. A party of four young men arrive to toprope.
After a couple of hours we went to leave, but Geoff insisted on taking me on a walk to find the Poison Hemlock, a bushy plant not related to the hemlock tree, that had been pointed out to him by a botanist. We never did definitively identify it, though we went down the canal a long ways and then back by way of the river trail, where the nettles are now fantastically lush and tall. The river is still rather high, but the day was cool and still; we looked for copperheads also but saw none. When we got back to the cliffs we critiqued the young mens' anchor, seeing it as our duty, and there was much jovial cameraderie as usual.
Nubble Face loitering; goofing off deluxe.
November 13th, 2001
Curious, when reading over my Carderock diary - I always encounter the same few people, no matter what day of the week it is; one or more of the usual Carderock ghosts: Geoff, Matt, Tony, Little Dave. Perhaps I tend not to write down those occasions when I saw no one, or no one familiar; certainly there have been plenty of such sessions. But perhaps I’m a member of a granfalloon, or whatever Vonnegut called his linked groups of people - a small group of ghosts that haunt this beautiful rock and know and love every wrinkle, crack and smudge.
Pay attention. It's right here.
December 2nd, 2001
55º F., partly cloudy
My first visit to Carderock driving the Beige Whale, successor to the beloved Shelly Winters. As I parked and got out of the car a cop car drifted by, and Geoff walked past, saying, sorry, they’ve banned old guys from climbing here, and went over to talk to the cop. I went on down and did a few easy routes, felt a bit shaky on Triple-A crack start version, managed to traverse right from Serenity to the base of the easy crack - very tricky... Then I ran into Geoff again and he put me through my paces at Jan’s Face. Did a very nice start to the Flake on the first try: do not use the right layback hold or the little quartz nubbin for the right foot; instead use a very small face hold for the right hand; other holds as usual. Actually feels more positive than the standard method, to me - provided one can actually cling to these minuscule holds at all. Then we hung around the X and did a lot of crazy stuff with a younger guy, excellent boulderer; got an excellent workout, actually sweating in my thin red fleece shirt; finally down at the Nubble Face we did one or two ridiculous items, which I could not complete, and I called it a day and went back home to watch the Redskins lose. Marvelous stuff, but as Geoff said, it becomes impossible to remember how all the variations go.
March 21st, 2002
At Carderock a class of kids was toproping and rappelling; relatively well-behaved twelve-year-olds, competently instructed and supervised. Feeling a bit old I did this and that, none too elegantly, and then saw Geoff with his pad, and we had an amusing bouldering session, showing off for the kids. The kids were astounded that we would casually solo stuff that they could not even start, and luckily the instructor, known to Geoff, was not the kind of guy to let it bother him. After we’d answered about fifty questions the class left, and we did a few more thin, nasty moves on the X, to complete the stripping of last month’s skin layer from my tips. Finally Geoff and I just talked about biking for quite a while; I had not realized that he had given it up altogether eight or nine years ago due to bad knees. Apparently biking at a noncompetitive level would not be acceptable to him, and so he does nothing particularly aerobic; but he is the classic ectomorph and will never gain any weight to speak of. I’ve known him seventeen years now, and only now do I see his age advancing on him, though he climbs his problems, still, in a realm beyond most mortals; his black hair is all gone grey, his hands mottled and old-looking, and his manner somewhat more subdued and mature than it once was, though he still lets fly with his good-natured jibes on a regular basis. And he still teaches me how to climb, with an astounding head for sequential memory; and I am still the lazy, self-indulgent student who only sometimes succeeds, by grunting loudly and trying too hard.
Beginner's Crack and Face, Fall 2013
November 21st, 2003
The day was sunny and mid-60s; impossible to improve upon. Got to the rocks at 3:00; everything from Incipient on down was under water. Did Spiderwalk in easiest style, and met up with Geoff, who was talking to a young attractive female boulderer, and he then went back to his car and got his pads and shoes; he said he’d worn out his fingertips the previous day, and nearly fallen on the wall above the X. He showed me a very pretty problem on that wall... We showed off just a bit for the girl, and talked of this and that - mostly our scars and injuries. Finally walked out, talked to a young guy fooling with the block at the far left end, the horrid little overhang I’ve never done, and of course Geoff had many stories of the various ways it had been done and how we should do it right here and now; I went up and fiddled a moment with it, and we left laughing. He then drove me to the beginning of Military Road and I rode on home, stopping only to photograph a really wonderful green and yellow sunset. His rotten old truck was littered with various items, and we both indulged from a bag of Peppermint Patties on the seat. He drove fast but safely, without wearing his seat belt; perhaps an oversight, or perhaps exactly what one would expect from a character like him.
December 8th, 2004
A miraculous sunny Wednesday in the 60s; drove down at 2pm with the Mythos and T-shirt (Access Fund, ‘Only Climbing’). Geoff was just leaving, since there was no one there and he had torn the bandaid off his thumb that had been sliced by a squirrel’s incisor, as neatly as if he’d chopped it cutting onions; he might have had a hint of lonely child about him, but he turned right around and we spent two hours on the X as usual, me bouldering alone for the first hour, and then he joined me and did things I can’t do, ever, without using his thumb. It was an excellent workout, like power yoga, one might say, and a honing of technique as well; more than once I did something that he had shown me, and had said was reasonable, and I had said would never go for me. But of course it did. After three or four misses I did the very subtle crossover from the low boulder to the face, using nothing right of the main middle palm hold, etc.; the step-across requires a sinuous, smooth motion of the body, with the head gliding close to the rock and the left toe going with uncanny accuracy to the top of a microscopic vertical arete. From there I did the low traverse although with non-approved holds here and there, prompting Geoff to decree that I’d have to stick to the kiddie pool unless I got a note from my Mom. I also made a couple of fairly good attempts on ‘my’ problem near the Diamond, landing on his doubled pad. Still no success on the last move, although I thought at first I had badly twanged a tendon in my right palm. Also did and attempted several of the mid-level (which is to say, generally torturous) problems in the amazingly fertile field of the right end of the X. Thinking of making a mockumentary of bouldering at Carderock - could be hilarious and fun also.
February 7th, 2006
Now I am Geoff’s regular workout partner, and as always, his aging protégé. This Tuesday was about 45 degrees and clear, with a breeze here and there; Geoff was creaky but succeeded on some amazing things. There is really no limit to the number of combinations that can be formed from the lower right quadrant of the X. I did the very ethereal step-up in the middle, very rare for me; I switched the two fingertips of my right hand on the tiny flake to a vertical, down-facing fingernail push in order to stabilize the last step, and it worked. Geoff showed me again the left-to-right palming traverse, which I should do more often, for it is simple and very beautiful. I find it more and more saddening that so many evanescent and glorious problems will vanish in the mist one day, like the endless arguments of aging philosophers, spun out for decades in the courtyard of the king of chaos. Later boulderers may tell stories of them, may repeat a few of them, but the glory of the X will fade away. Sic transit Gloria Mundi!
When we were about to leave Geoff went to sit on his pad, and his knee gave way, and he collapsed in silent agony on the pad. He is on steroids, and should not be subjecting his softened tendons and ligaments to such strains; he claims to be using even greater care than usual, protecting his joints, but on a good day he leaves me far behind as usual, and it can’t be good for him. But we are climbers, and we don’t tell each other where to draw the line; each of us draws it for himself.
At the end of the path there is the start to Mad Dog and Trudy's Terror.
December 9th, 2006
Weak sun, 45 degrees. Geoff, I and another are soloing the face right of Beginner's:
Geoff, to the other: Don’t step on my head.
Other: Hell, it’s the best foothold at Carderock.
Me: At least it’s the hardest.
Jolly times. Managed to wheedle chalk out of Geoff (small amount.) Apparently he thought Hunt once abused the privilege, and Geoff became then reluctant forevermore to lend chalk. So I chaffed him about his niggardly ways.
December 10th, 2006
Sunny, about 60 degrees.
A terrific toproping session. I put the rope on Impossible/Buckets of Blood. At first I felt weak and was unable to do the crux to Impossible, while Chris did it (layback version). But then we worked out the start to Buckets and I got it after two attempts, with some karate kiyi yelling and several desperate deadpoint moves in quick succession; a skill I still need to strengthen is doing the needful without delay: take a bead and pull the trigger, without any meditation or doubt. Do it now.
Geoff then showed up and gave me a Christmas present: a block of chalk! I accepted it with gratitude and laughter.
January 26th , 2007
On Thursday night we had Arctic air masses sweeping siftings of snow quickly, fitfully, all the way from the Great Lakes. I stood on the front lawn and saluted the Hunter, riding high and clear in the furious, invisible winds, and his eternally faithful Dog.
Around noon Friday Geoff and I drove to the Virginia side and parked down by the creek, as we were surprised to find a ranger at the gate. Hiked in the back way in cold brown woods, open and sunlit; spooked a trio of whitetails not far from the river, they bounding off at a leisurely pace. He said he had not been in the park in about eight years. We hiked to the Microdome, and found little of interest: a tangle of flood-wrack at the Elephant’s Head, and very little ice anywhere. At the Fish-ladder face, a very sheltered alcove, we found two small flows, and I bouldered the right-hand one, on the flat slope, very quickly and easily. A long walk for very little climbing, but something had to be done, to assert that winter still exists here in Virginia.
December 6th, 2009
Carderock, with Geoff, Chris and Todd. Temps in the 40s, weak sunlight.
Todd Bradley shadow-dancing on the X.
The day before the snow came down thick and wet, several slushy inches of it, and froze up by morning. The oak leaf hydrangea in our back yard took the honors for Final Glory of Fall Foliage. I called Geoff around eleven and we agreed to meet at one at Carderock for a walk if nothing else. The sun was bright and the roads clear, pale with salt here and there. I took shoes and chalk just in case; when I got there Geoff was sure that bouldering would not be feasible and left his shoes and bouldering pad in his truck.
But: Lo and Behold! The rocks were dry, and the X was sufficiently warm that I took my outer jacket and hat off, and bouldered carefully, walking on my heels whenever I had to cross the soaking leaves at the base. After a little warmup, with my shoulder creaking and twanging, I began to stick to the rock remarkably well, and did some standard problems that I found hard or impossible in the summer, when I was lighter and probably stronger.
Presently Todd showed up with his bouldering pad and we began to play with a few of the infinite variations of the X, with Geoff coaching and kibitzing and hectoring as always. He has a bruised heel which has been bothering him for a few weeks, and hence had no interest in walking back to his car and getting his shoes. I started playing with some oddball uses of various footholds, testing my limits; I could not finish my own signature layback/high pinch problem, but the old Kaukulators were sticking like glue to everything. When Chris finally arrived I had just worked out a new, cute little problem and was trying to complete it. It is a fairly typical problem involving two large but smooth handholds, walking up on three fairly microscopic footholds, one of them a mere smear (like the Elephant's Nose before it was stretched, let us say), and in the midst of that 'walking' turning the right hand inward and manteling on the outer half of the palm, reaching high with the left hand to a sharp, small but good hold and placing the left toe on the mantel hold and standing up. Geoff got interested, and was sure he could do it, so much so that he borrowed Todd's shoes. As he was putting them on I went for a final attempt at the Prime Version of it, in which the second foothold consists of a sharp little knob about the size and shape of a broken half of a peanut, flat end up. I wanted to complete it before Geoff could snatch the first ascent from my grasp, and to my surprise I got it, and the proper sequence, somewhat intricate, solidified in my brain.
Old, tubby Rockwell imposter working the Peanut.
Geoff then tried it and immediately, at the first step, his heel hurt him enough that he sat back down and took the shoes off. Then Chris and Todd went after it for a while, with Todd eventually getting it, and he marveled at the way something so apparently impossible could turn so possible. Feeling good, I did it twice more with good style, and Todd filmed the Historic Third Ascent (or was it the fourth, technically?) with his phone. We then dubbed it Peanut Butter. Not a mega-classic, but a useful little problem with some subtlety to it, and certainly not as hard as Sex Dispenser, for example.
We were the only climbers in the place. A few casual walkers drifted past with dogs, and every so often small bits of hardened snow would fall from the trees and land on our faces or go down our shirt collars. The sun gradually faded down into haze and trees, and the cold came in and gripped us, and we all went home. A beautiful and surprising Carderock session so late in the year.
(end of diary excerpts)
If the weather was nasty enough, Geoff enjoyed challenging us to a 'walk', in which we would go up or down the river on the icy, muddy trails as fast as we could stand, trying to keep up with him as he jogged along in his sneakers. Since my legs are much shorter and my knees basically shot long ago, I quickly gave up actually trying to keep up. Only in the last few years did his legs let him down on this kind of trek, and we hiked at a more reasonable pace.
Farrar, Cubbison, Mrozowski on a very cold day.
In the last couple of days my mood, and I think the mood of many of us, has shifted away from the melancholy that resembles that which one might feel when a fine gnarly old-but-healthy tree that one has known most of one's life falls over in a storm, and towards the sort of helpless anger that one feels when that tree is senselessly cut down by some kind of simpleton, malevolent or otherwise.
“A creature in its prime doing harm to the old
Is known as going against the way.
That which goes against the way will come to an early end.”
Tao te Ching, XXX, D.C. Lau translation
If one believes in an afterlife (and I do not) it is usual to hope that people get the afterlife they deserve. It is pleasant to imagine Geoff idling his soul at an idealized Carderock, amongst an endless variety of creative possibilities on the infinitely subtle rocks, and boon companions to joke around with; and he should be properly supplied with many old climbing shoes and his little worn-out pickup truck, which he had fully amortized decades ago, and was almost a ghost itself. I think the only afterlife is the memory of the person, held in the minds of those who knew him – and that is why I'm making this compilation, modest as it is. Memories fade and wear down, piling up like beachglass as the tide goes in and out year after year; but they don't make a meaningless tangle; we can sometimes mentally stand back, and suddenly there emerges an unmistakeable portrait, real and true, connecting the past to the present, from that chaotic pile of images. People and trees die and disappear, but nothing is wasted; except perhaps at times when a person throws his own humanity away with an evil, irreversible action.
“The great earth burdens me with a body,
causes me to toil in life,
eases me in old age,
and rests me in death.
That which makes my life good,
makes my death good also.”