Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mac Wall Machinations: Interstice (P1 5.10b), Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a), Men at Arms (5.10b), & Tough Shift (5.10a)

(Photo: The Trapps in early November.)

My office was closed for Election Day. It was one of those rare weekday climbing opportunities. The weather was going to be beautiful and Julia was looking for a partner.

Julia and I haven't climbed together much so I approached the day as a sort of bonus. I didn't have anything on the agenda.

After we warmed up a bit, we found ourselves at the Mac Wall, standing at the base of Something Interesting (5.7+). It was a weekday so there weren't too many people around. A party was racking up for the ever-popular Three Pines (5.3) but everything else was available, and it was my turn to lead.

(Photo: Julia on Something Interesting (5.7+).)

I've spent a lot of time at the Mac Wall over the last couple of years, but on most of my visits I've been focused on red-pointing just a few of the routes. It took me more than one attempt to nail Try Again, and it happened again with Coexistence. So there remained several routes that I hadn't explored. There were some that I'd top-roped but never led, and a few more routes on the wall that I'd never even touched, despite all of my days there.

I've been thinking lately that I want to fill in the gaps and send everything at this wall. Or at least, all the tens. Or maybe all the tens except for Water King (5.10d R)?

Standing there with Julia, I checked out the nearest 5.10: Interstice. The first pitch is 5.10b. I was on this climb once before, in 2013, with Deepak and Chin. On that occasion nobody led it. I set it up as a top rope from the Birdie Party bolts. I found it devilishly difficult to make the first crux move just ten feet off the ground. You have to stand up on a good foothold above a shallow roof to a balancy position with no handholds to speak of. I also remembered the upper crux as a tough move, cranking over a bulging, leaning corner to a thin stance.

(Photo: This is Chin at the first crux on Interstice (5.10b) in July of 2013. She's been waiting two years for me to write a post about it!)

At the time, two years ago, I didn't think I would ever lead this route. Both cruxes involve moving up past the gear and you have to keep it together above your pieces to complete the sequences.

But that was a long time ago. As I glanced over at Interstice on Election Day with Julia, it looked like good fun to me. I told Julia that I was feeling like leading it. As we talked about the route, I pronounced the name as "Inter-stiss."

One of the guys on Three Pines immediately piped up:

"I am a scientist, so I can tell you: it is pronounced 'In-TER-steh-see.'"

Who knew? I stood corrected (though the people at the Cambridge Dictionaries Online seem to disagree).

It is a clever name. The word means "the space between," which is a good description for a face route which ascends the blank nothingness between other obvious, natural lines.

(Photo: Fall colors at the Mac Wall.)

I racked up and got started. I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped right up into the first crux move and had no trouble standing up above the little rooflet. This was so different from my 2013 experience. Right after this stand-up sequence there is another thin, delicate move up. You really want some gear for this move-- you are still so close to the ground. I managed to get a small Alien in a little v-notch. It seemed like it would hold.

Once I was through these early moves I found pleasant climbing past a shallow left-facing corner and then it was time for the upper crux. I placed the highest gear I could manage in the bulging corner. Then I committed to moving up. It took a little bit of work to get the move right, but I managed to hold on just fine and to get out onto the face, where after one more easy-does-it step up I was relieved to get another small cam in a tiny downward-facing slot.

(Photo: At the upper crux on Interstice (5.10b) in 2013. Photo by Chin.)

I loved Interstice. It has the same excellent rock quality as the other more well-known climbs on this part of the wall, and two excellent, interesting crux sequences. It doesn't get much attention, but I think it is one of the best of the tens on the Mac Wall. And while it is mentally challenging, requiring moves above gear, I believe it is a safe lead. Bring small cams. I used Julia's C3's in addition to my Aliens.

(Photo: Julia on Star Action (5.10b).)

After we were done with Interstice, Julia went hard at Star Action (5.10b), a climb with which I've become quite familiar over the past year or two.

While I stood there belaying Julia I couldn't take my eyes off of Graveyard Shift (5.10d or 5.11a, depending on who you believe). It was another climb I'd tried once on top rope, this past July. I'd gotten it clean on the first try, which was nice.

This is the most feared hard 5.10 on the Mac Wall. Near the start it has some scary, run-out 5.8 climbing over a bulge. And above, at the crux, you go over a small roof with great gear but then you have to make a few more hard moves before you can place anything else. This hard part isn't dangerously run out but I expected it to be very committing.

I decided to go for it. I'd felt so good on Interstice. Again I took Julia's C3's.

I got through the scary 5.8 part just fine and once the run-out section was done I was pretty happy with my pro as I moved delicately up the face to the crux roof. I worked in a few more pieces at the overhang and after shaking out for a while, I went for it.

Alas, I didn't make it. I got above the roof but then I couldn't find a way to stand up. I fell. Then I tried and fell again, and again and again, coming off each time with my feet just above the level of my gear.

With every fall I had to psych myself up to go back above that roof again.

Why was this so much easier on top rope?

Finally I realized I was totally missing a crucial handhold. Once I found it I figured out the sequence and finished the route.

When it was over I was a little bit disappointed that I'd had such a tough time at the crux and that it had turned into such an epic struggle. I wished I'd read the route better. But, on the other hand, I was overjoyed that I'd just led Graveyard Shift, because it meant that OH MY GOD, I AM CAPABLE OF LEADING GRAVEYARD SHIFT.

A year ago I would not have believed that this was possible.

(Photo: Julia approaching the crux roof on Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a).)

As we left the cliff I hoped that the weather would hold out so I could come back soon. I had to return to get the send. A successful lead of Graveyard Shift would really put an exclamation point on the year.

As luck would have it, we had some unseasonably warm temperatures into mid-November. I got back up to the Gunks with Andy on Sunday the 15th, and we went right back to the Mac Wall.

I was debating whether to hop on Graveyard Shift to start our day but there was a party already on it. This was fine by me. I could fill the time by doing the rest of the Mac Wall routes I hadn't led.

I started us off with Men At Arms, which was totally new to me. This climb is supposedly 5.10b. It starts at the same corner as Try Again and then heads left and wanders up the face, past the right side of a big overhang. From below it looks like nothing much. The face appears dirty in places and it is hard to tell where you'll be going.

It went well enough, but the climbing is thin and the gear is spaced and consistently small/fiddly. It seemed like I was stepping above marginal gear to do cruxy moves in the 5.8/5.9 range over and over again.

(Photo: Andy on Men at Arms (5.10b).)

I never found any 5.10 on Men At Arms. Maybe I skipped it? The route wanders a bit and I may have moved right and then left to avoid the "direct" crux climbing. If I'm right about where the direct climbing is, then it doesn't get done much. It is covered in moss.

Also I did the route in one pitch, climbing up until I could traverse over to the Try Again anchor. Doing the climb as one pitch makes for a nice outing of consistent 5.9 climbing-- it is also the way the Trapps App and some users on Mountain Project recommend doing the route. In Dick's book he says you should stop and build a belay at a stance where I wasn't happy with the gear.

I enjoyed Men At Arms, but this route is heady, and very different from all the other Mac Wall climbs. I'm not sure I should admit this, but I have really come to enjoy this type of climbing: thin 5.9 face climbing with marginal gear. I don't know why, but I like the mental challenge. If this type of climbing isn't your bag then you might want to stay away from Men At Arms.

Late in the day I saw someone else on Men At Arms. It was funny: I'd never before seen anyone on this route and then on the same day I decided to finally do it, another person had the same idea. I saw this leader get a little bit lost and then he took a fall. He ripped three pieces, eventually falling thirty feet! He finally came to a stop about fifteen feet off the ground. Luckily it all worked out okay, but it was a close one. I don't know what this says about the route, but please be careful out there, folks.

(Photo: That's me, getting gear for the crux on Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a). Photo by Andy.)

After Andy put up Higher Stannard Direct (5.9), we went back over to Graveyard Shift.

I tried really hard but I felt nervous. The scary 5.8 part seemed scarier the second time around. The handholds were slippery and the footholds seemed very very small. Nevertheless I made it up to the roof, got my gear in place and tried my best to get over it. As I stood up to reach for the undercling hold above the roof-- the last hard move-- I realized, to my dismay, that I'd misplaced my feet. I wasn't set up right. I couldn't release my right hand and I couldn't fix my feet. I fell, cursing.

After a rest I went back up and sailed over the crux, furious that I'd blown it because of a single toe placement. I'll have to go back and try again.

Once we were done with Graveyard, I took a long look at the climb next door: Tough Shift (5.10a).

This was it: the last Mac Wall 5.10; the only one that I'd never tried.

The final frontier.

I'd racked up for Tough Shift once before, back in July, but on that day after checking out the start I decided I wasn't feeling it, and walked away. Though Tough Shift is far from the hardest of the tens on the Mac Wall, it is one of the more frightening leads in the area. It has a reputation for having lots of run-out climbing. In the guidebook, Dick says that Tough Shift is "not for the meek." I'd never seen anyone dare to lead it. It seems that most people are scared away by the orange face at the top, across which you do a rising traverse with no gear until you reach the big overhang. If you mess up here on this upper face you risk a swinging, sideways fall onto an old piton.

Standing there with Andy I felt ready. This was my favorite type of climbing, right? Anyway, I'd just led Graveyard Shift, which had to be more scary than this, surely.

(Photo: Trying to figure out the opening crack on Tough Shift (5.10a). Photo by Debra Beattie.)

Getting started, I had a bit of trouble working out the move to get established in the vertical crack at the bottom of the face. There are great nuts here, so it wasn't a big worry. And it turned out that getting established in this crack is the only 5.10 climbing on the route. Once I finally worked out this move it was smooth sailing up the crack to a ledge where a right-facing corner begins.

If you ever decide to lead Tough Shift, I advise you to get gear as high as you can when you are standing at the base of this corner, because there is no more gear until you are almost level with the piton at the upper crux. The climbing here through the middle is very run out, worse than the at the top of the pitch, though the climbing is also easier. There was little risk that I would fall but there was no question that a fall in this part of the route would have been bad.

(Photo: Andy resembling a rock ninja in the opening crack on Tough Shift (5.10a).)

Once I got through it and clipped the pin I spent quite a while at the top of the corner, contemplating the exit. I could see where I had to go but it took several trips up and down before I committed to moving left and putting myself out there. I backed up the pin by making another move up past it, placing a good nut in the crack at the roof atop the corner, and then stepping back down.

When I finally reached for the jug out left, it went fine. The move to the jug, and the next interesting move afterwards, are reasonably well-protected, I think. Then it gets into more risky territory as you keep climbing up but I felt with each successive move it got easier until I was level with the roof, where I could exhale and put in a bomber blue Camalot. The rest of the way was all gravy, moving further left to go over the roof above Graveyard Shift.

(Photo: Andy about to embark on the upper face portion of Tough Shift (5.10a).)

I liked Tough Shift and I would do it again. There is great climbing up the initial crack and on the orange face up high. The route has significant runouts, but they are in relatively easy territory. Because the unprotected climbing is pretty straightforward I think Tough Shift is less mentally challenging than either Men At Arms or Graveyard Shift. I expect others might disagree with me on this. All three of these climbs are serious, to some degree.

After we finished with Tough Shift, Andy was looking for a ten to lead and since we were standing right there I sent him up Star Action. As I've mentioned before, Andy is a very strong climber but his background contains more sport than trad climbing. He seemed nervous through the middle of the pitch, where there is gear to be had but it is a little bit tricky to place. At the crux, by contrast, he made the big reach over the roof look like child's play. As soon as he gets used to the sporty pro at the Gunks he's going to be unstoppable. I won't be able to keep up with him.

At the end of the day, I was a little bit sad that I couldn't say I'd capped the year off with a send of Graveyard Shift. But it will come, maybe this year, maybe next year. And now, after two days' work, I can say that I've done all of the Mac Wall tens. I still haven't led MF Direct (5.10a R), but I top-roped it easily earlier this year and I think I'm ready to lead it now. (I also have not done the roof pitches on the three tens that are just to the left of MF.)

The next-level challenge that I am mulling over is to lead them all, from left to right, in a day! This would involve:

Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a)
Interstice (5.10b; 5.10d if you include the pitch two roof)
Mother's Day Party (5.10b)
MF Direct (5.10a; 5.10b if you tack on the Birdie Party roof)
Men At Arms (5.10b but not really)
Try Again (5.10b)
Coexistence (5.10d)
Star Action (5.10b)
Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a) and
Tough Shift (5.10a)

A worthy project for next year? When the days get longer I may give it a try.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Feeling Crass (5.10b) in Fat City (5.10d), & More!

(Photo: The Gunks in Autumn.)

I was very excited to get back to the Gunks after my trip to Indian Creek.

Don't get me wrong. The trip was nice, but I was out of my element there, struggling on the vertical cracks. I was eager to return to my home turf, where I was comfortable on my feet and where things have been going so very well lately.

I felt like I'd been away from the Gunks for a long time, even though it had only been a few weeks.

The high season was passing me by! Or not really. But I felt the itch. You climbing psychos know what I mean.

The year would soon end. I needed to hit something big with every day at the cliff. Who knew when a given climbing day would turn out to be the last one of the year?

I made plans with Adam to go to the Nears. I had one route in my sights:

Fat City Direct (5.10d).

This was a biggie, for sure.

It had been on "the list" all year. It was a must-do for 2015 as far as I was concerned. And we didn't have too much of 2015 left to play around with. I needed to get on it, and soon.

So Adam and I drove up on a Sunday morning, ready to hit it.

And then, as we careened down the road towards our destiny... it began raining.

This hadn't been in the forecast.

As we bravely carried on, it kept on coming down. We persevered in the face of the storm, only to arrive at the West Trapps lot in the midst of a misty sprinkle. It was cold too. Our little pocket computers promised us that the rain would pass over soon, so we optimistically went ahead and gathered up our crap, hiking over to the closest part of the Near Trapps, where the routes tend to stay dry under huge roofs.

Standing at the cliff we were sheltered from the falling rain but our spirits were nevertheless slightly dampened. The rock felt cold to the touch. We took our time getting started.

We thought about warming up on Outer Space (5.8) or Le Plié (5.7), but after we looked around a bit my eye fell on a roof problem about fifteen feet off the ground. I had never noticed this line before.

Taking my phone out of my pocket, I checked the Nears App and found out that this was Crass (5.10b), a short climb which goes over the crux roof just off the ground and then does a traverse around a corner to join Le Plié. The roof appeared to be well-protected. It looked fun. Why not give it a try?

(Photo: Adam on Crass (5.10b).)

I liked Crass. There isn't any gear for the first move up onto the easy slab but there is dynamite protection as soon as it gets difficult. The roof itself is tricky. I had to take a hang to figure it out. Once I sussed out the move it wasn't so hard. Above the crux overhang you reach another roof where there is good gear for the exciting traverse out and around the corner. This part is probably 5.8. And then it's over.

Crass is no classic but it provided good fun while we waited out the rain.

By the time we were finished things were looking up. The rain had passed and the cliff didn't seem too wet. There were a few other intrepid souls around but Adam and I had our pick of lines to do.

Adam had expressed an interest in Grand Central (5.9), so we did it. I led up the easy 5.6 part and built a belay so that Adam could take it the rest of the way to the top in one pitch covering both of the route's cruxes.

Grand Central is a good 5.9 and while it isn't the hardest nine out there-- the crux climbing is just a couple of steep moves on small holds-- it tests the budding 5.9 leader because the gear is small/fiddly and you have to commit to moving above your protection through the crux moves. Adam did well, hanging in to make sure he was happy with his placements and then climbing on through. And he made quick work of the upper crux, a reachy overhang which for me always requires a little lunge off of greasy feet.

(Photo: A blanket of fall colors, seen from the top of the Near Trapps.)

After we rapped off of the Alphonse tree (with my 70 meter rope; be careful folks!), it was decision time.

Was I ready to attack Fat City Direct?

In what is becoming a tradition for us, Adam suggested we go over and "just have a look at it."

This has come to mean that we are definitely going to do whatever climb we are "looking" at.

Fat City Direct ascends a most impressive portion of the cliff, winding steeply through a kaleidoscopic series of orange roofs. Like Erect Direction (5.10c), another legendary climb which I did last month, Fat City has hard crux climbing that no one talks about, which is then followed by slightly easier but more spectacular climbing that gets all the attention.

After walking over, I tried to scope out the hardest bits. I figured the initial 5.9 roof wouldn't be too bad. I tried to spot the 5.10d crux just above but I couldn't really tell where it was. I could see a bulging section above a notch and guessed that this had to be it. Then, looking higher, it was pretty easy to find the intimidating upper crux, where a sloping diagonal rail led to the lip of a big overhang. You can't see it from the ground, but I knew that an ancient, hard-to-clip piton was sitting at the lip of this roof, providing the only pro for getting over it. Dick Williams says that this part of the climb is 5.10b R.

I racked up, taking as many slings as I could dig out of my bag. This climb is often done in one super-long pitch. There is the option to stop and belay between the cruxes but I hoped to take it all the way to the top if I still had any gear left.

(Photo: Here I'm just getting started on Fat City Direct (5.10d), heading for the 5.9 roof. Photo by Adam.)

Getting started, I felt a little bit shaky at the initial 5.9 roof. There was a lot of chalk all over the place and I initially went at it the wrong way. But eventually I changed tactics and it went fine.

Pretty soon after that I came to a shallow overhang. There were some fixed nuts. I thought this must be it: the 5.10d business. I experimented with working out the move, going this way and that. Placing more gear. Eventually I did a committing layback up over the little roof. It was a success. Thinking I'd just done the hard bit, I was feeling good.

But then I quickly found myself in a little notch under yet another overhang, with tiny crimps leading to the left.

Oops, my bad. This was obviously the real crux.

I took a long time there, checking my gear (small Aliens), testing the crimps. Every time I tried to commit to going left I felt like I didn't have it and I came back. Luckily there was a stance there, where I could chicken-wing my arm in the notch and reset.

Finally on my umpteenth foray I worked out a way to get my feet higher, and I found myself committed. My right hand was on a bad crimp; my left was on a sloping vertical feature. Standing up and reaching higher, I prayed the horizontal I was reaching for would offer a little more security.

Eureka! It was a jug. With a "woo hoo!" and an "oh yeah!" I was out of the woods.

(Photo: Emerging from the 5.10d crux on Fat City Direct. Photo by Adam.)

The bolted belay station was a short distance above me and to the left but I thought I had just enough slings to keep going, so I scampered straight up to the final challenge, the famous Fat City upper roof.

I vowed to keep calm and to try to execute. I didn't want a repeat of my Erect Direction experience, where I on-sighted the hardest parts and then blew it when I got nervous in easier territory.

Also I needed to get on with it. This lead was taking forever.

(Photo: At the upper crux roof on Fat City Direct. Photo by Adam.)

It went really well. There is a fixed pin right before the difficulties. I backed this up with two cams. Then it was go time. I breathed deeply and willed myself into "the zone." I only needed to test the holds once or twice before I moved out to the overhang. I had no trouble clipping the well-known sketchy piton at the lip (which I cannot believe was placed on the lead by Gary Brown in 1968!). Then I moved up and over the roof without hesitation, knowing somehow, without a doubt, that this move was going to be fine. Standing above the roof, I put in a piece to protect the second and exhaled, secure in the knowledge that Fat City was finally in the bag.

The 5.8 climbing which followed, winding through several more overhangs, went by in a blur.

I couldn't wait for Adam to join me up top so I could thank him for patiently belaying me on the greatest on-sight of my life.

Fat City Direct is a wonderful climb, with many awesome moments. It is definitely worthy of its legendary status. Done in a single lead it is a monster pitch, nearly 200 feet long. I was psyched to do it that way but I felt compelled to run it out in between the hard parts, both to avoid drag and to conserve gear. At one point Adam was begging me to place a piece. Don't be too alarmed-- he didn't know how easy the climbing was in that section. Nevertheless, I think if I go back I will probably break it up by stopping at the bolted anchor. It is a natural stopping point and it's surely safer to do it that way.

Regarding the exposed upper crux, I think it might be easier than 5.10b. Maybe it's 5.10 minus? And I'm not sure why Dick gives it an R rating. It seems to me that it isn't R if the pin at the lip is good. On the other hand, if the pin is not good it is certainly R; blowing the roof and pulling the pin would be bad news. And who can say whether that pin is at all trustworthy? It has been there a long long time.

(Photo: Adam getting ready to rap off at the Alphonse tree.)

We still had time for more climbing. Adam wanted to lead Broken Sling (5.8) and I wanted to do whatever Adam wanted to do. After Fat City I was cool with anything.

I had only been on Broken Sling once, in 2013. I really liked it then but I thought the first pitch was awkward and in your face, and that the second pitch was hard to protect well.

Adam did a super job leading both pitches.

(Photo: Adam over the first hard moves on Broken Sling (5.8).)

My opinion of Broken Sling remains basically the same. It is sometimes awkward, and at times a bit necky. But wow, this route is really great. So varied and challenging, with tons of climbing packed into two short pitches. It is a worthy classic, and a proud lead.

With the sun going down, I decided to run up Disneyland (5.6-) for a fun, easy end to our day. Apparently I've never written about this very popular climb, but it is a favorite of mine, and just another example of how deep the 5.6 grade is in the Gunks.

Sitting atop the cliff, gazing at the leaves, I started to think about the next big target. What would it be? Would there be any more highlights I could squeeze out of 2015?

Who knows?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cracking Under Pressure at The Spider's Web & Indian Creek

(Photo: Indian Creek.)

I recently spent four days in the crack-climbing capital of the world: Indian Creek, Utah.

The trip was in the works for a while. My longtime partner Adrian went to the Creek last October with some of his Squamish buddies. This year, a similar crew planned to reunite for another visit.

With the exception of Adrian, I hadn't met any of the participants before, but I felt like I knew some of them already from the many times I'd heard Adrian speak about them.

There was Lee, one of Adrian's longtime Vancouver partners. He is super fit and very experienced. He seems to manage balancing his home life and climbing life in a way that I envy-- he has five children yet still manages to get out for a ton of climbing days. I'd like to pick his brain about how he does it, though with my kids verging on high school I guess I'm nearing the end of my own tour through the child-rearing years.

Also in attendance was Patrick, another veteran of the Vancouver scene, who came with his wife Diane. They too are fitness buffs-- they are active hikers and triathletes/Tough Mudder participant types. Diane doesn't climb but she and Patrick are always traveling the country together in their camper. They have mastered the art of living on the road to such an extent that Diane can whip up a gourmet meal for a large party out of the camper, night after night, without breaking a sweat. They have all the modern conveniences: folding chairs, a portable campfire unit, a carpet on which to gather... Pat and Diane really make a campsite feel like home.

All of the people I've mentioned so far (including Adrian and me) are, you might say, "of a certain age." We've all made the long journey 'round the sun a few times. But there were a couple of younger folks along for the ride as well. There was Adi, a regular whippersnapper-- I'm guessing he's probably in his thirties. He too lives in Vancouver. He recently took some time off from work to devote himself solely to climbing. Over the last several months he's gotten really strong.

And last but not least was Chelsey, a young climber from Montreal, who has only been climbing for a couple of years but you'd never know it. She's so much better than I was after a couple of years. Not that I'm any kind of barometer. My climbing career is evidence that rank mediocrity can be extended over an endless span of time.

The gang planned to be in Utah for a whole week, but I didn't have that kind of time to spare. I was flying out to join them in the middle of their trip. I'd have about three and a half days with which to climb before making the long drive back to Salt Lake City for my overnight flight back east.

It seemed like plenty of time with which to get thrashed on the Creek's steep hand cracks.

In the months leading up to the trip I tried to prepare. I really did.

I knew from my isolated past attempts at crack climbing that I have no natural talent for it.

I am not being modest. I am just keeping it real. Whether at Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, in the Adirondacks, at Squamish, or in Yosemite, I've made occasional, halting attempts to climb hand cracks, and over the years I've made little progress. Whenever I have had the opportunity to climb a hand crack, I've found the climbing to be insecure. I've had a hard time getting good jams. I've ended up hanging and backing off a lot. Whatever improvement I make during one trip seems to evaporate before the next one. It isn't like riding a bike for me. I'm always starting over from zero.

This year I wanted it to be different. I hoped to get something meaningful out of Indian Creek. I had to finally learn how to do this thing.

I bought the recent book, The Crack Climber's Technique Manual, by Kent Pease. It is an extremely thorough treatise. I read it from cover to cover, and then reread several chapters multiple times, trying to absorb the information.

Book learnin' was all well and good, but for the lessons to make a meaningful difference I needed to practice on some actual cracks.

Unfortunately, there aren't any outdoor crack climbs around NYC. I would have to do most of my practicing indoors, at the Cliffs at Long Island City. This gym has three crack climbs. I spent months working at them, eventually getting pretty good at the two easier ones. I would devote part of every gym session to these cracks, altering my hand positions so as to work on them in multiple ways.

My gym practice was better than nothing, but I knew it couldn't prepare me for the stresses of managing a lead on real rock. Before heading to Indian Creek I needed to make a trip to the Adirondacks or New Hampshire to get mileage on some real crack climbs.

But I couldn't seem to find the time.

My big chance finally came on Columbus Day weekend. I went up to Keene Valley, in the Adirondacks, with my wife and kids. We did a little hiking and I got to do a little climbing. Adrian came down from Montreal to meet me at the Spider's Web, a wall full of overhanging vertical crack climbs.

(Photo: Adrian warming us up on Slim Pickins (5.9+).)

We had a nice, leisurely day at the Web. We only did four pitches. I sent Adrian up the technical corner of Slim Pickins (5.9+) to start us off. After that we did three 5.10a crack climbs: Esthesia (which I had followed once before), TR, and On the Loose. Adrian and I both were interested in leading all of them, so that's what we did.

(Photo: I'm leading Esthesia (5.10a).)

Esthesia went well. I was happy to lead it clean. But it doesn't require any jamming-- both cruxes can be done as laybacks. Adrian, crack climber that he is, chose to jam through the upper crux crack, making me wish I'd at least tried to do the same, for practice.

TR also went pretty smoothly for both of us. But again I didn't feel like this was a real test of jamming skill. I used the occasional hand jam to rest and place gear, but there wasn't much pure hand jamming on the route. There were lots of finger locks and jugs.

(Photo: Adrian on TR (5.10a).)

The moves on TR are pretty straightforward, but (like most of the climbs at the Web) it is steep! I found it striking that the guidebook describes this pitch as the "warm-up" climb on the wall. Pumpy and sustained, it did not seem like a warm-up to me. I was happy to on-sight it.

Finally we hit On the Loose, which turned out to be the only climb of the day that required hand jamming most of the time. Adrian was in his element and led it comfortably, proclaiming it easier than TR.

For me, it was harder. I got good jams but it took a conscious effort to commit to moving up on them. I felt insecure. After a few steep moves I had to take a hang. It got better from there and my confidence seemed to improve as I got higher.

(Photo: That's me on On the Loose (5.10a).)

I wasn't sure what this all meant for my upcoming trip to Indian Creek. I would find out in a few days.

As the trip approached I paid little attention to weather forecast. I assumed that since we were traveling to the desert, in the high season, we would be looking at favorable temperatures and clear skies.

These assumptions turned out to be ill-founded. Shortly before I left NYC I found out from the guys that it had been raining on and off during the first few days of their trip! On the day I arrived in Utah it was similarly spotty. I reached the campground in the evening, got set up in my tent, and then I lay awake for hours, listening to the rain come down.

Luckily this was a last gasp of the bad weather. We ended up canceling the next day's climbing so the cliffs could dry out and went to Moab to hang out instead.

Though I lost one day, we eventually got plenty of climbing in. And the weather cooperated for the rest of the trip.

I didn't have any specific goals in mind. I had decided long before I got to Utah that this trip was going to be a learning experience for me. Also I knew that the other guys had already been there for a while. I didn't want to get my heart set on a particular climb and then have to fight to go do it because everyone else had already done it earlier in the same week. It seemed better to just go with the flow and do whatever everyone else wanted to do.

Adrian was shocked at my lack of direction. For some strange reason he was expecting me to show up with an ambitious tick list. I don't know why he would expect something like that from me.

Since I didn't have any concrete demands, Adrian proposed that I should start out by leading The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10), the most popular route at Indian Creek, which is at Supercrack Buttress, the Creek's most popular cliff. Several members of our crew had routes there that they wanted to red-point, so they were amenable to heading there for the day. For me this was a dream come true. I of course wanted to go there but I didn't want to make everyone else return to this cliff if they were already sick of it.

When we arrived and marched up to the Supercrack Buttress I was pretty impressed. The cliffs at the Creek don't appear to be all that tall from the road. But when you stand directly beneath the walls they seem to soar upwards forever into the sky. And while most of the climbs are just one pitch they are long, steep, and unrelenting. The cracks just go on and on.

Looking up at Incredible Hand Crack put a knot in my stomach. The early bits looked easy, with two short sections of vertical crack broken up by good ledges. But then the crux climbing loomed above: a lengthy section of steeply overhanging hand crack in a corner.

(Photo: Getting some beta on The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10).)

It did not go well. I got over the bouldery first move and put my mitts in the crack. Nervously I threw in two pieces of gear before I reached the first shelf. I was making the moves but with every step I had to will myself to continue, to move up. Shakily I made it to the stance before the crux section. But then I couldn't get through the overhang. I kept failing at getting both hands locked in the crack. I took at least a half a dozen falls and then finally gave up and handed the lead over to Adrian.

(Photo: That's me attempting The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10).)

After Adrian led up through my gear and finished it, I tried it again on top rope. It still took some figuring out but after a fall or two I worked out how to get established in the overhanging crack and I made it to the anchor.

I wasn't too disappointed. I came here to learn, right? At least I went for it. For the rest of the day I followed other people up some of the best 5.10 cracks at Indian Creek. I found out that when I didn't have to worry about leading, I wasn't quite so terrible at crack climbing. My months of practice paid off-- to some extent.

(Photo: Lee leading Supercrack (5.10).)

I watched Adi and Lee both lead Supercrack, a steep splitter crack that passes a small roof and then goes on for miles. Watching both of them send it, I could understand the endurance that was required to lead the route. When my turn came I was thrilled just to do it cleanly on top rope. It turned out I felt pretty comfortable jamming when the crack was in the range of Number 2 and 3 Camalots.

(Photo: Adi leading No Name Crack (5.10).)

I was able to successfully follow two more beautiful 5.10 hand cracks at the Supercrack Buttress, one of them known as the No Name Crack and the other one called 3 AM Crack. These were rather similar to each other, both of them being right facing corner cracks. Each route had its own unique challenges, such as a small overhang or a thin or wide section. On top rope I found I could manage these challenges. I'm sure if I'd been leading them it would have been a different story.

(Photo: That's me leading Three Pigs in a Slot (5.10), with Adrian belaying.)

By the end of the day I'd made enough progress that I thought maybe I could try to lead The Incredible Hand Crack again. But it was occupied. So instead I tried to lead another 5.10 called Three Pigs in a Slot. This climb is short (45 feet) and features a wider vertical crack than the ones I'd been doing all day. I hadn't done any cracks of this size but the group provided me with a whole bunch of Number 4 Camalots so there was no reason not to go for it.

It didn't go as badly as my first lead but it was still a struggle. I just felt insecure, for no reason that I could articulate. The climb was very safe and I could pause anywhere I wanted. I could shove my leg into the crack at will. It should have felt easy. But I had to force myself to commit, even when I had a big fat Number 4 Camalot over my head. It was slow going, and tense.

The next day we all went to the Reservoir Wall. I attempted another 5.10 lead; it was just another great crack in a corner. Indian Creek has so many of these that people don't even bother giving them names half the time. This crack took Number 3 Camalots the whole way up and therefore should have been in my comfort zone. And I suppose it was. For the most part I did fine, except at one point right in the middle where the insecurity came randomly over me again and I stopped to take a hang.

(Photo: I'm leading another 5.10 corner, again with Adrian belaying.)

I watched Adrian lead a somewhat atypical (for the Creek) 5.10 climb called Dr. Karl. This climb mostly featured finger cracks, with the feet spanning two opposing flakes. It reminded me a bit of Bloody Mary at Poke-O. Adrian did a good job on it. I elected just to follow it but later kicked myself for not leading it too. It was my kind of climbing and felt pretty straightforward to me.

(Photo: View out from the Reservoir Wall to Bridger Jack (the jagged wall on the left) and the two Six Shooter towers in the distance at the horizon.)

The highlight of the day was Pente (5.11-), which Adi did a great job of leading. The climb ascends 160 feet in a single pitch. The meat of the route involves thin hand jamming (Number 1 Camalots) up a steep headwall. Then in the second half the angle eases but the crack narrows to the horrible .75 size. This pitch just goes and goes. Adi brought more cams than the guidebook recommended but towards the end he still ran out of gear. We had to send more cams up to him using the tag line. It was an epic effort.

(Photo: Adi leading Pente (5.11-).)

No one else in the group ended up leading it but Adrian looked almost casual as he strolled up the climb on top rope. It seemed like he could easily lead it. I was wholly unfamiliar with this crack size and I really struggled just to get started in the crack, falling out of it several times. Once I finally got in it, though, I was able to get a rhythm going and was pretty successful the rest of the way. For me to lead this route would take a lot of work, I think.

I was amazed to watch Chelsey follow Pente easily, without a single moment of uncertainty. I'd heard that before I arrived she'd been following every climb in the Creek without much trouble, and she was even experimenting with some leading. This was her first trip to the Creek, and her first time crack climbing. She only recently started leading trad. Watching her I was very impressed. And jealous! She is clearly one of those lucky people for whom crack climbing comes naturally. I was exhausted by Pente but for her it wasn't a big deal.

After just two full days in the Creek I was feeling worn down by the effort involved in climbing these long, steep cracks. I had so many scrapes on my arms and legs I resembled a leper. We were all driving out by the early afternoon the next day so there wouldn't be time for more than a few pitches anyway. I didn't mind.

We went to Donnelly Canyon, which is another very popular wall. It shares a parking area with the Supercrack Buttress. A highlight of this wall is the popular Generic Crack (5.10). This is a straight-in splitter with a few challenging wide pods. Lee and Adi both wanted to red-point it before they left for home.

Before I came to Indian Creek I had thought that maybe I'd lead Generic Crack but on our final day I was content to follow it. I hoped to do it clean but I struggled to get into the first wide pod. Once I worked that out the rest of it went well.

(Photo: Chelsey leading Chocolate Corner (5.9) on our last day.)

I didn't come to Indian Creek expecting to rip it up. Instead I wanted to get some experience on splitter cracks and to progress a bit in my crack climbing. The trip definitely provided the training I was hoping for, so from that perspective it was an unqualified success. And I got to experience some of the most legendary climbs in the world, all in an amazing desert setting. Plus I got to meet a whole bunch of wonderful people. So it was a great little vacation and I had a very enjoyable time there.

I did, in the back of my mind, have a hope that after a day or two of pumping cracks something would "click" and I'd suddenly feel as comfortable leading sandstone cracks as I do leading climbs on Gunks conglomerate. This obviously didn't happen, so I left feeling a little bit frustrated. I tried to remind myself that crack climbing really is a distinct discipline from the type of climbing I'm used to. I need more mileage, and then the progress will come.

It's as if you are an experienced trumpet player. You've been doing it for years and you've forgotten what it was like when you weren't good at it. And then one day you decide to play around with a trombone. You ask yourself "How different can it be?" But then you try it and your embouchure is all wrong and you have to figure out how to work the slide; as a result the sounds you produce are closer to noise than to music. And you can't fix it right away. You've forgotten how long you worked at the trumpet to get proficient at it, and back then you didn't mind how bad you sounded. Starting over on the trombone is like torture, because now you know better. You know how it should sound, and you know what you can do. But you can't execute yet in this new medium.

That's what crack climbing is like for me. I'm a trumpet player who is trying to pick up the trombone. Or worse: the oboe. I wish it came more easily to me.

I think I made some incremental moves forward in the Creek. My third 5.10 lead was much better than my first. I hope the experience will translate to other climbing areas, and that when I travel to the Adirondacks or New Hampshire I will be more comfortable than before on the vertical cracks there.

And some day I'll go back to the Creek. I will return and I will try again.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Face to Face (5.10b) With Space Invaders (5.10d) & More!

(Photo: Adam making the finishing moves on Face to Face (5.10b).)

Hurricane Joachin wreaked havoc with many plans. In the South, it brought dangerous winds and flooding. Here in the Northeast, we were lucky. The hurricane was merely an inconvenience.

It rained.

For several days in a row.

My wife and I had travel plans that were canceled because of the storm. We found ourselves at home in NYC for the weekend with nothing on the agenda. On Saturday morning, with no expectations, I checked the weather forecast for New Paltz. This is just something I do, many times a day. It's my Twitter... or Snapchat... or Tinder (??)... or whatever you kids are looking at these days. You know how it is. Maybe you do it too, furtively, on the sly. Like me.

Anyway, I was shocked-- shocked, I say!-- to discover that it was going to be beautiful in the Gunks on Sunday.

I hadn't made any plans to climb-- in fact I'd previously rejected some offers-- but now I needed a partner, STAT.

As luck would have it, Adam was going to be in the Gunks with a friend named Brandon. Brandon is an occasional climber and he wasn't planning to stay all day. Adam wondered if I wanted to join the two of them and then after Brandon took off Adam and I could continue.

Sounded good to me.

I worried that the rock would be wet but as we walked in everything looked surprisingly dry. I couldn't believe it. I wanted to pinch myself. We headed down to the Bonnie's area. Adam was interested in setting up a top rope on a few routes for our little group.

He started us off by leading Groovy (5.8+). I led this route once, back in 2009, but I hadn't been back. The route is short but pretty good. It packs a punch. It ascends an obvious arching corner and then follows a fairly strenuous undercling traverse left under the roof to meet up with the first pitch of Ursula (5.5). In the guidebook, Dick Williams advises taping up for Groovy, but there really is no need.

(Photo: Adam on Groovy (5.8+).)

From the Groovy anchor it is easy to top-rope another route called Space Invaders (5.10d). This route has two variations. The left-hand version goes pretty much straight up the rap line, so we did it first. It starts on Groovy but pretty quickly moves to the outside arête and then it heads straight up a steep face. I was familiar with Space Invaders because I followed a new partner named Robbie up the climb in August. Robbie was happy with the gear. I liked the climbing. The crux is brief but stout, requiring overhanging, big moves between good holds.

(Photo: Robbie heading into the crux face on Space Invaders Left (5.10d).)

The other variation to Space Invaders goes further right up an obvious diagonal crack (visible in the photo above). This right-hand version is also 5.10d, but in my opinion it is a little tougher. The moves are just as steep but they are more technical and continue for a longer time. I have neither led this variation nor have I seen anyone lead it-- I've only top roped it twice. In theory it seems like there's decent gear (I placed several pieces as directionals on rappel) but I think the pro would be rather strenuous to place. Also you'd want to be wary of the big pedestal beneath you as you do the crux. Even if you are top-roping it I would suggest being careful with your directionals so as to avoid a potential swing into the pedestal.

Both versions of Space Invaders are surprisingly worthwhile.

When we were finished playing around on Groovy and Space Invaders, Brandon took off, leaving Adam and me as a twosome for the rest of the day.

It was gorgeous out but there were very few people around. The hurricane must have scared off the usual weekenders. Bonnie's Roof (5.9) and Ants' Line (5.9)-- two of the most popular routes in the Gunks-- had been sitting there empty all morning. I had it in mind to do something ambitious but I just couldn't walk away from the empty Bonnie's Roof, so I decided to lead the Direct to the top in one pitch.

(Photo: That's me leading Bonnie's Roof (5.9). I'm proud of my "look-ma-no-drag!" rope management. Photo by Adam.)

After Bonnie's, we went over to Teeny Face (5.10a), a climb which I'd followed a few times but had never led. Adam had never done any of the great climbs on this buttress (like Obstacle Delusion (5.9) and Insuhlation (5.9)), so he was eager to check it out. It was a good thing we went there when we did, because a queue of parties started to line up behind us, hoping to do Teeny Face. It was strange. Bonnie's and Ants' Line were sitting there empty while people were lining up for the relatively obscure (though quite nice) Teeny Face.

It had been a couple of years since I last followed Teeny Face. I remembered that there is a good placement for a gold Number Two Camalot, right in the middle of the hard part. Aside from that, I just remembered it as similar to (but easier than) Space Invaders Left, with some big moves on a very steep face.

(Photo: I'm leading Teeny Face (5.10a). Photo by Adam.)

It went off without a hitch. It is a very nice climb. I blasted right through the crux without hesitation. I was feeling good. Adam followed it flawlessly; he'd gotten the TRash (top rope flash) on Teeny Face, and both of the Space Invaders variations as well, so he was climbing really well.

(Photo: Adam at the end of the steepness on Teeny Face (5.10a).)

After Teeny Face was done we naturally started thinking about our next target. This day was a gift, a freebie I never expected. I didn't come to the Gunks with any big goals in mind. I expected wetness.

What to do? I started ticking off a list of possibilities in my head: Falled on Account of Strain (5.10b), Matinee (5.10d), The Winter (5.10d), 10,000 Restless Virgins (5.10d)... Then it occurred to me that we should do Face to Face (5.10b), as it was very close by.

Face to Face has been on my list for quite a while. The grade is not extreme but I've always heard that the third pitch is intimidating, with hard climbing up a thin crack right off the belay and then an exposed finger traverse to the finish. The second pitch, too, is pretty outrageous for a 5.9, with a steep traverse under a ceiling.

I proposed to Adam that I would lead pitch one. It is only 5.7 but the guidebook says it is run out at the start. I followed this pitch once before but I couldn't remember much about it. I didn't want to send Adam up something hairy-- this climb was my idea, after all-- so I volunteered for the lead. When we got to the base we found our friends Gail and Julia on No Glow (5.9). So we got to spend some time hanging out and chatting with them at the base and on the GT Ledge.

(Photo: Gail and Julia on the GT Ledge, doing No Glow (5.9).)

I liked pitch one of Face to Face much more than I expected to. There is an almost total lack of gear for the first thirty feet or so, and the face is a little bit dirty. But the climbing is consistently engaging. It is definitely not a good choice for a 5.7 leader, but if you are prepared for the harder upper pitches than the first pitch shouldn't be a big problem for you. I would do it again. I think in the future I will consider using this pitch as a way to get up to the GT Ledge for Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a) or Keep on Struttin' (5.9).

It can be hard to locate pitch two of Face to Face. You can't see the pitch's main feature-- the traverse crack-- from directly underneath it. But if you know where No Glow is, you can find Face to Face by looking for the next roof over to its left. Also, if you wander a bit left from where you end pitch one, to the big stack of blocks leaning against the face of the cliff, you can look up to your right to see the obvious traverse crack. Then move back to directly underneath it and start climbing!

(Photo: Adam confronting the 5.9 crux traverse on pitch two of Face to Face.)

Adam did a good job leading the pitch. There isn't a lot of gear on the easy face leading up to the overhang, but once you get there you'll find automatic, perfect placements for as many pieces as you can hang on to place during the crux section. Adam got some solid cams at the corner before he got going, and then I think three pieces along the traverse. Once he completed the 5.9 traverse and got out onto the main face of the cliff it wasn't long before he was building a belay for me to come on up.

I found this to be a great pitch and not as hard as it looks. If you are diligent about looking for footholds you'll find the climbing isn't so bad. It is steep but the holds are good.

When I joined Adam at the belay I could see why the third pitch is considered so intimidating. The crux comes right at the start. There is a thin crack above an inverted v-notch. You have to gain the face using small crimpy hands and no footholds to speak of. I really wanted to protect the belay so I spent some time getting what seemed like a good Alien and an excellent small nut before starting up.

Pulling up onto the face, I tested the crimps a bit, then decided to step back down to check out the footholds a little more. As I attempted to place my toe back on the ledge, my fingers slid off of the crimps and in a fraction of a second I was off, hanging in the air from the nut I placed, right next to Adam. I let out a string of expletives. So much for my on-sight of Face to Face!

I was furious.

At least I'd have an immediate opportunity for the red point. This was similar to what happened on pitch three of Erect Direction the week before, in that on both climbs after taking a fall I started the pitch again from the beginning. Except this time the fall was only about two feet long.

Beginning again, I committed to the crimps, moved my feet up and got through it.

Once you're past the first scary bit and you get established on the face, the climbing isn't so hard for a little while, as you head straight up to the base of some overhangs and then move to the right and up again until you are level with the obvious finger-crack traverse left through the tiered roofs. Here, much like the traverse on pitch two, you can see exactly where you need to go and it isn't as tough as it looks-- but boy is it committing. You are really stepping out there over the void. It is possible to get very good gear in the finger crack. I had a nut that I was pretty psyched on.

(Photo: A different angle on Adam finishing the finger-crack traverse on pitch three of Face to Face (5.10b).)

I really liked Face to Face-- all three pitches. Each pitch is mentally challenging. The upper pitches contain some spectacular moments. Overall the climb is very rewarding, one of the best multi-pitch outings in the Gunks. 

(Photo: Adam in motion attempting the first hard move of On Any Monday (5.11a). We got trashed trying this polished silliness on top rope at the very end of our day. We didn't make it very far.)

Fall is now well under way. Climbing conditions are ideal and I need to squeeze in some more time in the Gunks so I can attempt Fat City Direct (5.10d) and Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a) before the year is out. But first there will be other adventures on which to report. Last weekend we were in the Adirondacks and I was able to climb for a day at the Spider's Web (post coming soon).

And next week I'm taking a short trip to Indian Creek for some crack climbing. I'm not expecting to crush anything there but I will definitely let you know how it goes, whether it is a send fest (doubtful) or a humbling siege-a-thon (more likely)!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Gunks Routes: Erect Direction (5.10c) & Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a)

(Photo: Andy emerging from the crab crawl under the roof on pitch two of Erect Direction (5.10c).)

September seemed to fly by. Labor Day came late. Before we knew it we stood at the brink of October. As September hurried past us, we started to see some ideal fall days in the Gunks.

I headed up to the Gunks with Andy on one beautiful Sunday. The chief question in my mind as we drove up was which big target we should hit. The high season was here and would soon be gone. If I wanted to make any progress on my list of mega-classics I had to get cracking!

The grade was not terribly important to me. What mattered more was whether the climbs we chose would push us; whether they were climbs that I'd always wanted to try but had been too intimidated in years past to consider seriously.

My two top candidates were Fat City Direct (5.10d) and Erect Direction (5.10c). Both of them are often described as climbs that define what climbing in the Gunks is all about. Both of them ascend enormous overhangs and both routes have intimidating crux climbing that precedes the overhangs.

I was also thinking about my role as "Mr. Gunks" for Andy. Andy is a great climber who has a bunch of trad experience, but during his several moves around the country he has mostly focused on sport climbing. He came to New York City last year and after we met I decided it would be my mission to show him the best of the Gunks. We'd been up there just twice together so far and during these two visits we'd generally stuck to single-pitch climbing.

With a beautiful day ahead of us I thought it was time for Andy to experience some real multi-pitch Gunks action. This argued in favor of Erect Direction, which is typically done in three pitches with an exposed, hanging belay under the big roof after pitch two. (Fat City, by contrast, often gets done in a single long pitch.) There were also some other great multi-pitch climbs close to Erect Direction that I was game to tackle. So it seemed like our choice was clear.

Andy was cool with the plan. He even agreed to let me lead pitches two and three because he understood that this was one of these lifetime-goal climbs for me. When we got to the Trapps we marched straight over to the base of Erect Direction.

Looking up at the cliff I could see the challenges which were to come. The 5.10a roof on pitch three is really big, but it didn't concern me so much. I knew the holds had to be good. A roof that big couldn't be all that mysterious, or it wouldn't be 10a! It would be much harder.

I was more worried about the 5.10c pitch two crux, which requires you to ascend an off-width vertical crack over a small roof and into a cramped position underneath a bigger overhang. From this scrunched stance you have to worm your way to the right until you can get out from under the roof and then ascend a corner to the hanging belay beneath the big, triangular pitch three ceiling. It looked claustrophobic and intense. And I had no idea what to expect from the moves. Would I know how to ascend the off-width? Would the traverse be terribly thin?

Standing at the base, taking it all in, I had to calm my stomach a little bit. Were we really going up there?

We were.

(Photo: Andy heading up the 5.8 pitch one of Erect Direction.)

The first pitch was new to Andy, of course, though I've done it many times. It is a very nice 5.8 pitch, juggy and steep. It is one of the best of the first pitches in this part of the cliff, so it is frequently used to access the upper pitches nearby. Andy led it without a worry and soon enough-- maybe too soon!-- we were racking up for pitch two.

From the GT Ledge I had a really good look at the pitch two crux. It seemed pretty scary to me. What was I going to do up there? I would have to figure out something. I carried on, with optimism (as Dick Williams might say). I brought with me a big gray Number Four Camalot because David Stowe once told me that it would be useful in the off-width.

I got up to the business in no time. The opening bits of this pitch are shared with Moonlight (5.6), and the climbing is easy but there's very little gear.

Luckily there is good gear for the crux. I got a solid nut at the lip of the overhang, just below the off-width.

Then I had to figure out how to make further progress. Above the small overhang is a blank face and the off-width crack-- too wide for cams-- to the left. I couldn't place the Number Four yet. It appeared I might be able to place it after I made the moves, at the top where the wide crack tapered a bit.

I ventured up and down several times, testing the obvious holds, and looking vainly for purchase inside the wide crack. It seemed like you could lay back off the edge of the off-width but, frankly, there was no way I was doing that. It was too insecure for my tastes.

So I found another way. I don't want to spew too much beta, but I will say that it involved groveling in the off-width, pushing up, high-stepping, wedging my body... in combination. Eventually I got my feet to the highest holds and arrived at the ceiling. My feet were maybe four feet from the roof, and the rest of me was scrunched in between. It was simultaneously cramped and exposed, like being trapped in a cardboard box, but at the same time risking an immediate fall if my toe moved a millimeter.

Existing in the space between the tiny footholds and the ceiling, hunched over, I tried not to hyperventilate. I'd made it. Now I just had to figure out how to tiptoe to the right to escape this crawlspace. Carefully I reached to my left and placed the Number Four at the top of the off-width. (Thanks, David!) Then I told myself to breathe.

"Calm down calm down calm down," I repeated.

I examined what was to come. There were holds. It wasn't so bad. The hardest work was behind me. It looked like after just a few moves to the right I'd be out. Gingerly I tiptoed over, then again, and before I knew it I was out from under the roof, looking up the corner to the fixed anchor, and above it to the big pitch three roof.

I threw in a cam and hustled up to the fixed station, which (as of this writing) is just a single sling threaded through several rusting nuts. Clipping it, I called out "Take!" and then I relaxed onto the tat and said a silent prayer while I built a real anchor. I was wiped out.

(Photo: Another shot of Andy emerging from the crab-crawl under the ceiling on pitch two of Erect Direction (5.10c).)

I have to say I don't think I've ever been happier to reach an anchor than I was on pitch two of Erect Direction. It's not that the pitch is really so hard, or long (it's actually pretty short), or at all unsafe (there is good gear everywhere you need it). It's just stressful. I found the positions to be unnerving. I had to work not to panic.

Andy followed the pitch cleanly, as I knew he would, and then we set our sights on the big ceiling above us.

I was hoping this third pitch, at 5.10a, would seem easy by comparison, but somehow I managed to blow it.

Leading up to the gargantuan roof, I got some good cams underneath. Then I made the big reach out to the lip, cut my feet and found myself hanging at the edge of the ceiling with one heel up. I tried to place a cam immediately but I couldn't get it to work in the irregular crack. I kept fumbling.


The cam wouldn't seat correctly. It wasn't right. I wasn't willing to make another move without a good piece but I was flaming out and I couldn't get the piece I had to work. I was at an impasse. I refused to clip this worthless cam and I couldn't hang on to fix it any more.

I expressed my thoughts to Andy. "Fuck me," I said. "Fuck me, fuck me, FUCK ME!"

I'm not proud of it.

It seemed like it was safer to drop down deliberately than to attempt to make another move. Once you commit to the ceiling you are looking at a swinging fall. I reasoned that it was better to let go in a controlled fashion than to fall further out, unpredictably. I decided to make the leap. Moving back towards the wall, I dropped my feet and asked Andy to pull it in. Then I let go and took the swing.

I landed, I hope gently, on Andy's head back at the belay.

After we both gathered ourselves I went back up and sent the damn thing. Since I started the pitch over from the beginning I'm counting it as a red point.

When I went up to the roof for the second time I bumped over ONE MORE MOVE and found a much better position from which to hang. I could have played with cams in this position all day long. I felt like such an idiot. In leisurely fashion, I placed two cams and got out of there.

The roof, as large as it is, actually isn't that hard, relatively speaking. As I'd hoped, there are lots of jugs. I think the crux of the third pitch is actually after you stand up at the lip of the roof. You have to make a hard move up an open book, and then finally you'll find easy terrain as you move left and around another ceiling to the finish.

(Photo: Feeling spent atop Erect Direction. Photo by Andy.)

I'm afraid I'm making Erect Direction sound like it wasn't a lot of fun. But it was. It was terrifying, exhausting, difficult-- and lots and lots of fun. It lived up to its reputation as one of the best climbs in the Gunks. I was really proud to on-sight pitch two of this climb. I should have also on-sighted pitch three. But what are you gonna do. You win some, you lose some.

Some day I'll go back to try to run pitches two and three together without stopping at the hanging belay. It would take careful sling work to avoid horrendous drag.

By the way, if you'd like to see some fantastic photos of Erect Direction, check out this set taken by Christian Fracchia. There are great shots of the pitch three roof. And Chris' photos bring to life the cramped, insecure pitch two crux better than my words ever could. Beware; there is a lot of beta revealed, although I did both cruxes very differently!

After Erect Direction I was ready for a break. I decided to send Andy up CCK Direct (5.9), one of my favorite routes.

(Photo: That's me, leading the 5.5 pitch one of CCK. Photo by Andy.)

I took care of pitch one and then sent Andy off on pitch two, the money pitch. Andy liked it, but I think maybe it was too easy for him. I remember cowering in the alcove before the final roof when I first led this climb back in 2012. But Andy? He breezed right through it without a care.

(Photo: Andy leading CCK Direct (5.9).)

Next I wanted to find another classic for him. We started walking a bit and found Arrow (5.8) wide open. Again I took the first pitch and handed it off to Andy for the crux pitch.

(Photo: Andy setting off on pitch two of Arrow (5.8).)

Once again Andy finished the lead in no time. I was curious to hear his thoughts, as a newcomer, on a climb that for me is like holy ground.

He liked it but wished there were more bolts. "A little run out" was his verdict. What can I say, he is a sport climber! And Arrow, while bolted, is no sport climb.

Our day was winding down and I started to feel ambitious again. I decided to try Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a). We rapped to the GT Ledge and walked on over.

This is just another great 5.10 at the Gunks which I've never gotten around to.

The climb is no joke but after Erect Direction it felt almost casual, well under control. The first crux is a big multi-tiered overhang. Nothing but a juggy good time. Right at the beginning of the hard part there is a sideways pocket where you really want a good placement. I had a hard time getting a cam to fit but I eventually worked in a brown Tricam, facing down. It was seated in a strange way but it seemed very solid.

Every time I consider dropping Tricams off my rack I find that they come in handy like this.

At the end of the first crux section there is an exciting, reachy grab up to a big shelf. And then easier climbing leads to a second crux, over another roof and into a seemingly blank corner. And then to the top of the cliff. There is good gear to the right as you enter the final overhang.

I really liked Amber Waves. The pitch has a ton of good moves on it. I think the 5.10a grade is fair-- at the old rating of 5.9 this would be one heck of a sandbag.

(Photo: Andy topping out on Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a).)

With autumn officially under way, 2015 continues to be an amazing year. I feel like with every visit to the Gunks I have to fit in at least one milestone. The time is limited and there are many, many excellent projects from which to choose. I'm so fortunate to be feeling so good and I have to take advantage of every chance I get.

I'm also headed to Indian Creek in two weeks for a mini-vacation. If you read this blog then you know I'm a terrible crack climber. I've been trying to prepare on the crack climbs in the gym-- and I've made progress, for sure-- but I know I'm in for a spanking when I get to Utah. It will be a learning experience and I will let you know how it goes!