Saturday, November 18, 2017

Red Rain

(Photo: That's me on The Fury (5.11c) at Bibliothek, Muir Valley.)

It is an annual tradition: the autumn climbing trip. 

Every fall, I break away from the family for a long weekend and I climb for a few days in a row.

This year I decided to join my friend Gail in the Red River Gorge. For several years, she has spent a chunk of October there. This year, she planned to be in the Red for an entire week. I couldn't imagine taking a whole week away, but Gail was happy to allow me to join in for just three or four days. I would have ready partners in Gail, her son Max, and also Nancy, a friend of Gail's with whom I have climbed in the Gunks on a few occasions. Nancy (like me) was planning to spend just a few days in the Red, so we were natural partners for the trip.

This was to be my second visit to the area. When I last visited the Red, in 2014, I didn't exactly fall in love with the place. At the time, I wasn't a sport climber. I had no real interest in becoming one. My longtime partner Adrian was there with me and, since he is a traddie like me, we spent two of our four days in the Red at trad crags climbing (wonderful) moderates. We didn't avoid clipping bolts entirely, of course, but in our short time in the Red we didn't get that strong a sense of what the area has to offer.

That was a long time ago. In the three years since I first visited the Red, I've become much more open-minded towards the sport-climbing lifestyle. A fun trip to the New River Gorge with my partner Andy in 2016 made me look at clipping bolts in a new light. I felt inspired by the sport routes in the New, and challenged in a way that made me realize that if I spent some more time sport climbing I might improve as an all-around climber. I started to think that if I returned to the Red now, I might get a lot more out of the experience.

So I conceived of my latest trip to the Red in 2017 as a pure sport-climbing mission. 

I had one goal in mind: I wanted to send a 5.12. I had no idea whether this would be within my abilities. But it seemed to me that I might have a shot at it.

All of my friends from the gym spend their weekends sport climbing at Rumney. In the gym I hear them talk all the time about the 5.12's they are doing. I think of these people as my peers. If they can do it, I should be able to do it, I reckon. By the transitive property of climbing, I ought to be able to send 5.12 sport routes too. 

Even though it isn't the kind of thing I ever do. 

So what if I don't go to Rumney every weekend? So what if I've never sent a 5.12 outside?

I've never really tried.   

Maybe if I put some effort into it, I too could climb 5.12. And then I too could talk in the gym about the 5.12's I'm doing.

I hoped that in the Red I could find an appropriate (i.e., soft) 5.12, and maybe over the course of a day (or two?) I could get close to a send, after a few tries.

So I started poring over the RRG guidebooks looking for likely candidates. And I ran into a problem: I kept noticing fabulous-looking trad lines. Every sport crag at the Red seemed to have at least a few.

How could I pass by these wonderful climbs?

I couldn't. I am too much of a trad guy at heart.

I knew that Nancy had similar feelings. (She has taken several trips to the New in which she has only climbed trad!) So when Nancy and I talked about the upcoming trip, we decided without much debate that we were bringing the trad rack.

As our time in the Red approached, the forecast got more and more unfavorable. I was hoping for typical October weather: chilly mornings and sending temps throughout the day. I wouldn't have complained about a little rain, since in the Red there are crags that stay dry in light rain. But we were looking at more than a little light rain; it was going to come down hard, for several days in a row. And the temperatures were going to be hot, in the mid-eighties! It was hard to imagine worse conditions.

At least our first day was scheduled to be dry. Nancy and I tried to make the most of it. Gail and Max had already been in the Red for a day by the time we arrived, and they were staying for a whole week. They could afford to wait out the bad weather. Nancy and I, on the other hand, had no time to waste, so we headed out early on our first day to try to accomplish as much as we possibly could.

We went to the Roadside crag. It looked like a stellar destination to me, with great stuff for tradsters and bolt sniffers alike. 

Nancy and I warmed up at the 5.10 Wall, where several 5.10 sport climbs sit all in a row, one after another. We did two of them, enjoying ourselves, feeling good. 

(Photo: Nancy is leading A.W.O.L. (5.10a) at Roadside Crag.)

These climbs were nice enough, but the entire time we were there I couldn't stop staring at the nearby trad route Synchronicty (5.11a), a leaning, overhanging finger/hand crack that just begs to be climbed, right in the middle of the wall.

I couldn't wait to give Synchronicity a try. And once I hopped on it, it did not disappoint. The crux section of this climb comes right away. The climbing is both technical and very steep. It isn't too far to the jug at which things start to ease off, but it is tense the entire way up to that point. 

Unfortunately for me, I didn't get it clean. I got a little flummoxed after a few moves, at which point I threw in a panic piece and took a hang. Then I worked out the move and went straight to the jug. 

(Photo: Nancy following my lead of Synchronicity (5.11a) at Roadside Crag. She has almost reached the jug.)

Having done it once, I'm sure I could get the send on Synchronicity if I ever make it back to Roadside. I think Nancy sent it as the follower, if I recall correctly. Even though I didn't get the on-sight I was happy that I'd had no hesitation about jumping on a trad 5.11 at an unfamiliar area.

By now it was already pretty warm and I knew that if I wanted to try a 5.12 there was no time to waste. We were supposed to be sport climbing, weren't we? We turned our attention to Ro Shampo (5.12a), a very popular sport route, considered soft for its grade. I decided to attempt the lead.

Looking at Ro Shampo from the ground, it didn't look so bad. But once I got on the wall, it became clear very quickly that this route is radically overhanging. Most of the holds are jugs but it is a challenge just to hold on through the steepness, especially at the tricky crux, where you make a big move into a hueco at the mid-point of the climb.

(Photo: That's me, setting up for the crux on Ro Shampo (5.12a) at Roadside Crag.)

Once again, I failed to get the send. I couldn't decipher the crux right away and had to work at it, trying it from a couple of different angles, and taking a few hangs, before I made it through. As with Synchronicity, however, now that I've done the route, I think if I went back (especially on a cooler day!) I might have a fighting chance at the send if I stick the move on my first try. After the one move it is all about hanging on.

(Photo: Nancy on Ro Shampo (5.12a) at Roadside Crag.)

After Nancy went at Ro Shampo on TR we were both kind of pooped so Nancy led us up a beautiful, ultra-classic 5.7 hand crack called Roadside Attraction. The crack starts out at a very low angle, but after you jam up to the first ledge the crack continues, with more great jamming in much steeper territory. This impeccable pitch has gear available literally everywhere, but I would advise you to bring as many gold and blue Camalots as you own and to save some for the second half of the pitch. You will definitely find a place to use whatever you have.

(Photo: Nancy on Roadside Attraction (5.7) at Roadside Crag.)

The day was starting to slip away from us and I had one more big pitch in mind for us, a sport climb called The Return of Chris Snyder (5.11d). My frequent partner (and RRG expert) Andy had told me this was one of his favorites.

The pitch ascends a technical, shallow dihedral and then embarks up a steeply overhanging, honeycombed rock face. I've come to think of this type of face climbing as the trademark style of the Red (though of course the Red contains many different styles of climbing).

(Photo: I'm looking for holds in all the wrong places on The Return of Chris Snyder (5.11d) at Roadside Crag.)

There was a party already on Chris Snyder when we walked over to it, and we watched as the leader attempted (and failed) to get the redpoint. The climbing didn't look too bad to me. I thought that maybe I could get the send on this one, if I just moved quickly and held on. But then when I got my shot at it, I wasn't even close! I found out pretty quickly that I wasn't used to this style of climbing. The rock has wonderful holds, once you find them. But I was looking in the wrong places. Often features that appeared to be jugs were actually slopers, and while I was foolishly pawing at the sucker slopers, I was overlooking great sidepulls and underclings. And the climbing was so steep that every time I made the wrong choice I would find my arms flaming out fast. It was hard to find a way to rest and regroup.

(Photo: Nancy in the shallow dihedral before the big roof on The Return of Chris Snyder (5.11d) at Roadside Crag.)

I had to hang repeatedly on Chris Snyder. Nevertheless, I loved the climb. The early going up the dihedral is interesting and a bit tricky, and then, wow! It changes abruptly into a very different animal for the second half. I found it humbling, and tried to see it as a valuable learning experience.

Nancy and I had been going hard at it all day, and it was quite hot whenever we were in the sun, but we still had some time left and Nancy and I did not want to waste any part of what was likely to be our best day in the Red. We wandered over to the left side of the crag, hoping to warm down with an appealing trad climb in a corner called Andromeda Strain (5.9+).

We found it occupied, but as we looked around at this relatively sleepy portion of the cliff my eye was captured by a different climb called the Mantel Route (5.10c). This mixed climb gets five stars in the guidebook. It appeared to be challenging, with a low bolt followed by a long stretch of gear-protected climbing on a seemingly blank face. I was willing to give it a shot.

I was very happy we decided to do it! This wasn't the toughest climb we tried, nor did it end up being my hardest send in the Red, but I remain proud that I on-sighted this pitch. True to its name, this climb requires repeated, thin mantel moves. The climbing is technical and the gear is tricky, especially between the first and second bolts, where if you pass up any potential placements you could be at risk of a ground fall. 

(Photo: I'm past most of the difficulties on the Mantel Route (5.10c) at Roadside Crag.)

This sort of climbing, with thin, delicate moves and gear placed under pressure, is one of my favorite things. I didn't expect to find this kind of experience at the Red, where most of the trad routes seem to follow vertical cracks with mindless pro. Not that there's anything wrong with mindless pro. I can appreciate mindless pro. But when I'm slotting a tiny nut, sideways, while holding on to a sloping dime edge with my other hand, that's my (twisted?) idea of heaven. If you feel the same way, you should check out the Mantel Route. If it isn't your cup of tea, well, I don't blame you. You should go climb all of the other routes.

As our first day in the Red came to a close, I wasn't feeling satisfied with how well I'd climbed, but I was very happy that we'd come. At Roadside Crag we'd found amazing and varied routes, both sport and trad. We'd climbed several classics that I will be excited to come back to try to redpoint. And though I didn't get the on-sight on the hardest routes we tried, I was pleased with my lead head. I'd attacked 5.11 trad and 5.12 sport without hesitation. This was a good sign, I thought.

With a little more acclimatization to the style, I felt like I could start racking up some good sends here.

Unfortunately I never got the chance. The rest of our trip sucked.

The rain arrived that evening and it came down pretty steadily for the next thirty-six hours or so.

We tried to go climbing anyway. As I kept telling myself, the Red is known for crags that stay dry in at least a little bit of rain.

On our second day, we headed to Bibliothek, a wall in Muir Valley. The guidebook said this was a good crag for a rainy day. Gail and Max came along too, joining Nancy and me.

It was my first time in Muir Valley, an area that Gail likens to Disneyland. I think she says this because Muir has a well-trimmed, landscaped air about it. And the climbs are labelled for you, with discreet tags at the bottom. Also they keep a stash of stick clips at the entrance so you don't even need to bring your own. As a climber, you feel pampered at Muir.

But the comparison to Disneyland only goes so far. I was very disappointed to learn that there is no Monorail at Muir Valley. We had to hike for half an hour in the rain to get to Bibliothek, only to find when we finally got there that practically all of the climbs were soaking wet.

(Photo: Gail at the tricky crux of 100 Years of Solitude (5.11a) at Bibliothek, Muir Valley, with Nancy belaying.)

We did what we could do. We all took a turn on 100 Years of Solitude (5.11a, not bad, tricky low crux), and I led a really nice overhanging, honeycombed route called The Fury (5.11c). It was similar in style to the upper half of Chris Snyder. On my first effort I still felt unaccustomed to this type of RRG climbing. I took a hang or two. But then I decided I might as well lead it again, since there was so little we could do in the rain. 

(Photo: The Fury (5.11c).)

When I tried The Fury for the second time, I felt like I was finally starting to get the hang of this sort of route. I sent it easily, without any problem. 

And then we trooped on out of there.

The Fury ended up being the best send I would accomplish at the Red. The weather was so bad I never tried anything harder. 

It continued raining overnight. By the morning of day three it started to look like things were clearing up. Nancy and I decided to drive out to the Chocolate Factory, with no illusions that the climbs would be dry. We were hoping that things might improve a little bit as the day progressed. And maybe we'd find a climb or two that was worth doing?

As we drove to the PMRP the rain started back up again.

We carried on anyway. We parked and hiked over to the Chocolate Factory, only to find that everything there was sopping wet. Nancy and I hiked back out, meeting Gail and Max in the parking lot. They convinced us to go have a look at the Motherlode, but before we even started down the trail we encountered some other climbers who told us it was just as bad as the Chocolate Factory.

So we got back in the car and drove a little bit further into the PMRP, heading to the Drive-By Crag. I'd been there in 2014 with Gail and Max, during a heavy storm. Having been at this crag in the rain, we knew that there were likely to be some climbs that were dry. 

(Photo: Nancy on Deeper is Better (5.10b), Drive-By Crag, PMRP, with Gail belaying.)

We ended up having a decent day, though the conditions were bad, as we expected them to be. The rain finally stopped but then it grew so hot and humid that it might as well have been raining. Many of the routes were climbable, but everything seemed covered in a layer of slime. We ended up spending most of our time on the same tens and elevens I'd done here in 2014.

(Photo: Max on Whip-Stocking (5.11a).)

All day long I kept looking at Primus Noctum (5.12a), a climb I'd stumbled into attempting three years ago. I wanted to give it another shot but it was clearly wet in its lower sections. I ended up not bothering.

Late in the day, I was feeling kind of depressed. It had been my idea to go to Drive-By, but I wished we'd gone somewhere else, to try something new. I was bored by the climbs we'd done before, but I wasn't psyched on trying anything hard, given how greasy everything was. There were other, more intrepid climbers than us at the crag, going at 5.13's even though they were wet. I admired these climbers and felt inadequate.

Just then it occurred to me that there was a whole wall at the right end of the Drive-By Crag that I hadn't seen. I suggested we go over there to have a look.

Checking out the slabby routes in this sector, I knew they would be wet, since they hadn't been sheltered from the rain. But I thought that if we picked one of the easier 5.10 routes, it might be a nice change of pace despite the lingering dampness.

I hopped on one of the 5.10's and immediately found myself desperately jamming a soaking-wet vertical crack. I didn't remember reading about this crack in the description. Once I got through this section, I was unnerved to find myself smearing on a damp, featureless slab. It was tough going! It wasn't long before I had to stop and hang.

(Photo: Wet jamming on a 5.10 (??) at Drive-By Crag, PMRP, with Gail and Max looking concerned.)

I tried again and made some progress, but the next moves didn't seem any easier. I'd expected wetness, but forget the wetness, this climb was just plain hard! Every move felt a bit desperate. Was this really a 5.10? 

Max looked up and noticed a bail link on one of the bolts up over my head. 

Uh-oh, I thought. This meant the hardest part was up there, still to come! 

Eventually we figured out that I was not on the 5.10 I thought I was on. I was actually on a climb called Giblets (5.11c). The guidebook says you should expect to be "bitching about no holds" on this route, and they're not kidding.

After much sweating, swearing and hanging I made it up to the bail link and lowered off. 

I think everyone was much relieved when I threw in the towel. But this is a route I would love to try again, when it is dry. I thought the movement was great. I even figured out the crux high-stepping move at the bail link but then I was unable to use the damp, tiny sloper holds that came afterwards, which is when I finally gave up. 

I'm sure everyone else in my party was horrified by Giblets but I was energized by it. Here was another interesting, challenging route I'd love to revisit in the Red. It is technical. Working on it would make me a better climber. For me it salvaged the day.

Nancy and I had just one more half-day to spend at the Red. It seemed like the rain was finally over but we were sure to find some wet rock, wherever we went. We decided to check out The Zoo, a crag with a pretty quick approach. We didn't have tons of time but I was hoping that maybe I could try either Scar Tissue or Hippocrite (both 5.12a) before we left.

Unfortunately the twelves were quite wet. Other routes were a bit drier.

We got started by doing two of the tens. Put My In The Zoo (5.10b) is a nice slabby route. The hardest moves, at the bottom, were wet, but both Nancy and I managed to get it done.

(Photo: Nancy on Put Me In the Zoo (5.10b).)

We also enjoyed One Brick Shy (5.10c), which begins with a steep roof pull off of a block at the base. After that the climbing eases off a bit but it is still fun.

By now I was getting much more accustomed to the overhanging routes at the Red. I put up Geezers Go Sport (5.11b) without a hiccup. It felt very casual. It made me sad, thinking of what I might have done at the Red if the weather hadn't been so unfavorable.

(Photo: I'm climbing Geezers Go Sport (5.11b).)

With our time running out I finished our trip with the next route to the left, Monkey in the Middle (5.11a). This was actually more difficult than its 5.11b neighbor because the holds leading up to the first bolt turned out to be slimy wet. I ended up skipping some soaked intermediate holds, doing a dyno to hit the jug next to the bolt. Fun! After that the route was dry and enjoyable. Nancy didn't like the looks of this one and we were out of time anyway, so I cleaned it on the lower and we headed to the airport.

Even though the weather was unkind to us, I still had a great time in the Red River Gorge. The climbing I was able to do was fabulous. I was thrilled to find a variety of climbing styles, often within one crag. I loved both the trad and the sport. It was also great to spend the time with good friends. Gail's rental cabin was a most agreeable place to stay, and she played hostess, planning all the meals and generally taking care of our group.

I didn't really get a chance to find out what I could do in the Red. But I will be excited to go back again and find out.

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Trip to the California Needles

(Photo: View of the Magician (on the left) and the Djin Needle (on the right), from the top of the Charlatan.)

Why the Needles?

Several years ago I came across some photos of the area (On Denis O'Connor's website) and I was immediately smitten. Ever since then, I've been dying to pay a visit.

It is a beautiful place, located in Sequoia National Forest at an elevation of over 7000 feet. The otherworldly, pointy rock formations seem to leap out of the surrounding hills, offering sweeping faces of flawless granite, broken only by perfect vertical cracks. The stone seems to glow with patches of fluorescent-green lichen. The surrounding landscape is filled with majestic green trees. Way off at the horizon, snow-capped Sierra peaks provide a backdrop.

(Photo: View of the summit of the Warlock, from atop the Witch.)

I've long been drawn to the Needles. But I've also been a little bit afraid. The area has a reputation as a hardman's crag, a destination for serious climbers. The remote location leaves you alone to manage your own affairs. Help is miles away. And the climbs are hard. The faces are steep and the climbing is sustained. The cracks go on and on, making for long pitches with move after move of the same difficulty throughout. There are only a few entry-level classics in the 5.8/5.9 range. Most of the climbs are harder, and the grades are super old-school.

The style of climbing is what you'd expect from granite: vertical cracks and slabs, i.e., not what I'm used to. I'm not confident on granite. I don't trust my toes the way I do when I climb on Gunks conglomerate. I need more practice on granite than I've been able to get.

(Photo: The upper portion of the West Face of the Witch, with the Warlock peeking over her shoulder. Taken from atop the Sorceror. If you click to enlarge, you can make out a climber (dressed in white) seconding the last pitch of Igor Unchained (5.9).)

This year I figured it was time to check out the Needles, whether I was ready to "crush it" there or not. I was sure that with the help of my longtime partner Adrian (who loves crack climbing), we could get up whatever we chose to climb, one way or another. Between the two of us we had the experience and the knowledge to deal with whatever challenges the Needles would throw our way.

If only we could get there! We planned our trip for Memorial Day weekend. As the date approached I kept seeing posts on Supertopo and elsewhere suggesting that the roads around the Needles would not yet be open. It had been a snowy winter and there were a lot of armchair rangers on the internet predicting a late start to the season.

Adrian and I almost called the whole thing off, but ultimately we decided to have faith. Even if we had to walk a few extra miles, we could still climb at the Needles. We'd just have to work a little bit harder for it.

(Photo: Adrian standing on the old staircase to the fire observation deck atop the Magician, which burned down several years ago.)

My plan was to fly in to LAX and then drive the three-and-a-half hours to Camp Nelson (where we'd rented a cabin) that same night. My flight was supposed to arrive at around 7:00 in the evening. Assuming an on-time arrival and a little bit of luck at the rental car counter, I hoped I could get to our cabin before 1:00 in the morning. Adrian was driving in from Vancouver at the same time. Once we both arrived, we would climb for the next four days.

My brilliant plan was thwarted from the get-go when my flight out of New York was delayed by six hours, for no reason that I could discern. No one at the airline seemed to feel the need to explain, even when I asked. I ended up arriving in Los Angeles just after midnight.

I decided to soldier on and to drive through the night to our cabin.

But first I needed to pick up my rental car, and the counter was a nightmare. There was a line winding around the inside of the rental office and then out the door. I ended up waiting there-- no exaggeration-- for TWO HOURS.

I finally hit the road at 2:40 a.m.

With no place to stay in Los Angeles, it seemed pointless to do anything but drive.

I made it about an hour outside of LAX before I decided I just couldn't keep going. I was exhausted. I pulled into a gas station and crashed in the back seat.

When I awoke about an hour later, I bought myself some terrible coffee and got back on the road. The day slowly dawned as I tore up the highway towards the Needles.

As the sky brightened, I got a gander at the surreal landscape through which I was driving.

California's long drought had clearly devastated this part of the state. The land was so brown, I felt as if I'd landed in Saudi Arabia. I even spotted some oil rigs!

But occasionally citrus farms would appear, in perfectly rectangular islands of irrigated wonder. These green oases seemed out of place. To all appearances, this was not an agricultural land of plenty. It was a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Soon enough I was through it, ascending a very windy road up a pretty river valley towards Sequoia National Forest.

I arrived in Camp Nelson at 7:00 a.m. I was fashionably late, but I'd made it.

I crawled right into bed and grabbed two more hours of sleep. Then Adrian made me breakfast and we headed for the Needles.

Day One: Igor Unchained (5.9)

We thought that the road to the Needles was still closed, which would necessitate a five mile hike just to get to the climbing. Since we were getting a late start, we decided to skip the Needles for the time being and instead spend our first day at Dome Rock, a nearby formation with much quicker access.

But as we drove towards Dome Rock, we passed the Needles road and found the gate wide open-- probably for the first time in 2017! This was a great surprise, and proof you should never trust the internet. We changed plans.

I turned onto the dirt road and found that for the most part it was in pretty good shape. We moseyed on down it just fine in our little Chevy Cruze. But about halfway down the road, we reached a big muddy rut that we decided we couldn't pass. A couple in front of us had just ripped a drip pan off of the bottom of their SUV trying to get by it. We didn't think it was worth the risk of doing the same to my rental car, so we parked and walked the mile and a half down to the end of the road, and then the two-mile trail to the Needles.

We had arrived. And it was beautiful.

(Photo: First view of the Magician as you approach the Needles from the trail.)

I didn't know where to start. As we worked our way around the huge slab known as the Magician, I tried to figure out how to approach the climbs I'd read about. Looking into the notches between the formations, I (mistakenly) thought I spotted some climbers on Spooky (5.9), one of the climbs on my list. So we went a little bit further and scrambled down to the start of Igor Unchained (5.9), a four-pitch climb on the formation called the Witch.

I volunteered for pitch one, an endless hand crack.

Not long after getting off the ground, I realized I was looking at 150 feet of placements for blue and gold Camalots and little else. But I was carrying just two of each.

I was also feeling nervous, which made me want to place gear constantly.

(Photo: That's me, leading pitch one of Igor Unchained (5.9). Photo by Adrian.)

At least the jams felt good. The rock was perfect and the climbing was great. I was just very slow. I kept leap-frogging pieces, trying to conserve gear. Eventually I started hanging to retrieve gear from lower down, and then I started hanging just to hang. This pitch was a slog. I'm not proud of my performance.

But by the end of it I started trusting my feet on the textured granite, and I hoped the rest of the climb would go better.

Adrian tackled pitch two, which started with a brief off-width crack and then some thin, slabby moves up a corner. He handled it well, attacking the off-width directly. When I followed I found some footholds on the side wall which enabled me to basically climb around the off-width. The thin face moves that followed were thought-provoking, to be sure, but Adrian found good gear in the corner so there were no worries. It was another great pitch and totally different from pitch one.

(Photo: Adrian's outfit eerily matches the rock/lichen as he gets past the offwidth on pitch two of Igor Unchained.)

I led pitches three and four in a long single pitch, and by this time I was getting much more comfortable. I loved the steep, juggy climbing at the start of the traditional pitch three, and then felt pretty good about negotiating the technical climbing to the finish up a finger crack. The climbing seemed to go on and on; I placed almost our entire rack on this double-length pitch.

(Photo: I'm in the steep early going on pitch three of Igor Unchained. Photo by Adrian.)

As I reached the top of Igor Unchained, I wondered if I'd ever experienced a better 5.9. Every pitch had been fantastic. The climb has a bit of everything: hands, fingers, slabby moves, and juggy steepness, with great gear throughout. And the scenery was gorgeous beyond belief.

(Photo: Adrian topping out on Igor Unchained.)

Adrian had complained a bit about feeling the altitude while we were doing the climb. I hadn't noticed it at all while we were climbing, but as soon as we got back on the trail it hit me hard. I suddenly felt very tired and I was not psyched about hiking the three and a half miles back to our car. It ended up being a bit of a struggle but I managed to trudge all the way back, feeling like I couldn't catch my breath whenever we had to go uphill.

I collapsed into bed right after we got back to the cabin.

Day Two: White Punks on Dope (5.8+)

This six-pitch climb is often described as the best multi-pitch moderate route in California. Like Igor Unchained, White Punks on Dope is a varied affair, with many challenges. I was most excited to lead the crux fourth pitch, which ascends a smooth corner with a finger crack at the back. The fifth pitch, a blank slab pitch with only four bolts, also appeared to be quite exciting-- but I figured that after the crux pitch I would hand the lead off to Adrian for that one.

No need to hog all the best pitches, right?

White Punks on Dope is on a large formation called Voodoo Dome, which is part of the Needles but is most easily accessed by driving away from the usual Needles road for about an hour around the Kern River Valley, approaching the rocks from the opposite side. The hike in to the dome is less than a mile but it is an uphill, sandy path and it took us almost an hour.

We tried to get an early start but when we arrived at the base we found another pair of climbers hanging out, just getting ready to start the climb. I was momentarily miffed that we'd been beaten to the base, but it soon became clear that these two would not slow us down. They were a married couple and the husband was obviously some kind of 5.12 climber just doing this climb as a sort of rest day. He moved quickly and had no intention of falling. He started out with no belay at all. When he got about fifty feet up the 5.7+ pitch one, he placed his first piece, and only then did he ask his wife to put him on a "loose belay," which meant that she put the rope through a Gri Gri and periodically pulled out about twenty feet of slack. Then she continued to organize her pack, with neither hand on the rope.

The wife described herself as the tourist of the pair but she was obviously quite comfortable following and seemed very capable in her own right. I was proud that we managed to catch up to these two a couple of times during the day but eventually they pulled away from us and we didn't see them again until we ran into them near the bottom of the descent trail.

(Photo: Adrian on pitch one of White Punks on Dope.)

Adrian took the lead for pitch one, another long (190 feet!) hand crack pitch. He handled it well, although for some reason he decided to be on belay and to place gear at intervals of fewer than fifty feet. (What a chicken!) Following the pitch, I felt good, casual. I would kill to have crack pitches like this in the Gunks. In the Needles, this was just another hand crack, going on and on for miles in solid granite. At the end of the pitch came a surprise, a few polished face moves right before the belay stance in an alcove.

I led pitch two, which starts with a funky boulder problem right off the belay to escape the alcove. It is steep and in-your-face for a minute and then it is over. I elected to keep going into the pitch three chimney as well. It was fun and easy, with only a few 5.7 moves. I didn't experience much of any rope drag combining the pitches this way, and though combination was long it wasn't as long as pitch one-- it was probably 175 feet or so.

(Photo: I'm looking back at Adrian after doing the bouldery start out of the alcove on pitch two of White Punks on Dope.)

Now it was time for the 5.8+ crux corner pitch. I had already put dibs on it so I took the lead again.

It went well, though my tense state throughout made it more tiring than was necessary. The thin crack in the corner provided good finger locks-- and I locked my digits in there as much as I could! There were not many footholds on the off-vertical left wall. I suspected that a more gallant climber than I would have simply walked up the smooth face. But this was not my style. Instead I did my best to contort my body to take maximum advantage of little indentations for my left foot and tried whenever I could to torque my right toe into the corner for a little extra security.

My strategy worked. By the time I reached a rest stance at the halfway mark I started to feel like this pitch was going to work out just fine. At some point the angle started to ease and my lone remaining anxiety became whether I would run out of finger-sized gear before the crack ended. This was another pitch into which I dumped practically our whole rack.

(Photo: Adrian's photo of me most of the way through the crux pitch of White Punks on Dope.)

I thought I was out of the woods when I moved to the left for what the guidebook describes simply as a "5.6 lieback off a wide crack" which "runs it out to the belay."

Imagine my surprise when I saw that this so-called 5.6 lieback involved walking up the slick, featureless granite with no pro (the crack is too wide) for about forty feet to a ledge. As I got started, I could see that this was pretty easy climbing. Still, I found it terrifying. Slipping out of the layback seemed possible. The chance was not that high, but it was definitely above zero. This wasn't like a 5.6 runout in juggy territory in the Gunks; it was far more insecure, at least in my mind. And the runout was really long. The offhand, blase guidebook description didn't begin to do it justice.

There was nothing to do but to carry on. I got through the runout by telling myself to "just keep going" with every step. I tried to put out of my mind the length of the potential fall I could take if I slipped. Forty feet, fifty feet, sixty feet.... I couldn't help but think about the potential cheese-grater fall down the face, and when I finally grabbed the belay ledge I announced to no one in particular that I'd just done the scariest thing I'd ever attempted.

But I'd done it! Now I could relax, as it was Adrian's turn to lead the run-out slab pitch. I'd planned things out perfectly so that I would not lead this pitch.

Imagine my surprise (again) when Adrian arrived at the belay, turned to me and asked "You wanna lead this next pitch? I hate slab."

My first thought was that some impostor (perhaps a pod person?) had replaced my Adrian. The Adrian I know has spent his whole career climbing at Squamish, where slab is on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My second thought was that if Adrian wasn't feeling it today we were surely screwed. I had no slab experience!

My third thought was "I should lead this. It will be good for me."

Pure slab climbing scares me, for the obvious reasons. There are no handholds and the gear tends to be widely spaced. I could see that the slab pitch we were now confronting was typical of the genre: a full-length pitch of utterly blank, slippery granite with just four lonely bolts.

Turning to Adrian, I said "It's only 5.8, right? I should be fine."

"Right," he said.

I tried to will myself to believe it.

After placing a piece as high as I could above our anchor, I stepped to the right onto the blank face and ventured upward towards the first bolt, which seemed very far away.

(Photo: Adrian's photo of me leading the slab pitch on White Punks on Dope.)

It wasn't so bad. I tried to be precise and found ripples and edges to stand on. Moving slowly and with increasingly intense focus, I continued upward, taking it one small step at a time, until I eventually reached the first bolt, clipped it, and breathed a great sigh of relief.

Having established a rhythm, I repeated the process three more times. As the pitch continued it moved diagonally up and to the right, which meant that if I fell I would travel in a pendulum arc down and across the slab. As I'd done on the previous pitch, I tried to push the possibility of a fall out of my mind, but the potential negative outcomes relentlessly crept back into my head. 

Nevertheless everything went fine. I kept on moving and didn't shake too much. By the time I reached the fourth bolt the climbing got a bit easier, up a shallow feature with some real holds to the belay ledge.

(Photo: Adrian near the end of the slab pitch on White Punks on Dope.)

I arrived at the ledge exhilarated and mentally exhausted. If pitch four had been the scariest thing I'd ever attempted, then this would have to have been the second scariest. But I'd gotten through it and now I could really relax.

The final pitch, which Adrian led, ascended another beautiful finger crack. It was quite steep for a few moves, with good gear, but then the angle kicked back and it was easy going to the top of the dome. Since I was done leading I considered the pitch an afterthought, though it is good and worthy of consideration in its own right.

(Photo: Adrian leading the final pitch of White Punks on Dope.)

As we descended around the back of the dome I felt deeply satisfied. This had been a great day. White Punks on Dope was one of the best multi-pitch routes I'd ever done. The climbing wasn't hard, exactly, but it had been challenging for the mind-- for my mind, anyway. This was a real granite climbing experience. Our team had handled it well and I had taken on all of the hardest bits. It was something I could build upon.

Day Three: Dome Rock

Adrian and I headed to Dome Rock for our third day of climbing. This big dome isn't technically a part of the Needles, but it is close by and would be a worthy destination all by itself, even if the Needles did not exist. There are several high-quality full-length routes to the top of the dome (in four pitches or so) and a number of classic single-pitch crack and slab lines.

I had my eye on a multi-pitch route called the Anti-Jello Crack. This seemed like a good route with which to up the ante to the next level. So far we'd done some 5.8 and 5.9 pitches. The Anti-Jello Crack has a pitch of 5.9+ and then the next one is 5.10a. I wanted to lead at least one 5.10 before we left the Needles. This seemed like a good route with which to do it.

Adrian handled the short, pleasant 5.6 first pitch up a hand crack to the base of the obvious, slanting 5.9+ pitch two finger crack.

I led pitch two and it was probably my best lead of the trip. It is a gorgeous pitch with sustained technical difficulty and great gear up the whole crack. I got it done cleanly but I probably made it harder for myself again, by milking the crack for footholds whenever I could, rather than simply trusting my feet on the slab. At the crux, just before the crack ended, the finger-locks shrank to virtually nothing and I had no choice but to smear my feet on the smooth face. I was unnerved but once I committed to the moves my feet stayed where I put them and I made it to a stance. 

(Photo: That's me leading the Anti-Jello Crack. Photo by Adrian.)

The pitch still wasn't over. After the crack ended I had to run it out through easier slabby territory to the bolted anchor. This climbing wasn't hard and I got through it just fine, but by this point all of the runout slab climbing had begun to take a toll on me. 

As Adrian followed the pitch I kept looking up at the corner ascended by the 5.10a third pitch. I couldn't see the crux-- it was around the corner. I had no idea what it would be like. 

(Photo: Adrian following the Anti-Jello Crack.)

I decided I wasn't up for the 5.10 pitch. My brain felt tired. Everything we'd been doing was so sustained. The 5.9+ we had just done was hard enough for my tastes! Adrian didn't want to lead the next pitch either so we descended.

We rounded out our day with a bunch of easier pitches. Adrian led the interesting first pitch of Arch Bitch-Up (5.8), which features a low traverse and then fun climbing up a corner. 

(Photo: Adrian making the thoughtful traverse on Arch Bitch-Up.)

Then we took the Tree Route (5.6) to the top of the dome (and the parking lot). This is a varied and beautiful route, with nice climbing throughout on cracks, flakes, and slabs. It is the only quality route in the whole area that is this easy.

(Photo: Adrian is all smiles as we cruise up the Tree Route with our packs on. The Needles are in the distance.)

I would advise caution, however, to any beginning leader out there who might want to hop on the Tree Route. Whenever it gets slabby-- particularly at the end of the first pitch and the beginning of the fourth-- the route has runouts. We weren't bothered by them, because the climbing was so casual.

(Photo: Adrian through the run out slab start to pitch four of the Tree Route.) 

After feeling stressed on Anti-Jello Crack, I was relieved to cruise through the rest of our third day. I hoped that maybe I'd feel refreshed on day four when we returned to the heart of the Needles.

Day Four: Spooky (5.9)

By this time the dirt road to the Needles had been smoothed out so we were able to drive all the way to its end. The two-mile hike seemed so much easier now that I'd adjusted to the altitude and gotten a few good nights' sleep.

Our first target was a two-pitch 5.9 called Spooky. After we finished with that I figured we might finally try a 5.10. There were a whole host of classics at that grade to choose from.

Despite the three days we'd spent in the Needles, we still didn't quite have our bearings and it took us a bit of wandering to find the top of the Charlatan, the formation from which we would rap to the base of Spooky. 

We wasted some more time searching for the rap bolts, which were hidden over an edge. When, after all of this, we were ready to descend, I peered over into the gap between the Charlatan and the Magician and felt a chill go through me. I could see how Spooky got its name. The wind was howling through the narrow canyon as Adrian lowered himself into the space between the formations.

(Photo: Adrian rapping in to the base of Spooky, with the Magician behind him.)

One of our ropes got stuck in a crack on the rappel, but with some work Adrian got it free. I rapped in without incident and we were finally ready to climb.

The route turned out to be great, and a pretty casual 5.9-- so long as you bring a big cam or two and aren't too upset about a little bit of offwidth.

(Photo: Adrian on pitch one of Spooky.)

Adrian led the first pitch, an excellent 5.8-ish handcrack in a corner.

Then it was my turn lead the crux 5.9 offwidth. It is only about twenty feet long, and then you reach a ledge and transition to face climbing.

(Photo: I'm testing the offwidth crack on Spooky. I'm still standing on the ledge but I've already placed a big cam over my head. Photo by Adrian.)

I wanted some real offwidth practice so I purposefully stuck my side into the crack and attempted it with offwidth technique, although I suspect many people lay it back the whole way. I fought with the crack (fun!) until I was about two thirds of the way up the thing, and then, upon finding a good edge inside of the crack, I said "screw it," stopped grovelling, and switched to laying back for the final bits. I had both a Number 4 and Number 5 Camalot with me and with a little bit of pushing the cams ahead of me I was basically on top rope for the whole excursion. You could get by with just one of these big cams; having two made me very comfy.

(Photo: I'm enjoying the weird knobs on the second half of Spooky.)

The rest of the pitch was wild and probably no harder than 5.8. The face above the off-width is covered in these crazy, fin-shaped, tufa-like knobs. From below it looks like there might be limited gear up there but actually there is plenty. Climbing the strange features on the face was great fun and I found it to be very different from everything else we'd done in the Needles.

After Adrian joined me up top we ate lunch, snapped some photos of climbers across the way on Igor Unchained, and watched with awe as some pilots in fighter jets did exercises up and down the canyon, corkscrewing their way past us with engines roaring.

We had time for another route, but at some point we both looked at one another and we knew we were finished. We were satisfied. We hung out atop the Charlatan for a while, soaking up the atmosphere one last time, before hiking out and getting ice cream sandwiches in Ponderosa.

I really loved the Needles. It was everything I hoped it would be. It is a wondrous, beautiful place, with outstanding climbing, and the remote location keeps the crowds at bay. In our four days there, Adrian and I got a great introduction to the area. We basically did all of the entry-level routes. I got some much-needed mileage on cracks and slabs, and I felt like I climbed reasonably well.

On our next visit, I'd like to work into the climbs at the next level.

Every time I go out west, I come back home saying the same thing. I need to get more practice climbing on granite. I have to make myself take the long drive to New Hampshire so that I can get the experience I want and need. If I can do it even a few times a year, I can go back to the Needles more confident the next time around and hit the 5.10 classics without hesitation.

I suspect it will be a few years before I can make it out to the Needles again. Until then, I'll go back to staring at photos of the place and daydreaming about these magical, glowing towers of rock, and the incredible climbs contained therein.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Getting Necky with Whatever (5.10a), and More!

(Photo: That's me on Turdland Direct (5.10d). Photo by Mike.)

For over a month, I've been contending with a climbing injury.

It all started in mid-April, in Berkeley, California. We were there on a family trip.

I was at the Berkeley Ironworks climbing gym. I completed a boulder problem and as I dropped to the floor I realized that something didn't feel right at the back of my neck. It seemed like I'd pulled something. It got worse as the day went on. The pain was constant, throbbing. I couldn't turn my head. That night, I had trouble finding a comfortable position in which to sleep.

I figured it had to be some kind of strain. 

I came up with a foolproof plan: if I ignored the injury intensely enough, it would surely go away.

The pain got a little better over the next few days, so, naturally, while I was still in Berkeley I decided to go back to the climbing gym for another bouldering session.

You might think this was a dumb thing to do. In my defense, I should add that it was raining.

So there were no other options. 

In any event, I aggravated the injury at the gym. The pain got worse.

Now I got kind of worried. I decided I should take a week off from climbing. I hoped that with some rest, the injury might get better.

We returned home to New York and I sat around. The pain did get better. Not totally better, but somewhat better. After five or six days I decided I couldn't tolerate the sedentary lifestyle for another minute and I started climbing again.

I went to the gym and everything seemed okay. Things were stable. I tried to ease back into climbing. I went back outside, climbing at the Gunks a few times. The injury remained unaffected. Once, with Andy, I went to the Nears and we tried to knock a bunch of climbs off of my list of star-worthy 5.10's that I hadn't yet sent on lead. (More on that later.)

On another day, with Gail, Andy and his friend Chris, I went back again to the Nears and we threw ourselves at the popular top-ropes To Be or Not To Be (5.12a) and Slammin' the Salmon (5.12b). I didn't get the send on either one but I felt fine and worked out all the moves on To Be or Not To Be. I hope to send it soon, if the summer weather can hold off for a bit. (Andy got it clean and started talking about leading it.) I led Birdcage (5.10b), one of my favorite tens, and I felt good.

(Photo: Andy on To Be or Not To Be (5.12a), belayed by Chris.)

Was I on the mend? Over the next couple of weeks, I almost forgot about the whole thing.

And then one Thursday night at the gym I aggravated the injury again. It was worse than before.

It took effort just to stand up straight. The next day, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window and realized that I was walking around the city with my head tilted significantly to one side.

What was I going to do? I had a climbing trip planned for Memorial Day weekend with my pal Adrian. We were going to the Needles in California. This trip had been a dream of mine for years. The tickets were non-refundable. I needed to be able to climb.

The weekend right after I aggravated the injury, I had a Gunks day planned with Olivier. I decided to go ahead with it despite how I was feeling. I reckoned I could take some time off again afterwards. 

My neck was still throbbing that morning. As I got out of my car to greet Olivier, I convinced myself that I had straightened my posture, but Olivier wasn't fooled. He noticed my Quasimodo-like countenance immediately.

Luckily for me, the weather was bad, so I didn't have to test my limits. It rained in the morning and drizzled on and off several times during the day. We were able to climb but the conditions were such that we didn't do anything hard.

(Photo: Olivier leading a wet Strictly From Nowhere (5.7). He later led Apoplexy (5.9) in a full-on downpour!)

We had a good time, but late in the afternoon as I led the 5.4 second pitch of Pas De Deux, my neck really complained. I was hurting, even on this easy climb. I started to lose the will to continue. 

(Photo: I'm leading the 5.4 pitch 2 of Pas De Deux. Photo by Olivier. I think this was actually my very first time on this nice pitch.)

There was still time left in our Gunks day but my motivation was gone. I had no ideas. Olivier proposed we throw a top rope over Retribution and Nosedive (both 5.10b), and I agreed. Why not? 

Did it even matter any more? Was this how it all would end? Top-roping?

I walked glumly through the Uberfall. Despite the bad weather, there were lots of people there, occupying most of the climbs. As luck would have it, Bunny (5.4) was open, and so was Retribution. We plopped our stuff down in front of both climbs to claim the territory. We could run up Bunny to set up the harder climb.

But as we stood there, staring up at the wall, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I felt like that would be giving up.

So instead I downed three Ibuprofen tablets and led Retribution. 

It went fine. I've led this climb at least half a dozen times. I wasn't worried about it. 

I led up to the roof and placed the improbable-but-bomber .75 green Camalot at the crux. Working my feet up, I milked the undercling hold-- you know the one-- with my left hand as I snaked my right hand up above the roof to the gorgeous fingerlocks that I knew were waiting there. 

It was all very casual.

(Photo: Olivier following my lead of Retribution (5.10b).)

As I walked my toes up to where I could stem the corner and place another piece, I felt good, in spite of it all. I glanced down between my legs and noticed a young guy beneath me on the carriage road, staring up at me with something resembling amazement and wonder. I could have been him, a few years ago.

"You don't know the half of it, kid," I wanted to say. "You just want to lead 5.10. But take it from me: you haven't lived until you've led 5.10... with whiplash."

"Don't ever get old," I failed to add. "Aging sucks."

A few days later, I decided I needed to see a doctor. This was not a decision I made lightly. Any visit to a medical professional carried with it the risk that I would be told to stop climbing. 

The doctor sent me for an x-ray and wrote me a prescription for physical therapy. When the x-ray results appeared in my inbox I saw the words "moderate to severe discogenic degenerative changes," which struck me as a serious diagnosis. But when I spoke to the doctor he suggested that this was par for the course. He described it as the human condition. 

It is what unites us. Underneath our skin, we're all going through our own moderate to severe discogenic degenerative changes.

He told me that with treatment I should get better, but that it will likely flare up again from time to time. 

I asked him if I needed to stop climbing and he said I could climb, as long as it doesn't hurt while I'm climbing. I took this as all the permission I needed, although my experience over the past month has taught me that I can't predict in advance whether a particular move will end up hurting my neck or not. If I could only figure out which kinds of moves will aggravate the injury then I could just avoid those moves and be fine. 

Even better: wouldn't it be great if only one STYLE of climbing aggravated the injury? And if that style were slab climbing? Then I would have a permanent out. 

"I can't go slab climbing. My doctor said so. (Plus I'm not good at it.)"

"Also off-widths. They are bad for my health. (And I have no idea how to climb them.)"

I've had two sessions with the PT. They have been highly educational. I've learned that I am a terrible sloucher and that my whole neck/shoulder area is locked up, as stiff as a fresh batch of hot caramel that has seized from over-agitation. During our sessions the PT works on my muscles with great enthusiasm. The therapy is so painful that I feel completely healed when it is over. It is only later that I regain perspective and recognize that I'm not healed at all. My neck still hurts. It just doesn't hurt nearly as much as it does while the "therapy" is going on. 

My plan is still to go to the Needles. I'm doing my rehab exercises and going to PT. 

I am also going to the Gunks this weekend. But after that I think I will lay off the gym climbing for the remainder of the week before I fly to California. That way I'll have five solid days of rest before I climb again.

But enough of all this old-man whining. I'm not looking for your pity. I'm sure you've dealt with injuries yourself. It is part of the climbing life. It happens to practically everyone at one time or another. This too will pass. I hope.

I want to update you on my 2017 project, which I'm sure you recall. It is to send every star-worthy 5.10 pitch in the Gunks. Over the course of several different days in the past couple of months, I have made some progress.

I have tackled a few new tens in the Trapps:

Turdland Direct (5.10d)

I climbed Turdland once before, but at that time I avoided both of the "direct" 5.10 cruxes, keeping the route at 5.9. This was back in 2014, when the route featured some truly frightening, ancient protection bolts. Even assuming the bolts were good, I still found the 5.9 moves up and left (avoiding the first 5.10 bulge) to be pretty heads-up, with a healthy runout.

The bolts have since been replaced, which gave me a lot of comfort as I returned to the route this spring with Sudha and Mike. I found the direct route to be better protected than the 5.9 version.

(Photo: Mike on Turdland Direct (5.10d).)

Turdland Direct, as it exists now, is nothing but a good time, with great face climbing past two cruxes. I managed to blow the upper crux on my first attempt, sadly, slipping off as I tried to latch on to the good hold. I got the move immediately when I went back up the second time. I have to go back again to get the send and take it off of my 5.10 to-do list.

Never Say Never (5.10c)

While I was in the Turdland area with Sudha and Mike, I also led Never Never Land (5.10a) for the third time in just the past year. This is a route I once swore I would never lead! While we had the rope up I decided to tick off Never Say Never (5.10c), which is given two stars in the guidebook but only as a top-rope since there is practically no gear on the pitch.

(Photo: Sudha on Never Never Land (5.10a).)

Never Say Never is a decent face climb, with a brief, balance move crux. I sneaked through it without falling off, achieving the top rope send. I don't know if I will ever bother to do it again.

Tweak or Freak (5.10a)

I did this climb on a different day, with Andy. Traditionally it has a first pitch to the right of Oblique Twique (5.8) but you get more quality climbing out of it if you start on Oblique Twique and then head up into the roof from the ledge. So that's how I did it, in one pitch to the top of the Shit Creek pedestal.

(Photo: I'm at the roof on Tweak or Freak (5.10a). Photo by Andy.)

This is a fun roof! It is a little bit awkward getting up to the overhang and then it takes a couple of good moves to get over it. When I did it, there was a fixed nut hanging from the roof, which lessened the commitment level.

I found this route to be worthwhile. It is surrounded by classics and thus I never even considered this climb until I started my little 5.10 completion project. But now that I am aware it exists, I would do it again.

On a different day with Andy (already mentioned above), I went to the Nears and tried to knock a whole bunch of my tens off of the to-do list.

Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d)

This route wasn't new to me. I'd tried it once several years back and needed to return for the redpoint. It wasn't too hard to knock it off as our first climb of the day. It has pleasant 5.9 climbing up to a well-protected 5.10d crux through a short headwall. This is one of the least committing 5.10d's in the Gunks. It has just the one hard sequence with bomber gear at your waist.

(Photo: Andy heading up Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d).)

Elder Cleavage Direct (5.10b) and Boob Job (5.10b)

Somehow over the years I have missed out on Elder Cleavage, a three-star classic. It is a great climb, with many challenges.

The pitch one crux comes right off the ground, with a boulder problem up to a good hold, and then a stand-up move with no gear to get to a small stance beneath a little overhang.

Andy and I looked over the start cautiously. It appeared to be hard, and there was no way to be sure how the stand-up move would go without trying it. Eventually I decided to go for it. It went well enough. I negotiated these initial moves and then nervously placed a good Alien at the overhang.

I was rattled by the tough start and it affected me later in the pitch. I completed the next set of moves up a shallow slot, feeling shaky, and then continued into the vertical, arching crack that is the second crux section. After a tricky move to get established in the crack, I placed some gear under pressure and moved up to where the crack arched left. 

The next move was thin and when I didn't immediately find the way my nerves got the better of me. I threw in a piece and took a hang to get my head together.

After recharging, I found that the next move ended the difficulties. 

I was upset that I didn't get the clean send but wow, this is a great, demanding lead. It just doesn't let up.

(Photo: Andy coming up pitch one of Elder Cleavage Direct (5.10b).)

Andy quickly led the throwaway 5.4 pitch two, and I got set to lead the third pitch up to the obvious roof in a left-facing corner.

This went well. I think it is one of the best 5.10 roofs in the Gunks. It features really fun moves into an undercling crack in the roof, and then to the right and up the corner to escape. The gear is ample. It is wild and exciting.

There is another obscure roof pitch twenty feet left of the final pitch of Elder Cleavage, called Boob Job (5.10b). It gets a star in the guidebook so it too was on my list. 

It is easy to see where you need to go from the big ledge. There is an obvious V-notch in the underside of the ceiling above. You climb more or less straight up to the notch, over easy territory. 

Moving into the notch is committing. Once you are up in it, there is good gear. I placed something in front of my face and also reached out to the right as far as I could and put in a small Alien. And then it was on. A pumpy traverse out the right side of the V-notch, with a big reach in the middle, got me to the exit. Searching for purchase above the roof, I found very sandy holds. At this point, I knew that if I fell I was headed for a swing. I thought it would be a clean fall but I did not want to take the ride. Gripping like crazy, I got my feet up and, panting with relief, scrambled to the top.

Boob Job isn't as classic as Elder Cleavage but it is certainly exciting! I think you are cheating yourself if you go up there for Elder Cleavage and don't stick around for Boob Job as well.

There is a dead or dying tree with a cable rap station at the topout for Boob Job, but Andy and I didn't like the looks of it so we walked off. 

Hang Ten (5.10a)

After we walked all the way back around to our stuff we kept on trooping down the cliff to Hang Ten (5.10a), which I expected to go easily and quickly. The climb goes over a roof about twenty feet above the ground. No big deal, I thought.

(Photo: I'm leading Hang Ten (5.10a). Photo by Andy.)

But I was mentally fried at this point. I got good gear at the roof but as I pulled over I missed an obvious hold and, mystified, I had to take a hang. Then on the second try I found the hold and felt very stupid.

The run-out 5.6 slab after the roof on Hang Ten is quite nice. Hang Ten is a pretty decent little climb.

Whatever (5.10a)

We finished things up with Whatever (5.10a), which Andy led. This is a 50-foot 5.7 face climb with a brief 5.10 slab at the very end of the pitch. There is fiddly gear a little bit below your feet as you make the hard moves, which makes it a bit scary.

(Photo: Andy trying to get solid pro for the crux of Whatever (5.10a).)

It isn't much to write home about. I would never return to it except that I have to lead it in order to take it off my list! So I will go back to Whatever.

I ended the day a little bit frustrated with my on-sight rate. I have several routes that I must do again, though I think they will all be easy to knock off now that I've done them once.

(Photo: That's me, just three weeks ago, in between flare-ups, on To Be or Not To Be (5.12a). Photo by Gail.)

As I write this post, with a bag of frozen vegetables perched upon my shoulder, I can only hope that I'll have good news to report from the Needles, and opportunities for more progress on my Gunks list soon afterward. 

It may be that after my trip I'll have to dial it significantly back and focus on getting healthy for the fall. If this has to happen, it won't be too big a loss. We've hardly had a spring but it's practically over already. It will soon be hot and muggy. If I have to take it easy through the yucky months, then so be it.

But I hope not. I hope the neck will feel better soon and I'll just be going for it like always. I'll let you know how it works out.