Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mac Wall In-A-Day: A Non-Birthday Challenge

(Photo: I'm getting ready to fire the roof on Star Action (5.10b). Photo by Andy.)

Over the past few years I've gotten to know the Mac Wall pretty well. The wall is stacked with classic 5.10 climbs. For a long time I was intimidated by several of the routes, but as the years went by I eventually climbed all of them (except for Water King (5.10d R), which no one ever does). I'm very familiar with some of the climbs, especially the hardest ones, which took me multiple attempts to redpoint. A few of them I've only done once or twice, and one of them-- MF Direct (5.10a)-- I've only followed.

Last year, after I finally sent the testpieces Coexistence (5.10d) and Graveyard Shift (5.10d), it occurred to me that I might be ready to try to lead all of the tens at the Mac Wall in a single day. I was just thinking of the first pitches. The challenge would involve these ten climbs:

Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a)
Interstice (5.10b)
Mother's Day Party (5.10b)
MF Direct (5.10a)
Men at Arms (5.10b)
Try Again (5.10b)
Coexistence (5.10d)
Star Action (5.10b)
Graveyard Shift (5.10d) and
Tough Shift (5.10a).

It is quite a list! Some of them are very hard and many of them have some serious moments.

I thought this would be a good challenge for me because while I believed it would be difficult, it didn't sound utterly crazy, like the day those guys did 30 pitches of 5.10. I know I can't match that. My challenge, by contrast, seemed within the realm of the possible for ordinary humans.

Still, leading ten 5.10's was much more than I'd ever tried to do in a day. I didn't know if I'd be up to it. I could really be dogging it by the end. Maybe at some point I'd get exhausted and become too frightened to keep leading hard climbs.

This wasn't a "birthday challenge," exactly. I wanted to do it when it was still cool out, and my birthday is in late June, which is not optimal Gunks season. Also I thought it would have to happen on a weekday, since the Mac Wall tends to get very busy and I didn't think I'd be able to afford to wait around for routes to open up.

But as 2016 got going I couldn't seem to find a time to do the challenge. Nor could I make it work out on a weekday. As we got into June and my birthday approached, I decided to call it a birthday challenge and just to go ahead and try to do it on my next day out, whenever that day turned out to be.

Andy and I were planning to climb on one recent Sunday. The high was supposed to be around 80 degrees. This was not ideal but I figured it would have to do.

I asked Andy by email if he would be up for belaying me on my Mac Wall challenge.

Being the good friend and partner that he is, Andy was an instant supporter.

"Challenge accepted," he wrote.

Here is my pitch-by-pitch account of our day:

1. Try Again (5.10b), 9:00 a.m.

It is already warm when we arrive at the cliff. I had hoped to start with MF, but we find it occupied. No big deal. We move over to Try Again (5.10b) and get ready to begin.

I decide it makes sense to start on the right side of the wall. I want to get the hardest climbs (Try Again, Coexistence (5.10d) and Graveyard Shift (5.10d)) out of the way first, while I am still relatively fresh. And since Try Again and Coex are popular, it seems like a good idea to get them done now, while they are open.

Racking up, I feel very nervous. I know I can do all of these routes, individually. I worry that I will be overwhelmed by ten in a row. I have to be careful not to let myself get so tired that my judgment becomes impaired.

I'm not that concerned about sending them all. Of course I want to send as many as I can, but I know I have a good chance of falling on Coex and maybe Graveyard. They will be hard for me no matter how well I remember my beta.

I want to avoid falling to the extent possible, to avoid wasting both energy and time. The goal is to get through all ten routes.

Shaking off the jitters, I start up Try Again. It is hot in the sun but I feel good all the way up to the crux. Thinking that I remember my beta, I clip the pin and go for it.

(Photo: Andy at the crux of Try Again (5.10b).)

The crimps above the roof feel greasy in the heat. This roof is hard! I fumble trying to place my toe. I can't hang on and I fall.

I change my approach and "try again."

I fall again.

I had hoped to send this climb. But now I've fallen twice, right out of the starting gate. Maybe I'm not feeling so great today?

I'm starting to become upset. With new resolve I go back up and try my original beta again. Success! I am over the roof, where I find a nut placement, right in front of my face, that I've never noticed before. The thin step to the right after the roof feels much more secure with this nut in place. I'll have to file that away for future reference.

Andy cruises the pitch as the second.

2. Coexistence (5.10d), 9:50 a.m.

I've had a slow start, and I expect this second pitch to be the toughest of the day. But I think I remember what to do. I believe I can get the send on Coex. I know I can.

(Photo: I'm starting up Coexistence (5.10d). Photo by Andy.)

I'm still feeling very anxious. Nevertheless I climb smoothly all the way up to the roof. I place my crux gear, clip one of the pins, and shake out. I think I'm in good shape. Once I feel rested, I commit to the moves.

But it just doesn't feel right. I can't make the move I've rehearsed in my mind. I step up and down, up and down. Something is off. I can't match my hands where I usually do it. Finally I take a hang. 

Failure number two. This is becoming a pattern. And I'm wasting precious time.

(Photo: I'm confronting the crux on Coex. Photo by Andy.)

What am I missing? Is this just not my day? Staring at the holds, I realize I've been grabbing the wrong feature with my left hand. I've become blinded by a faulty memory-- a slave to bad beta.

I go up again and sail over the roof. It feels easier than Try Again.

Grrrrrrrrrr. This was a missed opportunity. I really should have sent Coex.

Andy has never been on Coex before. He struggles a bit but ultimately gets the top rope onsight.

3. Men at Arms (5.10b), 10:40 a.m.

I am expecting this one to go smoothly. It is one of the easiest tens at the Mac Wall. And this is a good thing because I do not intend to fall on Men at Arms. The gear is spaced and sometimes iffy.

(Photo: Andy almost finished with Men at Arms (5.10b).)

It goes well. I really like the climbing on this route. But there are moves of 5.9-ish difficulty all over it that are above so-so gear. After the upper crux move (which comes above a tiny nut placement) there is a significant runout before you can get a piece again. I am not happy to be so far above my gear. Did I find better gear the other time I did this route? I don't remember going so far without a piece.

Whatever, it is over and done with. I finally have a send in the bank.

Andy follows the pitch with no issues.

4. Graveyard Shift (5.10d), 11:30 a.m.

This is the most tense moment of the day for me. As I prepare to start Graveyard Shift I realize that of all of the demanding climbing at Mac Wall, the thing that scares me the most is the initial 5.8/5.9 runout over a bulge on Graveyard Shift. I have never come close to falling here but I have found that my fear of this section never goes away. Staring up at it fills me with dread.

(Photo: Andy at the scary bulge on Graveyard Shift (5.10d).)

I swallow my emotions and start climbing. The bulge goes fine. But then I blow it once again at the well-protected crux. I forget about a drop-knee move that I usually do when I reach above the roof. I correct my footing mid-reach but I slip off just as my fingers are touching the hold.

I'm learning that it might be better to have no beta than to mindlessly try to execute the wrong beta.

I finish Graveyard feeling depressed. This day is not meeting my expectations. So far I am one for four. I am a bundle of nerves, sweaty, rushing, making lots of mistakes. Am I really going to soldier on through all ten climbs? I am officially sucking.

Andy follows the pitch cleanly.

5. Star Action (5.10b), 12:44 p.m.

Now that Coex and Graveyard Shift are behind me, it is like a great weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I FINALLY relax. Star Action goes beautifully and I really enjoy it, more than I ever have before. I sail up the face to the roof, barely have to lunge for the good hold, and make the mental-crux move to the left with no worries. It feels great, and gives me a much-needed boost of confidence.

(Photo: That's me in the early going on Star Action (5.10b). Photo by Andy.)

I am amused to see Andy struggle, for once. He's done everything cleanly so far, and has previously led Star Action when the crux was wet! But this time he can't find the holds and ends up throwing wildly for the jug above the roof. Of course he sticks the dyno, but it ain't pretty. It's easy to climb like that when you are on top rope! I'd like to see him try it that way on lead.

6. Tough Shift (5.10a), 1:25 p.m.

I'm not worried about Tough Shift at all. It has a reputation as a dangerous climb but I know the runouts are in relatively easy territory. I've done it before and I am certain it will be fine.

It goes perfectly. I carefully negotiate the tricky starting crack and then the runout upper face feels free and easy. It is a great pitch. This is actually my first complete send of Tough Shift. Last year when I led it I struggled in the opening crack.

(Photo: Andy about to move left onto the runout face at the end of Tough Shift (5.10a).)

Andy cleans it with little effort and we head to the left side of the wall.

7. MF Direct (5.10a R), 2:24 p.m.

I am cruising now. We are past the halfway point and I feel strong. The weather has changed. Clouds are rolling through, threatening rain but also bringing a pleasant, cool breeze.

I've never led this route before. But in the past when I've followed it I have checked out the gear, and I think I know what I want to place.

It goes down easily. I believe with my special gear beta the route is safe, and not R-rated at all. Here is the beta, if you want it: I get a purple C3 in a tiny vertical seam after the first hard move, and then a bomber blue Alien at the thin horizontal a couple of moves higher. After that it's just one more move to the chains.

(Photo: Andy on MF Direct (5.10a).)

Andy follows MF Direct quickly; it is our fastest pitch of the day.

I like MF Direct. It has a couple of big moves to great holds. It is barely 5.10. But I think the 5.9 version is more fun.

8. Mother's Day Party (5.10b), 3:00 p.m.

I feel like I'm floating now, everything is clicking. I love this pitch. It goes like clockwork. I place two pieces before each of the cruxes and then I fire them off. Great moves and two very different, interesting sequences.

(Photo: I'm just past the first crux on Mother's Day Party (5.10b). Photo by Andy.)

I would climb this pitch any time but to my mind it is actually the most R-rated pitch on the wall. At the first crux you are going to go splat on a ledge if you blow it. There is no avoiding it. And there is good pro for the start of the second crux but by the time you make the last big move to a jug, your gear is ten feet below your ankles. The fall would be huge. The climbing is relatively soft for 5.10b, in my opinion, so if you're solid then all is well. But this route is not to be undertaken lightly.

(Photo: Andy at the upper crux on Mother's Day Party.)

Andy takes his first and only fall of the day on Mother's Day Party, when he gets puzzled in the flakes at the first crux. Perhaps he's getting tired? He goes right back up and, grabbing the jug, curses himself. Hey, nobody's perfect.

9. Interstice (5.10b), 3:50 p.m.

The end is in sight. We are taking our time now. We pause to support a leader named Ryan who is taking his first run up MF (the 5.9 version). He sends! We cheer.

(Photo: Ryan on MF (5.9).)

The cliff has gone into the shade and conditions could not be better. I am loving life.

Interstice, like Mother's Day Party, has perfect rock and two interesting, very different cruxes. It is as good as any other route at the wall but I never see anyone leading it. It is thought to be somewhat run out but in my opinion it has just enough gear, exactly where you need it.

(Photo: Andy at the first crux on Interstice (5.10b).)

I climb the route without a problem, standing up carefully against the blank slab at the first crux, and quickly cranking through the second crux bulge after placing bomber tiny pro in the left-facing corner. The final moments heading up and left to the Birdie Party bolts are a little bit heady, but are probably no harder than 5.8. Not a concern. Such a good pitch, from start to finish.

Andy follows cleanly but remarks that it might be a challenging lead.

10. Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a), 4:45 p.m.

We've reached our last route. I climb it joyfully, without a care in the world. I don't feel tired at all. There is one 5.8 move above the second horizontal where the pro (green Alien) is suspect. If you fall here and the piece blows, you will hit the ground. So it is important to climb with caution in the early going. Otherwise the gear on the route is great.

(Photo: I'm inspecting the holds at the start of Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a). Photo by Andy.)

The last time I led this route I hesitated at the crux crimps but this time I dance right past them. It doesn't even feel like a crux. The route as a whole is quite nice, with consistent 5.8/5.9-ish face climbing similar to Higher Stannard (5.9-) and Birdie Party (P1 5.8+). Some of the holds are a little bit sandy. It is well worth doing.

(Photo: Andy bringing it home on our last route, Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a).)

Andy likes the route too, says it feels pretty casual.

And that's it! We are done. We call it a wrap at 5:30 p.m.

*             *              *

In retrospect, I feel reasonably good about how the day went. I started off pretty shaky, and failed on some routes I should have sent. I might have done better if I had saved the hardest routes for later in the day, when they would have been in the shade. Heat and direct sunlight make such a huge difference. But if I'd saved the hardest climbs for later, I might not have been so relaxed on the easier tens, so who knows whether things would have actually gone any more smoothly.

On the positive side, I eventually settled down and sent seven 5.10's in one day-- six of them in a row, one after another. I've never done anything like that before. And I have to try to keep in mind that the whole idea of doing something like this is a sign of my improvement as a climber. The notion of doing this challenge would have seemed completely insane to me just a short time ago. Two years ago I thought I would never have the guts to try to lead Coex. Just last summer I felt the same way about Graveyard Shift and Tough Shift. So much has happened over the last year or so. I feel like a totally different person.

I was surprised at how strong I still felt at the end of the day. Andy felt fine too. As we walked out we started talking about trying to do twenty tens in a day, with each of us leading ten of them. I think the chief obstacle would not be endurance, but time. We would need a relatively long day and we'd have to make a concerted effort to go faster than we did at the Mac Wall.

I think it is possible for us. I do think it would be far less casual than our Mac Wall day, and might become something of a deathmarch by the end.

In other words: it sounds fun!

I am grateful to Andy for supporting me in this little project and sacrificing his day for my goals. I look forward to belaying him all day on a siege of twelve 5.12's or something. It could happen. We'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Getting Sporty in the New River Gorge

(Photo: Andy on Call 9-1-1 (5.13a), at the Endless Wall.)

I am sorry. It has been almost two months since my four-day trip to the New River Gorge in West Virginia

I have been slow to post about it.

I really, REALLY liked the New. I will definitely go again. I enjoyed the climbing we did and I'd love to find a way to do more of this style of sport climbing. And though we did some trad, we didn't really get a representative sample of what is available, so I'd like to go back to try some of the crack climbing in the gorge.

Andy and I planned our trip for mid-April, thinking it would be warm enough by then, but not too warm. The weather looked iffy as the trip approached. But Andy and I kept hope alive, and on the eve of our trip a new forecast materialized, and it was a thing of beauty. We were looking at four straight days of sunshine and temperatures in the sixties and seventies.

As I prepared to go to the New, I tried to get myself into the proper mindset. I'd always been a trad chauvinist. I'd never really given sport climbing a fair chance. It's not that I hadn't been sport climbing before. No, I'd had some exposure to sport climbing at several climbing areas, including Red Rocks, Rumney, the Red River Gorge, and Boulder Canyon. I'd enjoyed these areas.

But I'd always been cautious when sport climbing. I'd never truly embraced it, pushing my limits and climbing until I fell. I had been a sport tourist. This time I wanted it to be different. I wanted to go to the New and find out what I could do. I wanted to try hard climbs and maybe even work a route.

Crazy talk, right?

Also hanging like a specter over our trip were Batman and Superman. 

The movie had just come out.

And somehow it had come up in conversation that Andy was the proud owner of both a Batman and a Superman onesie. 

I know this raises some important questions.

Such as:

Why does Andy own superhero onesies?

And why were we talking about them?

I don't know. I can't explain it. Ask Andy.

But at some point in our conversation I suggested that we should climb in the onesies. It would be Batman vs. Superman, come to life! Pure awesomeness. Andy agreed.

I thought we were just kidding around. But as far as Andy was concerned the matter was deadly serious. He took me up on my offer and brought the onesies to West Virginia. Being no stranger to climbing in stupid outfits, I wasn't about to back out of our deal. At some point we would have to put them on.


But not right away.

On our first day, a Friday, Andy and I went to the Endless Wall, the New's most impressive crag. The cliff here goes on for miles, and Andy and I got to see a lot of it when we started out in the wrong direction and went down a random ladder to find ourselves nowhere near our intended destination.

After a bit of a hike along the base of the wall we finally located the climbs we wanted, in the Snake Buttress area.

I started our trip off with a bang by leading Discombobulated (5.11b). I quickly discovered a couple of things:

(1) Ratings at the New are stiff!


(2) Sport climbing at the New requires rather more commitment than I am used to. The first bolts are often high and the spacing between bolts can be wide.

(Photo: I'm starting up Discombobulated (5.11b), crimping nervously to the first bolt. Photo by Andy.)

Discombobluated was a tough initiation into the ways of the New. It starts with a technical thin face past a high first bolt. I nervously made it past this test but then peeled off shortly after clipping, on the very next move up the thin face. From the start of the route I was sweating it out and climbing scared. My head was not together. I was surprised to feel so shaky. I had expected to be a little more relaxed, as I am indoors at the gym.

And of course I regularly climb above trad gear in the Gunks, which ought to be more mentally challenging than clipping bolts, right?

I shouldn't have been surprised. I hadn't climbed a sport pitch outside since I was in the Red River Gorge back in October 2014. And I'd never before chosen to warm up with a mid-range 5.11.

After getting this first fall out of the way I resumed climbing Discombobulated and tried to remain calm-- combobulated, if you will-- as I worked my way up to the actual crux, a roof with some slippery holds just before the anchor. I was shaking (for no apparent reason) as I struggled to commit to the moves, but after a few false starts and some self-exhortation I made it through the crux to the finishing notch without falling or hanging.

My partner Andy, aka Mr. Sport Climber, sent the route without hesitation, of course. He was in his element here. 

Next Andy wanted to check out a 5.12 so we moved over to Bullet the New Sky (5.12a). Here Andy struggled through hard moves moving around and through the overhanging arete not far off the ground. But he eventually got it done.

(Photo: Andy heading up Bullet the New Sky (5.12a).)

As hard as it was for Andy, the route was harder for me. I struggled in several places and got completely shut down at one hard move. In the New, I was discovering, 5.12 is the real thing.

These first routes set a pattern that would be repeated through the rest of our trip. 5.11 in the New would be challenging for me. I would on-sight some 5.11's, and I would have to work at others. I found 5.12's to be very hard and generally would be frustrated, even mystified, by at least one move. Sometimes I could fight my way to the top with some falling and hanging but during our short trip I never got to where I could put together a send on a 5.12. Andy, by contrast, generally cruised all of the 5.11's and had to work a bit on the 5.12's. He sent a couple of them.

(Photo: Look close and you'll find me up there near the finish of Legacy (5.11a). Photo by Andy.)

Over the rest of our first day my lead head improved as I got used to the climbing style in the New. Leading Legacy (5.11a), I was able to keep the irrational sport climbing jitters at bay and I got the on-sight. I really loved this pitch. It has a great roof problem and then a beautiful shallow dihedral with technical moves up to another overhang at the finish.

(Photo: We were alone for the whole morning of our first day in the New, and then who should appear but our NYC gym friends Iwen and Gautam! We had no idea they were coming.)

Andy attacked another 5.12 called New World Order (5.12a), and even took an abortive go at a 5.13a called Call 9-1-1. I worked at the 5.12 for a while and didn't even attempt the 5.13. It appeared absolutely blank to me. 

But the ratings and my abilities aside, I loved the climbing we were doing. I found the routes to be so much more interesting than the sport climbs I'd done elsewhere. While sport climbing in the Red (for example) often feels gym-like, with its overhanging jug hauls, in the New I was delighted to find thin faces, long reaches to crimps, bulges, roofs, and technical corners and aretes. I'd always found sport climbing unmemorable, but not at the New.

We ended our day on an outstanding 5.10b called Strike a Scowl. Along with Legacy, this route was a candidate for my favorite climb of the trip. It features fun moves up a thin, textured face. The rock is gorgeous to look at and through the upper part of the pitch you cling to an improbable stacked flake system. The climbing is reasonable but I sure wouldn't call it easy for 5.10.

(Photo: Andy working out the thin moves on Strike a Scowl (5.10b).)

Around midday we were joined at the Endless Wall by some gym friends of ours from NYC named Iwen and Gautam. We had no idea they were coming, but we were excited to run into them and spent the next few days hanging out near them and sharing some meals together. Over pizza and beer on Friday evening Iwen and Gautam told us they were heading to the crag called Kaymoor in the morning. This sounded good to us so we decided to go there too for our second day.

When Andy and I hiked down to the Butcher's Branch section of Kaymoor the next morning, we found it packed with people. We decided to walk a bit more and found less of a crowd at the nearby Seven Eleven Wall, so we set up there for the day.

This area is known for its collection of 5.11 routes. It seems like 5.11 is the entry-level sport grade at most of the crags in the New. 

(Photo: Andy at the first overhang on Tony the Tiger (5.11c) at the Seven Eleven Wall. To the right of Andy a climber is visible on Scenic Adult (5.11c).)

I was really happy with our day here. Almost all of the routes were fun and they were all quite different from one another. We started with the forgettable (and somewhat dirty) short route Butcher Man (5.11a), but things got better from there. I had to take a few falls to work out the crux on the one I liked the best, a climb called Scenic Adult (5.11c). The route has good moves up and around an arête, followed by a very exposed and pumpy traverse to the lip of a roof. I thought that Tit Speed (5.11c), on the left end of the wall, was also very tough, with a steep and technical starting sequence, which led to more big moves in overhanging territory. This was the only eleven that Andy had any trouble with, as I recall.

(Photo: I'm climbing Bimbo Shrine (5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

I had better luck with Tony the Tiger (5.11c), a roof climb which seemed easy for the grade, and Bimbo Shrine (5.11b), a face climb that passes a few bulges with steep, crimpy cruxes. 

We decided to treat our third day as a sort of rest day, doing some easy trad in the Meadow River Gorge. I knew that this was not the very best trad area in the New, but I thought it would be nice to see a different part of the region. Most of the routes we did, at the Sunkist Wall at the far end of the gorge, were nothing to write home about, though one 5.9 corner climb called Arachnophobia was pretty nice. It would be worth making a special trip for this climb, if only it were longer.

(Photo: I'm leading Arachnophobia (5.9) at the Sunkist Wall in the Meadow River Gorge. Photo by Andy.)

Andy couldn't make himself take it easy for the whole day. He ticked a 5.12 send on a short, steep sport route called Fresh Boy (5.12a).

(Photo: Andy on Fresh Boy (5.12a).)

It was so pleasant to be in the Meadow River Gorge. The river was always close by. Its clear, cool waters were a soothing presence. I thought the rock in the gorge was pretty to look at, too, with its fiery orange shades. 

The most pleasant thing of all: we were all by ourselves on a beautiful Sunday. 

As we walked back to the road we stopped to look at a couple of the prime attractions of the area, like Mango Tango (sport 5.14a) and The Greatest Show On Earth (trad 5.13a). They seemed far beyond us (or me, anyway) but were impressive to behold.

We ended our day with a beautiful, sandbagged sport 5.10c called Winter Harvest, which ascends a juggy roof and a steep arête. 

(Photo: Andy on Winter Harvest (5.10c).)

Our fourth and final day was a short one. We had to hit the road at midday for the eight-hour drive back to NYC. We elected to spend our final morning checking out Summersville Lake. We'd heard good things about the area. Gautam said it was his favorite place to climb in the New. It is known for having more entry-level sport climbs than many of the other areas of the New. And judging by my Facebook feed, Summersville Lake is home to everyone's favorite 5.13a, a climb called Apollo Reed.

We got to the parking lot early. We needed to cram in some good climbing before leaving town.

We also had to put on our onesies.

It was now or never.

We hiked down to the Long Wall and found a group of 5.11 sport climbs in a perfect setting right next to the lake. What a beautiful place!

Getting into costume, we assumed our battle positions.

(Photos: Getting into character at Summersville Lake.)

We were dressed to kill. But we hadn't really considered the weather. It had grown hotter each day since we arrived in the New. Even though it was still early morning, it was already approaching 80 degrees. The Long Wall was baking in direct sunlight. And we were wearing long-sleeve flannel pajamas. 

We climbed a couple of the 5.11's, but all I really remember is that I was hot.

(Photo: That's me climbing something. Photo by Andy.)

Wearing the black outfit, I felt like I was in a greenhouse. And the cape kept getting in my way as I reached for draws. 

Oh, the dark side of being a superhero! Who knew?

(Photo: Andy in the spirit of things as Superman.)

It wasn't long before we shed the costumes and moved around the corner to the shady side of the wall, where we found a fun collection of steep 5.10 routes. Grateful for the shade, we camped out here for the remainder of our time. We knocked off all of the tens and then it was time to head out.

Our trip was over. I'm not sure we found the best of Summersville Lake, but we had fun. 

(Photo: That's me, finishing our trip with Flight Path (5.10b).)

I left feeling I'd gotten a great introduction to the New River Gorge. 

I loved it there, and I could see how being a regular at the New would make me a much stronger climber. Just in the course of our short trip, once I got used to the sport mentality, it became very clear exactly where my level was. If I could climb at the New all the time, I would have a virtually endless supply of climbs with which to push my level, one letter grade at a time. Without all the mental nonsense of trad climbing, my work could be focused on the moves alone. And since I liked the style of climbing so much, I wouldn't get immediately bored with such an enterprise.

Would I prefer the New to my beloved home crag, the Gunks? I wouldn't go that far. I still cherish the mental nonsense of trad climbing. Most of the time I still think that's what it's all about, for me.

But there's no doubt that if I had a place like the New closer to NYC, it would make me better.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Learning the (Top) Ropes in Lost City

(Photo: That's me leading Resistance (5.10c) at Lost City. Photo by Connie.)

I'm getting frustrated.

"I don't think I can do this," I say.

We are in Lost City, in the area known as the Survival Block. It is ground zero for Gunks hard man top-roping.

I'm just one move off of the ground and I'm already flailing on an "easy" 5.12 top-rope. I need to get up an overhanging arête using invisible Houdini footholds. A juggy rail is just out of reach. I can't find a way to stay in balance and sneak up to the good hold.

Perhaps I can forget about advanced footwork and throw for the jug? My partner Andy has just done it this way.

I try for the throw and come up short, swinging out away from the wall a few feet above the talus blocks.

"Maybe this is pointless," I wonder out loud.

"You'll never know if you don't actually try," Andy says. "You have to do it again, and COMMIT this time."

I know he's right. My throw was utterly half-assed. I set up to try again, and fail again. But I'm improving: I get my fingers on the good hold for half a second.

"You've almost got it and you're still not really going for it," Andy observes. "Stop being such a WIENER about it, and you've got it made."

Again, I know he is absolutely right. What am I afraid of? Is it the harmless swing out into space? Could it be the crowd of onlookers, every one of them (I assume) a better climber than me?

I psych myself up to try again.

"Just do the move, idiot."

Eventually I get the jug.

The rest of the climb goes more smoothly. I don't get it clean but I quickly work out the difficult bits and believe I could do these moves again. Once I am back on the ground, I feel okay about it all.

Resistoflex is a Gunks 5.12. And it isn't that bad! It can be accomplished by mortals.

(Photo: Gabe taking a quick top-rope run on Resistoflex (5.12), with Andy handling the belay. Gabe led the pitch earlier in the day.)

If I come back to Resistoflex and run through it a few more times I might even consider leading it.

I'm still not used to this style of working routes, but I am coming around to it.

*    *    * 

Years ago I dabbled a bit with the Gunks top-rope game and found it maddening, boring, even counter-productive. Twelves in the Gunks seemed cryptic and impossible. Why was I wasting my time shredding my tips on these climbs that I couldn't do and did not enjoy? I had a mile-long list of easier, leadable routes I desperately wanted to climb.

I recognized that other people achieved rapid progress by working these hard routes into submission. But I had a limited number of climbing days and I wanted to spend them doing full-length, world-class routes, not struggling for hours just to do a few hard moves. If slow improvement was the price I had to pay for adventure and on-sight leading, then that was a bargain I was happy to accept.

This way of climbing was very satisfying to me, for a while. But then I seemed to stagnate at the 5.10 level. I fooled around with the tens for years, having occasional success with the easiest climbs in the grade but struggling with the harder ones. The most impressive tens in the Gunks seemed beyond me, or too scary. Elevens? No way.

I wanted to get better, but I didn't want to sacrifice what I found most fun about climbing: going for the on-sight and trying new routes. So for a long time I just carried on in the same way, and didn't really get anywhere.

I finally broke through the plateau when I started treating my climbing as a series of projects. I picked climbs that I knew were pushing my limits. I hoped for the on-sight but if it didn't happen I did not give up and move on. Instead I thought about what I needed to do to come back and succeed. And then I made sure to return and put in the work.

This approach yielded dividends. I sent harder climbs than I'd ever considered possible before. And routes I used to struggle with seemed suddenly easy. I knocked off many of the legendary classics I'd always dreamed of doing. With my horizons broadened to include many climbs that were new and difficult for me, I didn't feel like I lost much of anything in terms of adventure.

And now it is 2016, a new season. In order to keep improving, I know I have to keep picking climbs outside my comfort zone. And recently I've started thinking that if I really want to get significantly better, I need to reassess my antipathy towards working on seriously hard stuff on TR.

So when Andy and I headed up to the Gunks on a recent Sunday, I was thinking about Lost City, the home of the hard top-ropes. Our friends Connie and Alex were coming along, and they also had the same idea, so we were all on the same page.....


I had several climbs I wanted to lead. I figured we would probably get around to doing something on TR eventually. But first I had some unfinished business to take care of with Stannard's Roof (5.10).

(Photo: That's me on Stannard's Roof (5.10) in 2013, struggling to get the wrong cam off of my gear sling.)

I led this route in July of 2013 and I should have sent it on the first go. I fell because I wasted all of my energy trying (and failing) to get a cam off of my gear sling. I remember it as a comical scene. I was fully horizontal in the roof, hanging in there forever in the slimy summer heat. My cams were all behind my back, dangling off of my gear sling into space. I couldn't see the gear. I had to fumble blindly to get at the cam I wanted. Finally I got the cam loose, but then as I reached up to place it I saw to my horror that I'd fished out the wrong cam. It wouldn't fit, and I was screwed.

After this incident I swore off the gear sling forever. I have racked on my harness ever since.

Now, almost three years later, I hoped to run through Stannard's Roof as our warm-up, with no drama. This was April, not July, and there was a chill in the air. The rock felt fine in the sun, but as I approached the roof I went into the shade under the big ceiling. The rock under there was quite cold to the touch. But I wasn't worried about it (cold rock = good friction!), and I tried not to waste any time as I moved out under the roof. I placed one cam, moved out some more, and placed another.

Everything was going great as I grabbed the holds at the lip of the overhang. I just had to rotate my body and reach up to the higher holds so I could stand up above the roof. I was almost done. Easy peasy.

(Photo: Andy coming up Stannard's Roof (5.10).)

But then I couldn't move. The rope seemed stuck. I looked down under the roof to see what the problem was, and I realized, once again to my horror, that I'd messed up. I had Z-clipped my two cams under the roof! This was a nightmare. Talk about a comical scene. What was I going to do now?

Moving up was not an option. I had to downclimb back under the roof to fix the cams. I couldn't see any alternative. So that's what I did. I reversed the moves, unclipped the second cam, and re-clipped it correctly. Then I had to climb back up and out again, and by this time the tips of my fingers were freezing. They were starting to burn. But I was determined not to blow it and I got out without falling.

(Photo: Andy making it over the lip on Stannard's Roof (5.10).)

I was furious with myself for making such a stupid mistake, but happy I was able to hang in there. I was so relieved to get to the stance above the roof.

(Photo: Andy leading an unnamed (?) 5.10 to the right of Stannard's. This is a good route, with a fun crux at the triangular overlap.)

Andy and I did a few more 5.10 leads and then went looking for Connie and Alex. They had started out climbing nearby, but at some point they'd wandered off. We found them at the Survival Block with some other folks we know from our gym, the Cliffs at LIC.

Gabe, a strong climber who is less than half my age, seemed to be leading the group. He'd set up ropes on Resistoflex as well as on Persistent (5.11d) and Survival of the Fittest (5.13a), and on Gold Streaks (5.11) over on the next wall to the right.

Connie was gamely going for it on Survival when we showed up. The climb looked brutally hard. But Connie was thrilled to be trying something that was a real challenge for her. Kat, another LIC regular, was taking multiple burns on Persistent, trying to pink-point it on lead with pre-placed gear.

(Photo: Kat on Persistent (5.11d), with Gabe belaying her.)

As I watched them gleefully working these routes, I knew that I should be doing exactly what they were doing. Why am I not more like them? If I had the same attitude, I would improve. I felt shamed. So Andy and I did some top-roping.

It went fine. The world did not come crashing down around us. We had fun. Andy and I ran up Gold Streaks (5.11), a wonderful route with poor protection. Then we gave Resistoflex a good effort, which in the end was very worthwhile, and not pointless at all.

Gabe offered me a run on Persistent, but I begged off. I had reasons, of course. I told myself that the climb has great gear; it seemed like I should save it for an on-sight attempt. But the real reason was that there were so many people around. Several of them were strangers to me. Such a big audience made me self-conscious. I felt like I didn't belong.

Honestly, I was being silly. But Connie and Alex had wandered off again, and this provided as good an excuse as any for us to clear out too. We wanted to find our friends. So we moved on.

(Photo: Alex on Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).)

We located them at the far right end of Lost City, laying siege to another 5.12. I'd never ventured this far over to the right before. The trail comes much closer to the cliff line at this end, and most of the rock is on little free-standing buttresses. I don't know the names of any of the routes in this area, but it looks like there are a bunch of easy scrambles... and one imposing, overhanging climb up a smooth face.

This is Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).

When Andy and I arrived, Alex had already set it up on TR. He was now climbing it, and was almost at the top, having figured out the hard bits. He was thinking about leading it at some time in the near future.

(Photo: Connie on Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).)

Once he was done, I watched Connie work her way up the route. It seemed like there were two very very hard cruxes. And one of them was wet.

I started thinking about finding something else to do. I could see a crack climb over yonder. It didn't look too bad, probably 5.9 or 5.10. Maybe Andy and I could go do that one...

But it was too late. Connie was finished. The rope was free. There was to be no escape.

It was my turn to man up and do some more 5.12 top-roping.

*    *    *

I'm getting frustrated again.

Is this really the move?

I'm supposed to hold on to this ridiculously small, greasy crimp? And then I have to rock up over a high heel hook?

This crux is heinous!

I find myself saying it again: "I don't think I can do this."

Andy says he's heard that one before.

But this time I'm doing my best to prove that I mean it. I really, truly, can't do it. I'm failing over and over again. My fingers won't stay on the hold. I can't find the flexibility to get my heel up. When I manage to get the heel up, I'm frozen. I have no leverage to rock up over the heel.

I keep on falling.

I'm conscious of the fact that it's about to get dark. We have to hike out of here soon.

I hate this.

But I have to admit I'm slowly getting better. When I first tried the crux I couldn't hold the crimp at all, but now I can step up, just so, and grab it as if it is an actual hold.

I keep working the angle on the heel hook and finally, after who knows how many attempts, it all clicks. I grab the crimp; I raise my heel; I lock it in. Somehow I'm shifting my weight over the heel hook and I find myself standing, not falling. I have done it.

My three friends cheer, mostly because now we can get our gear back and go home.

But never mind, I take it as validation.

I'm learning.

I can do this.

I can top-rope.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Last Days of The Winter (5.10d)

(Photo: Getting into the overhangs on Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). Photo by Adrian.)

We live in an age of great environmental peril. Temperatures are climbing at an alarming rate. Ice sheets are melting. Scientists project that someday soon the oceans will rise up like giant gulper eels and swallow our coastal cities whole.

It is enough to make you feel guilty whenever the weather is nice. On days when it is warm and the sun is shining, it is hard to enjoy yourself without feeling at least a small, nagging tug of disquietude.

"What a wonderful day," you think to yourself.

"(We are all going to die.)"

So one might expect that yucky, cold days would provoke feelings of relief. Maybe if the weather is lousy, as befits the season, we are NOT going to die. Or not so soon, anyway. We ought to take comfort in any anecdotal evidence we can get that the end is not so near after all.

But it doesn't work that way. Not for me. When it is appropriately damp and cold in March, I am not grateful. I am resentful. I feel the weight of our impending doom, regardless of the present conditions. And I expect something in return. If my property is soon to be beneath the sea, the very least nature can do for me is to grant me some excellent climbing days before everything goes forever into the crapper.

Is that so much to ask?

I was supposed to take a trip to the New River Gorge at the end of this week. "This week" being practically mid-April, for crying out loud. But with snow (!!) in the West Virginia forecast for Friday, and an expected high of 37 degrees in Fayetteville on Saturday, it looks like we are calling it off. We had a contingency plan-- we were going to push it off for one week if the weather was lousy. But the forecast for next week is a solid wall of rain showers. So it looks like that ain't happening either.

I am feeling grumpy about it all. But I will make the best of it.

Maybe I'll console myself with a day in the Gunks, if it gets warm enough to melt the snow they got this week.

Since my last report, I did get out in the Gunks one time, with Adrian. The temperatures were in the low forties (just warm enough for climbing, in my opinion). Unlike my prior (sunny) day with Andy, this one was overcast and the air felt a bit damp.

My goal was to put Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a) away, once and for all. Adrian was willing to do it with me, so we trooped on down there first thing, hoping in vain that we would warm up on the walk.

(Photo: Adrian getting started on the 5.8-ish pitch one of Carbs and Caffeine.)

It was still cold and damp as we got started. Adrian led the first pitch without delay, but as I stood there belaying him I found myself shivering. I told myself I would feel warmer once I got up on the wall. Soon enough I was climbing and I joined Adrian at the anchor, ready to see if the third time would be the charm for me on the crux pitch.

(Photo: Coming up pitch one of Carbs and Caffeine. Photo by Adrian.)

This time I knew I had the beta. It had been only a week since I'd almost sent the damned thing. I expected that the crux move would be hard but as long as I executed my sequences properly I figured I would get through it.

(Photo: Ready to go for it on Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). Photo by Adrian.)

Heading upward through the tiers of overhanging rock, I got to the first bolt without a problem. After I clipped it, I tried to move up into the crux right away, but when I made the big reach up to the sloper hold, I didn't like it. The rock felt slippery. I needed to match on the hold but I wasn't sure I could hold on in the current conditions. I stepped back down and tried to shake out beneath the crux.

Then I went up again. Still no good. It seemed like I was about to slip off the sloper. I had to step back down again.

(Photo: Adrian at the 5.11a crux of Carbs and Caffeine.)

If I didn't get on with this move I was going to end up taking a hang. I was shaking out in an overhanging position. I couldn't really rest. I wished I'd found the knee-bar rest at the crux that people talk about. I decided I couldn't afford to wait around any more.

On the third try I forced myself to commit to the match. I thought for a fraction of a second that I was about to go flying but, luckily, I didn't. I stuck it. And then I stepped up to the crimps knowing that I had this climb in the bag if I could keep it together. I tried to stay focused as I moved up the slab to the final challenge.

(Photo: Adrian in the final crab-crawl traverse on Carbs and Caffeine.)

This time I remembered to move up to the good hold in the corner before plugging in gear for the traverse. Placing a bomber blue Alien over my shoulder, I dove out there into space, hoping I would feel as solid on the no-feet crab-crawl as I had the previous week. But in the damp air the traverse felt a little bit harder. I nearly lost it when one of my toes slid off, but again I managed to hold on and with a few more moves I got around the corner to the stance. The pitch was over.

As I stood there backing up the fixed anchor I felt very relieved. And a little bit proud. Carbs and Caffeine, baby! And it was only March!

I was quickly brought back to earth when we moved on to The Winter. This pitch, at 5.10(d), is supposed to be marginally easier than Carbs and Caffeine-- but it is a very different style of climb, so it is hard to make a meaningful comparison. The Winter is a technical corner climb, with some awkward climbing up a slot before the real business begins in the smooth, thin corner.

The route has been a nemesis of mine. I find it intimidating and scary. I've backed off of it twice before even reaching the crux corner. The early going up the slot is kind of in your face (though it is definitely easier than 5.10+), and the cracks for gear are kind of flaring. On two occasions I've made the first couple of moves, and, confronting a committing sequence with so-so cams, I've decided to step back down and walk away.

(Photo: Starting up the awkward slot on The Winter (5.10d) in October 2014. Photo by Gail. The tights were in honor of Eighties Day in the Gunks.)

I'm sure my fear of the upper portion of the pitch has played a role in the urge I've felt to abort. From the ground it appears there are placements in the crux corner, but they are tiny nuts. There is a piton at the end of the hard climbing, but the move to get to that piton isn't easy and on the lead you are going to be above whatever small gear you can arrange in the corner.

This time around I hoped to commit to the move down low and then, once I reached the main corner, I would make sure I got the best pro I could get.

As I started the pitch I managed to place three pieces before committing to the move out of the initial slot. The move went fine and soon I was standing at the base of the desperate crux corner.

So far, so good.

But then it all fell apart.

(Photo: Finessing gear at the start of the crux corner on The Winter (5.10d). Photo by Adrian.)

I placed as much gear as I could manage. I got a good Alien at my knees and then I placed four (yes, four!) nuts in the corner. I liked a few of these nut placements but they were all small.

I had a hard time getting myself psyched up to launch on up above the nuts. I worked out the move but couldn't make myself go. Eventually I took a hang. Then I made the hard move up the corner but got really nervous making the stand-up move to the piton. I fumbled desperately and then took a real whip. The fall was clean, and now that I'd really welded my top nut in place I felt a bit better about climbing above it again. I went back up, made the final hard move and finished the pitch.

(Photo: Adrian on The Winter (5.10d).)

I'm not happy about how it went. I was so tentative. But now I have The Winter all sorted out. And now I know that The Winter is quite safe. The fall is clean and the nuts are good. Adrian had to fight to get some of them out. I think I should be able to go back and fire it off. And then I'll have to try the second pitch of The Spring (5.10d), directly above, which everyone says is a great roof problem pitch. I've never been on it.

I think Carbs and Caffeine and The Winter showed both my strengths and weaknesses as a climber.

On the plus side, I think I have reached a basic level of climbing proficiency (after many years of mediocrity). And I'm persistent, which is also a plus.

On the negative side, I know I have real mental challenges. I have a fear of falling. When the moves are hard I often find it difficult to commit, even when I'm certain that the gear is good. And when I do eventually commit, my fear makes me climb poorly. I get tunnel vision and fumble around because I am scared. It happened the first time I tried Carbs. And it has happened several times now on The Winter. The fear of falling has caused me to give up, to hang, and to fall.

It is a paradox. To some degree fear is healthy and necessary. Especially when trad climbing, you should always be aware of the risks of falling. It would be foolish and dangerous to behave as if falling were not a potential problem. But when reasonable caution morphs into irrational fear, the danger increases because failure becomes much more likely. The fear makes you fall when you might not have fallen otherwise.

(Photo: Feeling fine while running it out on the first pitch of Annie Oh! (5.8). Photo by Adrian.)

I'm not sure what I can do to address the issue except to keep trying hard. I've never been a big believer in taking practice falls, and I don't think my specific fear of falling would be addressed by the type of deliberate falling one does for practice. It isn't falling in and of itself that is the problem. I'm not paralyzed on easier climbs-- it's when I'm at my limit, or when I'm climbing on a style of route with which I'm uncomfortable.

The good news is that, as I push to work on harder climbs, the grade at which I feel free and easy is also getting higher. I think I really need to push myself to trust my gear and go for it more often. If I can do that, I'll have a shot at on-sighting more of these harder climbs, and I may reach a whole new level.

We'll see how it goes when I pick the next project. What should it be? Harvest Moon (5.11a)? No Man's Land (5.11b)? Square Meal (5.11a)? So many to choose from...