“Christmas Waterfall” by Jonathan Hogue
The morning reaps crystal clear skies. The atmosphere is filled with orange and red tints as far as the eye can see, colors rich enough to satisfy the most insatiable appetite of an artist. The weather is uncharacteristically temperate for an island off the coast of Maine during this time of year, but we’re elated to have the opportunity to seek pursuits of the vertical kind on Christmas Day. Typically weather in this part of the country allows climbing with an ice-axe and crampons, not climbing shoes.
My partner and I (at the time), are hell-bent on being as active as possible for the holiday, so before climbing we start the morning off with a run. A quick 5 mile “fun-run” dissolves into a hardcore 15 mile training session. When we started we felt tired and slow-to-motion but with each step and the perfect climate our rigid gates slowly opened, and soon we’re flying next to coastal blue waters fueled on adrenaline and sunshine. Our energy feels endless so we keep going, anxious to experience a fully active holiday.
Stride after stride we keep pushing our mile times down and before we know it we’re standing in front of our small island cottage finished and panting. After our morning jaunt it’s time to prep gear and go climbing before retreating inside to exchange presents and cook Christmas dinner together.
“Are you sure we should do this babe?”
“Of course,” I muse. “It’s only 3 pitches and we’ll be back before sundown with plenty of time to cook dinner. No worries.”
“Okay,” she says. “If you say so.”
Hurriedly I pack the rack sending cams and passive pro flying into my backpack as if it were a race. My girlfriend had never been on a multi-pitch climb before so I wanted to show her a good time. The guidebook suggests this is an “ultra-classic-line” but requires, “route finding skills,” and is, quote, “sandbagged.”
How hard could it be with a rating of 5.7?
We load the car and drive towards South Bubble in Acadia National Park, a mere hop and skip from the house. It’s only around 10 minutes’ drive from our island home (talk about convenient). We motor into the parking lot and discover the access road to the climbing area is closed for winter. We’ll have to walk several miles to reach it. “Well this sucks,” I suggest. “Had we known we were going to have to walk to the cliff-span we probably could have skipped the run this morning.”
“We can still go home and raid the fridge at home and relax,” my partner offers. “It’s not too late to be lazy, ya know? And, we already ran this morning.”
“Tempting sweetie but we already packed and drove here. It’d be a shame to back out now and it’s only a couple more miles,” I say as I grab our packs, helmets and climbing rope.
“Man, we couldn’t ask for a more beautiful day.”
“I agree. I’m definitely feeling the run though. Why did we do 15 miles knowing we were going climbing afterwards? My legs are so freakin’ sore!”
“I don’t know. We’re ridiculous sometimes.” We start walking up the hill, a workout by anyone’s standards. After an hour long hike to the cliff-span we finally arrive. I’ve already sweat through my clothes and am out of breath and searching for air. “Man that sucked! I’m tired I think.”
“Me too darling. Me too.”
“Let’s rack up and do this thing. We can still make it home before dark if we hurry.” 20 minutes later (after racking up), which of course took forever, I find myself on the first pitch moving upwards after kissing my partner, a ritual of ours before climbing. In the following 100 feet of climbing I place maybe 3 pieces in an attempt to be efficient. Not to mention it’s hardly fifth class terrain; “safe climbing.” The beauty of Moraviana, (the route), is the final pitch. It’s an overhanging behemoth that feels super exposed because it hangs out over the previous two pitches of slab it takes to ascend to the overhanging third pitch. It features a vertical crack from heaven; a perfect splitter with full hands and a view of the Atlantic Ocean in all directions.
It’s no wonder it’s such a classic line!
The second pitch goes as smoothly as the first and soon my partner reaches the second belay with our rack. Her eyes are wide with terror, aka the perfect first multi-pitch experience. We’re around 200 feet off the ground and the trees start looking like little pieces of broccoli from this height. It’s fantastic, but I can tell she’s feeling the exposure.
“So you’re really going up there babe,” she asks?
“Yeah, it’ll be fine sweetie, the rock is perfect today.”
The sun was fading fast and in the back of my mind I knew we were running out of daylight. I was attempting to keep morale high after noticing the fear in her eyes, but the reality was I was definitely feeling nervous. The conditions were getting worse the further up we ascended. As the leader I wanted to appear calm and collected despite the running water that was accumulating around us. My gf passes me collected pieces of gear at the belay and I almost consider rapping, but instead I instinctively prep for the final pitch. I re-rack and look at my partner. “Alright, I love you honey,” I say.
“I love you too, be safe. One more pitch to go!”
And I’m off. I climb the final slab quickly and when I arrive to the overhanging crack, stopping briefly at the bottom to place a small stopper before pulling onto the final thrilling pitch, my gaze is met with terror. The final crack is running serious streams of water and inside are riblets of ice and snow mixed with mud. It’s an abomination!
How in the hell is this pitch so disgusting, I say to myself. This is gonna get nasty! Shit! I knew we should have rapped and gone home! We could be cuddled up right now and eating a holiday feast. Shit!
I hesitate for a good 15 minutes before pulling onto the final 50 feet. It was impossible to tell from the ground that this thing would be saturated with running water and ice; the weather had been perfect. The two prior pitches had running water from time-to-time causing me to have to climb around it occasionally, but it was at least manageable. This last pitch is awful. It looks like a pitch on Fitzroy versus Acadia National Park.
This is crazy. My God, protect me.
There’s no way off the climb without leaving shit loads of gear. I have to commit to going upwards. Down climbing is out of the question and there’s no protection to rap off of. I have to keep moving upwards. I pull off the ground with a finger lock that feels extremely precarious. It’s as though my hand is going to pop out of the crack and smack me in the face but still, I pull upwards, sending a hellish scream into the air and standing on little nothings with wet and muddy climbing shoes. My partner can sense the fear and yells up to me, “Come on babe, you’ve got this. Send it. Focus.”
I’m shaking wildly. Fearful thoughts come swimming into my head.
This is it. This is how I’m going to die.
How in the hell did I get into this position; I don’t even like climbing.
I somehow manage the strength to keep moving. The mental aptitude for climbers to stay focused is what keeps us safe, and I know being committed will get me through to the top, but I’m gripped to the bone. It’s obvious I went off course and am no longer on 5.7-5.8 territory. I must have wandered off into the 5.10 territory out left. This feels WAY harder than the proposed grade in the guidebook.
I place a .5 purple piece that looks like it’ll pop if I fall on it but I can see the top of the route is 15 feet above my stance. I hesitate for a long time above the small steel piece, unsure of what to do. I walk through and jam and twist my shoe into the crack with the sun already setting behind Beech Mountain, but it slips downwards when I try to weight it. With every move upward comes immediate resistance as my hands and feet slip deeper into the crack, any progress being lost as I try to move up higher into the crack system.
A few more committing moves and I’ll be done with this monster.
One inch at a time I slowly make my way up to the top to find a hidden jug that feels like sweet relief as I pull my weight up over the top to the final belay ledge and fourth class terrain leading safely back to the parking area. Standing on top of the climb and peering over the edge I let out a scream for my girlfriend. “I’m safe. I made it babe! Thank God!”
I build a belay in the dark and bring up my second. When she gets to the top she hugs and kisses me deeply, saying, “I thought that was going to be it for us. I thought you weren’t going to make it.”
The walk out in the dark was awful. Neither of us brought headlamps. We simply didn’t think we’d need them. It seems to take forever as we stumble over rocks and trip in the dark on our way back to the car, desperately seeking the trail with our eyes as we stumble through the woods. Both of us feel hypothermic and are seriously worried about the exposure we’ve been faced with. By the time we get to the car we’re completely wrecked and it’s late, 9pm. Our clothes are covered in mud and soaked through and our hands struggle to open and close the car doors. We’re uncomfortable at best; tired, sore, but at least thankful to be alive and together.
We make the drive home in the dark. When we arrive home we head straight up the stairs and walk through the door of our house, only to collapse to the floor in piles, grabbing blankets and staring into each other’s eyes as we melt downwards. We are both thankful. We’re lucky to be alive. It’s the greatest Christmas present we could ever imagine.
We spent the night together there on the living room floor piling blankets around us after showering and cleaning up, cuddling and never taking our eyes off one another, even for a moment. We feel more alive now than ever and talk until the early morning hours the following day.
Life is truly beautiful!
Words and events by: Jonathan Hogue