The Magic Purple Cam

Posted on: January 7, 2008


November, 2006. Shawangunk Mountains, New York. Damn! The shiny Black Diamond cam slipped from my fingers. I watched as it sailed down, bounced off the cliff and disappeared into the leaves on the talus. I was nearly at the end of the second pitch of Beginner's Delight, one of those wonderful, easy climbs found only at the Gunks, and had been feeling pretty pleased with myself. I'd gotten up the first tricky (tricky 5.3, Bill?) jam crack, led the famed traverse, and had been trying to impress my long suffering belayer (daughter Karen) with my expertise in placing cams for protection (an art I had practiced exactly once before). Oops, I thought, now I'm looking stupid. She's going to be less than uber impressed with old Dad for dropping one of our brand new cams. "Oh, well," I told her, trying to recover a bit of lost dignity, "We'll just finish the climb and go back to the bottom and retrieve it."

We did finish the climb, but I couldn't find the cam. A guide who happened to be in the area helped me look, but with 8-10 inches of autumn leaves covering the steep talus, I was slipping and sliding all over the place. I decided to give up before I pushed the whole slope down onto the carriage road. The cam would cost $70 to replace, but a wonderful weekend climbing with my daughter in the Gunks was, as the credit card company says, priceless.

The following day, Karen stopped by the bulletin board at the Uberfall. "Dad, there's a note here. Someone says she found a cam at the base of a climb. It might be ours. There's an email address." Sure enough, some extraordinarily kind woman named Jean had found a cam and was offering to return it to the person who could identify it. Wow! I copied the address and shoved it in my wallet.

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I emailed this Jean person a few days later explaining that I had dropped a cam off Beginner's and asked if the cam she found had been near the base of that climb. It had been, but Jean did not seem to be one precipitously to return cams. Or perhaps she was becoming fond of the shiny piece of rock jewelry. Who could blame her? Finders are, after all, keepers. In any event, she needed more information to be sure the cam was really mine. What size/color was the cam I had dropped? Was it a C3 or C4? Was it the old style or the new? This, from my perspective, was a revolting development. Having just resumed climbing after a brief, 35-year hiatus, I knew my chromolly from my soft iron pitons, and could describe in detail the nightmare that was climbing on a Goldline laid rope. (It came pre-tangled. Can you say rope salad?) But all I knew about that cam I had dropped was that it cost $70 at EMS. I had forgotten its color, and had no idea of the differences between a C3 and c4, and between old and new styles.

My only option was to come clean. I wrote back and explained I was a refugee from climbing in the 1960s who had just started back in the sport a couple of months before at Karen's urging. I confessed that I had just bought the ill-fated cam at the little climbing shop right under the cliffs, but really knew nothing about it except that it was purple. (I had discovered the color by checking at the store to see which color I was missing.) Jean wrote back saying that she supposed the cam was mine and would send it to me. But she insisted that, if I were a famous Gunks climber from the '60s, she would have to get my autograph. I would love to have been able say, "Yes, I pretty much taught Jim McCarthy and Dick Williams how to climb." But honesty compelled me to admit that I had been at best a mediocre climber of no distinction whatever.

My purple cam came home to a joyous reunion a week or two later. But it had been preceded by a most surprising email. Jean wrote to say that she and her climbing partner Annie would like to meet and climb with me and Karen sometime. I'd like to think it was my honesty, my humility or perhaps the elegance of my writing that attracted their interest. But, more likely it was the father-daughter, two-generations climbing together motif.

In any event, Jean, Annie and I did meet and climb in the Gunks. Our first climb was Horseman; Jean led. We climbed Madame G's, and I got to lead a couple of pitches of Hawk. Jean led Ken's Crack. Annie got up it; I couldn't. So much for my ego. Jean taught me how to build an anchor using an equalette, and checked me out on placing cams. I learned more just watching them climb. They introduced me to their 9" climbing friend Tori, a climber-girl doll with her own little rope and tiny draws. I had a great time. Since then, we've climbed together in New Hampshire and the Gunks several times. They have this neat VW camper van and are both such great, fun people. I consider them good friends. Knowing them has enriched my climbing life.

I hope and think that Jean and Annie have also enjoyed knowing and climbing with me. Although, I would not be surprised to hear Jean say, perhaps with a twinkle in her eye, "I gave up a brand new Camalot and got in return what? The chance to climb with an old relic? What was I thinking when I posted that note on the Uberfall bulletin board?"



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