Thursday, October 9, 2014

It's Raining Sends in the Red River Gorge

(Photo: Working on Primus Noctum (5.12a) at the Drive-By Crag. Photo by Adrian.)

I just got back from four days in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky.

It was my first visit to this Mecca of sport climbing, arranged by my wife Robin (in what will surely go down in history as the BEST BIRTHDAY GIFT EVER) with some help from my climbing friends Adrian and Gail.

Adrian and I were set to climb for four days, and Gail ultimately decided to join in too, coming down a day ahead of us with Max, her twenty-three year old son. Max is a strong boulderer. He competed as a youngster and came to the Red several times as a teen. But he dropped out of climbing when he went to college and only recently got back into it, though to all appearances the time off hasn't hurt. He has returned to fine form.

As my trip approached I tried to get more fit so I'd be able to survive on the steep overhanging routes for which the Red is famous. I went vegan (!), trained on the lead routes at the gym, and got back on my bicycle for some regular cardio exercise for the first time in a while. I succeeded in losing a few pounds and felt like I was in better shape than I'd been in all year.

But what was it all for? What did I hope to accomplish in the Red?

I had no sport climbing goals or expectations.

News flash: I am not a sport climber. Trad is my thing.

When I looked through the guidebooks for the Red, the sport walls all seemed the same to me. What I noticed mostly was that I needed to climb 5.11 if I wanted to do anything more than the warm-up routes at most of the sport crags.

So my goal was to lead 5.11 sport climbs. I didn't care whether I could send them cleanly. I just wanted to feel comfortable enough leading them that I could get the full experience of the area and have a good time.

As I reviewed the guidebooks I also noticed that for a sport climbing destination the Red sure seemed to have an awful lot of trad climbing. There were several different walls with a good selection of what appeared to be amazing climbs. I couldn't visit the Red without at least checking out some of these climbs. I knew Adrian and possibly Gail would want to hit the trad crags too.

When the time came for our visit, we found it hard just to get to Kentucky. But after a host of travel difficulties much too boring to talk about, we were all finally together at the Red on Friday afternoon, ready to climb. (Gail and Max had already begun climbing the day before.) It had rained all Thursday night and much of Friday morning but by noon it seemed like the skies were clearing and things were looking up.

Our first destination was the Drive-By Crag, a part of the climber-owned PMRP (Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve). Young Max had some friends from his Philadelphia climbing gym/team at the wall so this seemed like a good place at which to start.

The PMRP contains an odd mixture of natural wonder and heavy industry. Active oil rigs are scattered about the preserve. As you walk through the peaceful woods you will often be startled to encounter the smell of oil and the whine of machines, sometimes very close to the cliffs. The Drive-By Crag in particular has an active oil rig just downhill from the cliff face, and the noise of the drilling is clearly audible at the cliff. It is sort of a microcosm of the entire gorge; the beauty of nature is constantly juxtaposed with ugly human creations.

Despite the oil drilling the Drive-By Crag is a lovely and impressive place, steep and large. My immediate impression was that the creator had devised the ideal outdoor climbing gym, with a huge sweeping curve of pocketed, steep rock set with route after route of hard climbing. If this was your average Red River sport crag then I could see why the sport climbers love the area so very much. And I could see why gym climbers in particular are taken with the Red, since the cliffs so resemble the gym environment. But these cliffs are much better than any gym, with their real stone and a variety of holds, textures and colors that no man-made plastic palace could ever match.

(Photo: Adrian showing the stoke. Sport climbing RULES!!)

I liked the routes. We started with a 5.10b called Slick and the 9mm, on the left end of the wall. I was surprised at how easy it was. It had some steep moments but I thought it was more like a 5.9. I had heard that the Red was a little soft but if this was a representative 5.10 then we could own this place! The 5.10b that Adrian and I had done at Poke-O Moonshine just the week before made this one seem like a joke.

(Photo: Adrian on Slick and the 9mm (5.10b) at the Drive-By Crag.)

Our feelings of invincibility were sadly short-lived. Slick and the 9mm turned out to be an anomaly. I felt like the grading was stiffer and more accurate on every other climb we did over the next four days.

Storms came and went throughout the afternoon-- we stayed completely dry under the huge wall but we could tell it was raining by the sound of it pouring down behind us. It was a strange sensation.

The crag was crowded despite the weather. Most of the easier routes were constantly occupied even though it was a weekday. I accidentally worked on my first 5.12, Primus Noctum, when I found it open and was told it was a 5.11. I got shut down by one move I couldn't figure out, which I suppose must be the crux, at the very last bolt, but it was nice to work on a 5.12 on just my second pitch of the trip. I wasn't expecting that to happen. It made me feel right at home in the Red.

(Photo: That's me just over the roof on Primus Noctum (5.12a) at the Drive-By Crag.)

Adrian worked at Spirit Fingers (5.11c) and then I tried leading it too. I was happy to get over the technical, bouldery sequence off of a scary ledge near the bottom, but then I flamed out and had to take a hang in the pumpy upper section just one move below a good rest stance near the top. Having narrowly missed the onsight I regretted not trying harder.

We finished up our Friday with a 5.10d called Fire and Brimstone. I got the onsight lead on this one and felt pretty good about it. The crux climbing through the middle of the pitch was crimpy, making for a difficult clip of the draw. Seemed like a hard ten to me.

(Photo: Adrian on Fire and Brimstone (5.10d) at the Drive-By crag.)

Leaving the Drive-By Crag I felt like we'd had fun and gotten a taste of the real Red River Gorge, though we hadn't even begun to exhaust the possibilities within our ability levels at this one wall. I was relieved to find that I could climb in the Red. The routes were good, and they varied enough to discredit the widespread notion that all the climbs in the Red are steep, mindless jug hauls.

Still I knew that if we kept on climbing sport routes like these for four straight days I'd get bored.

Saturday and Sunday were expected to be sunny but cold, and rain was predicted again for Monday. Adrian and I decided to spend the next two days trad climbing. We guessed that the weekend crowds would be thinner at the trad walls, and then on Monday we could find a sport climbing location that would stay dry even if it was raining.

On Saturday Adrian and I headed to the Long Wall (a trad showcase) and had a great day. (Gail and Max went elsewhere for more sport climbing.) We got started pretty late, as the temperatures hovered in the low forties until late morning. Despite our lazy start we were just the second car parked at the tiny pullout. If you want to be alone at the Red, go trad climbing! We were the first to arrive beneath the marquee climbs of the area, Autumn (5.9-) and Rock Wars (5.10a).

Both of these climbs follow beautiful cracks up corners. Autumn is a hand crack/layback while Rock Wars is a fingers/tips crack that turns into an overhanging thin hands crack at the top. I thought Autumn would be good practice for me (I need to work on both hand cracks and laybacks) and it was theoretically the easier climb so I volunteered to start us off by leading it.

(Photo: I'm at the crux of Autumn (5.9-) at the Long Wall.)

I didn't exactly cruise it but I got through it unscathed. I was a little bit jittery all the way up. I found it easier most of the time to lay back off the flake rather than jam it, but I had to psych myself up to shakily commit to the moves at several points along the way. Nevertheless it was a success, and what a fine route! Beautiful rock and movement. I was glad we'd pooled our gear, since this climb will take as many blue No. 3 Camalots as you care to bring up. I placed three blues and two gold No. 2 Camalots. Adrian, when he followed, often jammed one hand in the crack and layed back with the other. Seemed smart to me. I might have felt more secure if I'd done it his way. He made it look very easy.

(Photo: Adrian on Autumn (5.9-) at the Long Wall.)

Next Adrian led Rock Wars and after the straightforward stemming section at the bottom the moves up the thin crack looked tough. Then the steeply overhanging hand crack to the anchor looked even tougher. I got it done as the second without any falls but of course it would be a bigger challenge to do the last part while also placing the gear. It is very steep. This is a pretty solid 5.10a, in my humble opinion, and another beautiful pitch.

(Photo: Adrian on Rock Wars (5.10a).)

I led a 5.9+ called Cruise Control which is right where the approach trail meets the Long Wall. This is another high quality pitch with steep moves up a few corners, around some small overhangs, and then a fun finish up a crack/flake system. And then I also led a sport route at the left end called Boom! Boom! Out Go The Lights (5.10b), which presents some overhanging, crimpy reaches past a bulge close to the ground and then finishes with technical moves up a slab. It was interesting. I liked having sport climbs intermixed with the trad routes. It is totally alien to me as a Gunkie, but I found that running up a moderate sport route is a really good way to take a mental break after a solid trad pitch.

(Photo: Adrian getting started on Cruise Control (5.9+) at the Long Wall.)

Adrian finished our day with a trad pitch called Mailbox (5.8), which features an easy low-angled off-width crack and then a sandbagged, steep finger crack to the finish. It is a really cool pitch. I wonder if the (quite straightforward) wide bit scares many people off.

(Photo: Adrian crammed into the off-width on Mailbox (5.8) at the Long Wall.)

We both loved the Long Wall and we didn't even make it around to the right half of the cliff. I'd be happy to go back.

On Sunday we had a similarly nice day trad climbing at the Fortress Wall. Gail and Max came along too and shared some of the routes with us. I didn't think the climbing at the Fortress Wall was quite as consistently stellar as at the Long Wall. The routes can be overly sandy and sometimes the rock feels unpleasantly sharp.

(Photo: Adrian on Bombs Bursting (5.8) at the Fortress Wall.)

We mostly did pleasant moderates like Bombs Bursting (a tough 5.8, with mandatory hand jamming and a committing finger crack crux) and Blue Runner (5.9- and similar to Cruise Control, with steep climbing down low and technical layback moves above). Adrian led both of these, plus a pretty easy but entertaining 5.8 called Snake, which slithers up an off-width for one or two moves before transitioning to a moderate hand crack with tons of features outside the crack.

(Photo: Here I'm following Adrian's lead of Blue Runner (5.9-) at the Fortress Wall, with Gail and Max below.)

I enjoyed leading Calypso I, a fun 5.7 flake climb.

(Photo: That's me leading Calypso I (5.7) at the Fortress Wall.)

My big lead of the day was Where Lizards Dare (5.9+), a beautiful and imposing finger crack up an overhanging corner which starts one pitch up off of the ground. I took us up Calypso III (5.5 off-width, very sandy) to get up to the ledge above. Then I plunged into Where Lizards Dare and found it pretty technical and sustained. The hardest single move involves stepping up into the dihedral where the crack begins. The crack at this point is too thin for fingers and the available face holds are high slopers. I took a long time and placed more and more gear (bomber nuts!) before finally committing to this move and making it into the crack. But then the route continued to be challenging and I got flustered. Eventually I had to hang to get my head together.

(Photo: I'm leading Where Lizards Dare (5.9+) at the Fortress Wall.)

The pitch eased up a little bit as the crack got wide enough for fingers and when I finished it I wished I could come back the next day to lead it again and do a better job. To me this was perhaps the best pitch of the trip. It rivals Rock Wars for quality and difficulty, though Rock Wars is longer.

(Photo: Gail on Calypso III (5.5) at the Fortress Wall. Photo by Adrian.)

I also enjoyed leading a chimney/off-width climb on the right side of the Fortress crag called Cussin' Crack (5.7). I enjoyed the moderate climbing up the wide chimney off of the ground (it was a great excuse to use our No. 4 Camalots), but then after reaching a ledge (where I thought I was all but done) I found a surprise squeeze chimney finish, invisible from the ground, which turned out to be the crux. This climb obviously doesn't see that much traffic. It was a bit dirty, with sharp edges, but I still found it to be a good time.

As predicted, it poured all Sunday night and into Monday morning. Gail and Max were exhausted and decided to head back to Lexington to try to catch an early flight. I hoped Adrian and I could do a day of sport climbing at another one of these sheltered, overhanging walls. Adrian was feeling pretty whipped but he was game to go for it for one more day.

We went to the Military Wall, which Gail and Max had enjoyed on Thursday and which the guidebook said was a good rainy day crag. We walked up during a break in the storms and found the climbs to be pretty much completely dry even though it had been raining steadily for hours. Another thunderstorm rolled through just as we were beginning to climb but it didn't really matter to us since we were already beneath the wall.

(Photo: Adrian on Sunshine (5.9+) at the Military Wall.)

It seemed to me that the Military Wall (one of the more mature sport crags in the Red) had a mix of the best and the worst of the sport climbing scene. We did the warm-up routes Sunshine (5.9+) and Moonbeam (5.9). These are overhanging jug hauls made more difficult by the fact that they are so greasy and chalky from the thousands of ascents they have seen over the years. Standing there on a rainy Monday, we had no trouble getting access to them, but the chalk told the story of many many crowded weekends. It was like being in a gym where the climbs are never changed. I felt similarly put off by the supposed classic Fuzzy Undercling (5.11-). The start is so slimy and white with caked-on chalk, it is just gross. Also impossible. It is gross and impossible, a lethal combination.

(Photo: I'm about to start Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b) at the Military Wall.)

My mood improved when we walked left to the far end of the Military Wall, where we found ourselves beneath a spectacular overhanging face that is covered in swirling black lines made of iron oxide. Behind these bands of iron oxide, the wall is a gorgeous mixture of reds, oranges and yellows. It is like a kaleidoscopic work of art. We looked at the two routes on this wall, and when I stepped up to try the one on the left, Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b), I was tickled to find that the thin black iron oxide bands formed awesome crimps and pinches. The route had some tough, long reaches from the first to the third bolts but I got by this crux section okay and then managed to climb through the pumpy remaining terrain for an actual bona fide 5.11b onsight.

(Photo: Adrian on Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b).)

I later read on the internet that if you move further right after the second bolt everyone thinks this is really a 5.10. But I didn't move to the right, so I guess I did it the hard way. And the guidebook calls the route a 5.11b so who am I to question it? I am officially a 5.11b sport climber, there is simply no denying it.

Right after this historic achievement I tried the 5.11d/5.12b next door, Forearm Follies, and got shut down hard. I didn't make it very far. I had to leave a bail biner after just a few bolts.

(Photo: Adrian leading Possum Lips (5.10d) at the Military Wall.)

We enjoyed two other routes at the Military Wall. Adrian and I both took a turn at leading Possum Lips (5.10d), a slab route with some thin, technical moves. Nothing pumpy about this one but it definitely requires finesse and good footwork. I was psyched to get the onsight.

And finally, we liked another less-popular route to the right, next to the archaeological closure: Danita Dolores (5.10b). The start over a low roof is described in the guidebook as "desperate." But I found it pretty doable. I campused up a few holds, got my feet on the wall, and cruised through the fun climbing up an arĂȘte.

(Photo: I'm almost to the anchor on Danita Dolores (5.10b) at the Military Wall.)

As we left the Military Wall and headed to the airport, I felt that we'd done a bunch of wonderful climbs in the Red and had a great experience. But the time had flown by and ultimately we'd barely dipped our toe into the metaphorical sea of climbing that was available.

We'd gotten just a small taste of the sport climbing life in the Red. We did some of the pumpy jug hauls for which the place is well-known, but really just a few. I liked these climbs. I would come back and do them again. If I devoted all of my energies to these sorts of routes I'd probably improve at them. But for now, doing just a few in any one day was enough for me.

I was pleased to see that, counter to the Red's reputation, there are other types of sport routes available. In our random sampling of the sport climbing in the Red we'd stumbled upon slabby routes, crimpy faces, and technical aretes. I really enjoyed these sorts of routes. I would love to come again to seek out the walls that are filled with these less pumpy, more technical routes.

As you might expect, I was happiest with the trad climbing we did. I don't think the Red's collection of trad routes is exactly world class, but what they have is certainly much more than you can do in a few days and is so different from what we have in the Gunks that it feels like a real treat. The Gunks just doesn't feature crack routes. Fingers, hands, fists, and off-width cracks-- the Red has them all, and on beautiful cliffs in secluded settings.

Over the course of our visit numerous people expressed shock and dismay that Adrian and I were spending half of our time in the Red trad climbing. But I'm glad we split the trip up the way we did. There was no way we'd get more than a small sample of what this massive area has to offer in one visit anyhow. I was pleased to get as many different little tastes of what was available as we could.

And anyway I don't think that a pure sport climbing trip would ever do it for me. I've previously written about my preference for trad over sport and I don't want to belabor the point again here.

But there were times during our trip when I could see the other side of the argument. At the Military Wall there was a young man trying like crazy to get the redpoint on a particular 5.12. While we were there he took four burns on the route, succeeding on the last try. When he finally nailed it his exhilaration was contagious. I was thrilled for him, and I was pretty impressed that he was able to reset, recharge and go after the route again and again the way he did. I don't think in my current state of fitness I could be so fresh on my fourth try at such a steep route. If I put in the effort and focused on this type of climbing I know I could have successes like that, and I'd probably be a stronger trad climber as a byproduct as well. It would be good for me.

But the trade-off would be doing less of the kind of climbing I love the most, so I probably won't.

It's one of the wonderful things about climbing: there are no rules. You get to set your own goals and choose your own level of adventure, taking your motivation from whatever source you like. Your path will be different from mine, and that's just fine.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Poke-O Moonshine Cliff: The FM (5.7+ R), Bloody Mary (5.9+) & More!

(Photo: Looking out on Poke-O Moonshine from the top of pitch two of Bloody Mary (5.9+). Photo by Adrian.)

A few weeks ago (as you'll surely recall!) I took a random tumble at the base of the Trapps in the Gunks, opening a gash in my knee and causing some worrisome swelling. The timing wasn't great, since I was planning to go to the Red River Gorge for four days in early October.

Because I had so little time to waste, I went to see a few doctors. After a tetanus booster and some antibiotics I'm happy to say the knee is pretty much back to normal. I lost about a week of my usual physical activities but I feel lucky it wasn't more serious.

This past weekend I got back to climbing outside. I made my second attempt of the season at climbing in the Adirondacks with Adrian. Our first effort of the year back in June was pretty much a washout, but this time we seemed well set for a good day. We had a cushion of several clear days in a row.

The plan was for Adrian and I to meet on Sunday at Poke-O Moonshine, the huge cliff close to the Northway at exit 33. I've been there twice before, but there is so much climbing to do at Poke-O I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what the place has to offer.

Poke-O is just an hour and a half away from Adrian's current digs in Montreal. By contrast, it is five hours away from my home in Brooklyn. No one without a family would ever think of making the trip up there for just a single day. For people without children it wouldn't be worth it, but since I can rarely get away for a whole weekend I am occasionally willing to do a lot of driving for just one day's climbing.

Luckily, my wife and I have friends who own a place near Lake George and they offered their house to me for the night on Saturday. This made it possible for me to drive up Saturday night, crash, and then meet Adrian at the Poke-O at 8 a.m. on Sunday. It worked out well.

I had several ideas for us. I'd previously climbed some of the great Poke-O multi-pitch routes like Gamesmanship (5.8+) and Fastest Gun (5.10a). I wanted to do another full-length route up the 400 foot cliff-- something new. I was thinking about The FM (5.7+ R), a historical classic which was once very popular but which isn't as frequently done these days because it features some slightly scary traverses and run outs, as well as some sections with loose rock. I wasn't too worried about these challenges. I figured we'd be very comfortable with the climbing at that grade and that we'd be able to handle whatever else this climb threw at us.

Beyond that, I was thinking about leading Bloody Mary (5.9+), a testpiece which Adrian and I had attempted three years ago but which we had abandoned about halfway through.

And I thought I might like to try a 5.10. Poke-O has several single-pitch 5.10 face/crack climbs, many of which feature bolted cruxes. I thought I should be able to handle one of these climbs. I've always felt sandbagged and intimidated when I've climbed in the Dacks, but on my last trip to Poke-O, a year ago, I'd been able to on-sight lead the 5.10 pitch three of Fastest Gun. And lately I've been attacking Gunks 5.10's with gusto. It made sense that I should at least try one with Adrian during our day together.

Sunday dawned clear and warm and as I drove up to the cliff I could see the fall colors were out in abundance. Adrian and I met at the defunct campground and walked in to the cliff. We stopped at The FM and gave it the once-over. The first pitch goes up the back of a black alcove and then exits out the right side using a layback crack. The pitch looked a little dirty and uninspiring. But the rock above pitch one looked clean and dry so I figured pitches two and three, the highlights of the climb, were going to be in fine condition. Why not try it? We racked up and got started.

I led pitch one and it was better than it looked. The pitch wanders to the top of the alcove, moving from left to right up some obvious cracks with decent gear. It isn't a long pitch (60 feet) and before you know it you are at the fun, clean exit moves out of the alcove and onto a good belay ledge.

(Photo: Adrian finishing pitch one of The FM (5.7+).)

Adrian led pitch two, the crux 5.7+ pitch, featuring a traverse that moves left and slightly down across a thin face. At the crux leftward step (known as the "Lavallee move" for the man who unlocked the sequence on the route's first free ascent), there is great gear in a vertical crack just above. Thus the leader is essentially on top rope for the crux move. The follower faces a bit of a swing at the Lavallee move, because he or she has to clean the overhead pieces of pro before making the move. But the next gear is only a few feet to the left. The fall wouldn't be that terrible.

(Photo: Adrian just past the traversing on pitch two of The FM (5.7+).)

I very much enjoyed this pitch. It is a masterpiece of route finding, weaving its way left around corners and across the blank slab to easier climbing up a corner and around to a good belay ledge. It would be a slightly nerve-racking pitch for someone whose limit is 5.7, since the pitch traverses so much and the gear, while adequate, is spaced.

(Photo: That's me at the "Lavallee move" on pitch two of The FM (5.7+).)

Pitch three earns The FM its R rating. The runout 5.7 crux climbing comes right off the belay, up a right-facing corner and arĂȘte. But I didn't think it was so badly protected. After one or two moves I was able to reach up and blindly place a small nut behind a thin flake above the corner. It was hard to evaluate this gear until after I made the move up but it did seem pretty solid when I examined it afterwards. The climbing is good and then the rightward moves up a ramp to the belay beneath a large v-notch present a few more committing steps around corners, with much better gear.

(Photo: I'm just past the poorly protected starting crux on pitch three of The FM (5.7+).)

The belay station atop pitch three is kind of a mess, with one good bolt, an ancient ring piton, and a horn slung with old crusty slings, all equalized with a cordelette. I added a nut next to the piton, shoring up one of the three legs of the anchor, figuring that with my nut and the bolt we were in good shape.

(Photo: Adrian coming up the ramp on pitch three of The FM (5.7+).)

But while you can improve the anchor, you can't do anything about the loose rock laying all around this station. As Adrian led off on pitch four, he found plenty more junky rock until he got about halfway up the v-notch. It is pretty easy to avoid all the looseness but you do have to be careful. After you dance through the loose crap, the pitch improves greatly, with some nice moves up the notch and then a bizarre feature that guidebook authors Lawyer and Haas call a "gong flake." This huge flake-- really an entire wall-- rings hollow when you pound it. Climbing the edge of this hollow feature is fun and it seems solidly attached. One hopes so anyway. Then an interesting final corner takes you to a grassy ledge with a rappel tree.

(Photo: Adrian just about through the junky rock on pitch four of The FM (5.7+).)

I thought The FM was a fun route, with adventurous situations and some fine, unique climbing. But it isn't for the new 5.7 climber, that's for sure. Both the leader and the follower should be solid in 5.7. Whichever person leads pitch one will be in for the worst of the run outs, following pitch two and leading pitch three.

I highly recommend using double ropes (as we did) because then you can rappel just twice: from the top of pitch four to the top of pitch two, and then to the ground. The belay stations atop pitches two and four are in good shape but as of this writing the station atop pitch one has good bolts but a faded, crusty cord holding it all together, and the pitch three station is an all-around disaster.

Once we got down Adrian asked me if I was ready for my big lead of Bloody Mary.

I wasn't sure about it. Intellectually I knew I could do the route but in my heart I had doubts. I remembered our first attempt at this route three years ago. I'd led the throwaway thirty-foot 5.6 first pitch and then Adrian had aborted his lead of pitch two after taking a lead fall and finding himself unsure of where to go. Following him I'd found the first half of pitch two to be unrelenting and just plain hard. A burly layback through an overhang led to tenuous, steep stemming up two opposing flakes. I felt like I could pop out of the stemming at any time and I did take one fall before reaching the point where Adrian had bailed off to the left. I remembered the pitch as exhausting, and we didn't even finish it!

This time around I was planning to combine the first two pitches into one 150-foot pitch to the bolted anchor. I resolved to take it slow and make smart choices, and to milk rests whenever I could.

(Photo: That's me in the crux on Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

After I got through the traditional first pitch and looked up at the start of the crux layback I wished I had two blue No. 3 Camalots. I needed one to protect the committing step up into the layback, but after that the crack remained the same size for a few more moves. I supposed I could ask Adrian to send me up another cam (using some rope shenanigans) but ultimately I decided I could work it out with what I had. I placed my one blue Camalot as high as I could and then stepped up into the overhang. Once I got a good foothold I found I was able to drag the blue cam up a bit and reposition it to protect the next moves, so it worked out fine. One blue cam was sufficient. But if you have two you'll be in really great shape.

(Photo: Stemming it out on Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

I didn't know it yet but I'd already done the hardest part of the pitch. Looking up, I was intimidated by the stemming yet to come. I hemmed and hawed before getting on with this section. But once I actually committed it went perfectly. I remembered the stemming as so fragile and thin but this time around I found solid foot jams and holds. Decent footwork makes such a huge difference. There was never a moment where I felt I could fall. Before I knew it I was through it, stepping left onto the white face and approaching the final overhangs.

When it was all said and done I was thrilled. If you combine the first two pitches together, Bloody Mary is one hell of a single-pitch climb. There is so much great climbing on it, and the challenges are varied, ranging from laybacks to stemming to face climbing and finally to overhangs. It is one of my favorite pitches ever, anywhere. (Double ropes are again recommended, so you can get down in one rap from the bolted station atop pitch two.)

(Photo: Adrian just about done with Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

Adrian too found Bloody Mary less mysterious and challenging the second time around. It is rare that I find climbs that give me such a tangible feeling of improvement over time. It is a nice sensation.

Next we took a look at one of those bolted Poke-O tens. Just to the right of Bloody Mary is a route called Casual Observer. The overall grade is 5.11a but first pitch of this route is 5.10b and it is almost entirely bolt-protected, with some optional gear placements in a chimney near the top.

(Photo: Adrian contriving to rest on Casual Observer (P1 5.10b).)

Adrian decided to give it a whirl and it was somewhat tough going for him. He struggled at the crux thin move across the face about halfway up and then again at the roof move to escape the chimney.

(Photo: here I'm above the crux on Casual Observer (P1 5.10b).)

When it was my turn to follow I was happy to get it clean but boy, this thing was pretty tough. I felt sandbagged. I might have been a little freaked out leading this, even with the bolts. I had to hand it to Adrian that he'd led it calmly from the ground up. I thought it was technical and "in your face" from the word go, with thin moves up a shallow corner past the first several bolts. Then the crux traverse step was definitely another notch higher in difficulty, followed by a steep sequence to get into the chimney and still more hard moves to escape. It didn't really let up until I reached the anchor.

After Casual Observer I wasn't so keen on any more tens. We'd done seven guidebook pitches and I was ready to dial it back a bit.

So we ended the day with two fantastic pitches we'd done before (albeit three years prior). I led The Sting (5.8) and Adrian led the first pitch of Gamesmanship (5.8+).

These have to be two of the very best crack climbs in the East. I upped the ante a bit by leading the 5.9 direct start to The Sting. It sort of resembles the first moves of Maria Direct (5.9) but I think The Sting Direct is a little harder, even though it only takes one or two moves (depending on your height) to reach the jug. I'll admit I stepped up and down a few times until I figured out which hold was the jug I was aiming for, and then I went for it, crimping hard and then making the big lock-off and reach.

(Photo: Past the tough start on The Sting Direct (5.9).)

After the bouldery start I loved The Sting's moves leftward on a fingery rail, and then the rest of the way was just joyful climbing up the obvious hand crack, with plentiful opportunities for feet and hands outside the crack as well.

(Photo: Adrian heading up Gamesmanship (5.8+).)

Apart from the opening moves, pitch one of Gamesmanship is the harder climb of the two. It is steeper and longer and has a bit more required pure crack climbing on it. It is such an appealing line-- it is hard to imagine walking by it without wanting to climb it. (And bring your double ropes again for the long rappel.) Adrian, crack specialist that he is, ran up the pitch in no time, and following him I felt free and casual, another contrast to three years ago, when on this same pitch I felt challenged and crack-deficient.

(Photo: This is my patented "ignore the crack" technique on display on Gamesmanship (5.8+).)

Returning to Poke-O produced one of the most enjoyable days of the year for me as a climber. In a way it was a reunion of sorts for Adrian and me. We were together here three years before, both of us having our first experiences climbing in the Adirondacks, and now here we were again, both older and wiser, enjoying some of the same climbs as on our first go 'round, our partnership still strong.

We were lucky to have beautiful weather and stunning fall colors. And to enjoy great climbs carrying a host of different challenges. I left feeling like we'd accomplished a lot, yet we'd still just begun to explore all of the many facets of Poke-O Moonshine Cliff. I can't wait to come back.

Now if only I could find a way to avoid the five hour drive back to NYC....

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gunks Routes: Star Action (5.10b), Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a/b) & Doubleissima (5.10b)

(Photo: Headed for the roof of Son of Easy O (5.8).)

Another September weekend in the Gunks.

Temperatures have been falling and autumn is in the air. I think sending season may be soon upon us.

I met up with Adrian this past Sunday in the Trapps. As I drove up I decided I had one goal: I needed to get the redpoint on Directississima aka Doubleissima (5.10b). Just last week I'd come close, but had taken a brief hang at the hardest move. I knew if I approached it smartly I could get the send this time.

Apart from that one climb I had no ambitions.

We walked in and found the ever-popular Son of Easy O (5.8) open so we did it. I took the lead and ran it to the top in one pitch. It is still one of the best 5.8's. The traditional first pitch has so many great face moves. The overhang on the second pitch is a fun, if short, challenge. I've never cut my feet loose and campused it like Ashima, but hey, every problem has multiple valid solutions.

When Adrian and I both reached the top we rapped down over City Lights and found that it had become very crowded. We started walking in the general direction of Doubleissima, looking for an open climb for Adrian to lead along the way.

But almost everything was occupied. We walked past the Drunkard's wall and into the Arch area, seeing nothing available that we wanted to try.

Just then, as I walked downhill past the start of Ribless, I lost my footing somehow. It is a little steep and loose right there next to the cliff. I guess I got careless, and I fell.

My little slip quickly turned into a cartwheeling header. I found myself flying. I tumbled over several loose stones and landed maybe ten feet lower then my starting point.

I couldn't believe my own clumsiness. Lying there in the dirt, I felt humiliated but okay. It had all gone by in a blur but I didn't think I'd caught an ankle.

I sat up and said "I think I'm all right."

Adrian pointed out that I was bleeding through my pants.

I pulled up my pant leg and saw a gash in my knee that was kind of deep. I had a couple of band aids in my bag but I didn't think they were going to help very much.

I inspected the knee and it did not seem that I'd broken it. But I could tell it was going to bruise and swell a bit. I must have knocked it pretty hard on the way down. It was tender and puffy. The good news was that I was able to weight the leg and walk.

"Do you want to see a doctor?" Adrian asked.

It sounded reasonable.

But if I did that, we were never going to get on Doubleissima!

Besides, Adrian had driven all the way down to the Gunks from Montreal to climb with me. It seemed rude to abandon him just because I got a little cut on my knee. I wouldn't be able to live with myself. I decided I had to be a man about it and keep climbing. It was the selfless, generous thing to do.

You might disagree. You might think that continuing to climb was a short-sighted, stupid thing to do. But if you are of that opinion then I assure you, respectfully, that you are mistaken.

I put a band aid over the cut and wrapped some climbing tape around the knee, hoping the tape would stay in place and keep the bleeding at bay.

We resumed looking for a fun climb to do.

Before we knew it we were at the Mac Wall. I've been there a lot this year. But there were many climbs I needed to do there. I still needed to get the redpoint on Try Again (5.10b). And I'd considered Star Action (5.10b) before, but it was wet when I examined it in the spring. Today it was dry and it was open.

(Photo: A climber named Jill going for it on Try Again (5.10b).)

With all the wandering and tripping and falling and bandaging, we'd wasted substantial time already. Adrian wasn't too keen on leading Star Action, with its 5.10b roof. But we needed to climb something, so I decided to lead it.

As I got on the wall my knee seemed okay. Just as I got going on the route our friends Maryana and Beau happened to arrive. They offered moral support as I worked my way up the climb. The early going was comparatively easy, but I found the line to be pretty indistinct and the gear was kind of fiddly.

Once I reached the crux roof I had no confusion about where to go and there was good pro in a bomber horizontal. From this horizontal below the roof I could see a jug hold, way up there out of reach. The guidebook suggests a dyno to attain the jug but I could see some intermediate crimps. Maybe there was no need for a dyno. The guidebook also says that the move AFTER the big reach to the jug is the "mental crux" of the route, as you step left to an obvious corner.

I had two solid cams in the horizontal. It was steep but I could hang out there, shaking out each hand in turn. I kept reaching up to test the crimps, and I did not like them. I couldn't get myself to trust them. Up and down, up and down. Eventually I got tired and took a hang.

Then Beau shouted up to me that I should look to my left for a rest stance. I looked over and saw that I could have taken a real rest at an obvious little shelf just one move to the left! Tunnel vision and a refusal to commit got the best of me again.

(Photo: A climber on MF Direct (5.10a).)

Meanwhile my makeshift bandage was falling apart. The cut in my knee was still open and bleeding. I was getting some red blotches on the rock. This lead was turning into a mess. I needed to get on with it.

After I rested I finally went for it, using the crimps and reaching the jug, no dyno required. I think I could repeat this move any time. It is similar to, but in my opinion easier than, the roof move on Precarious Perch (5.9+).

But the next move-- the "mental crux" step left into a lieback-- is a real challenge. You have to transition from hanging off the jug to a tenuous lieback with no footholds. Your feet are just pasted to the wall, and they are above your last gear. It is a scary move. After I got the jug I tried to make the transition but once again I couldn't commit to it and climbed back down a step, taking a deliberate whipper so I could rest and reset. The fall was clean but I sailed down a ways, below the first crux roof.

Having now failed once at each of the cruxes, I finally got through it. It was a relief. Star Action is a gutsy lead, much more so than its neighbor Try Again. The gear for the crux sequence isn't that far away and the fall is clean, but you are definitely looking at a nice whip if you blow either of the two crux moves, and if you come off at the lieback it could be a weird fall.

(Photo: Happy to be past both cruxes on Star Action (5.10b).)

I don't know how soon I'll be going back for the send on Star Action. I know I can do it but that move into the lieback isn't a sure thing. I could easily fall there, and I'm not sure I want to.

Adrian did well with the first crux but then flew off at the lieback. He needed a little more work at that move before he completed the pitch. Watching the way he spun off of the rock, I was even less eager to get back up there on lead.

After I got down I wrapped my knee up again. I still felt I could continue to climb but I was starting to resemble a wounded soldier, with my ripped pants and blood stains all over. Physically I was feeling it too. The knee was stiffening and the effort I'd put in on Star Action had me feeling whipped.

(Photo: Adrian at the roof on Star Action (5.10b).)

Beau and Maryana were just finishing Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a/b), a squeezed-in climb to our left. I was intrigued by it. I'd never seen anyone do it. The line is not obvious from the ground and I'd always been deterred from trying it because I thought it was too close to climbers on the popular Something Interesting (5.7). But the way Beau did it, the climb was a totally independent line, moving to the right after an overhang and ending at the Higher Stannard (5.9-) bolts.

This was a route right up Adrian's alley, with thoughtful face moves rather than pumpy overhangs. After getting some specific protection beta from Beau, he decided to lead it.

(Photo: Adrian heading up Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a/b). The climber above is on Something Interesting (5.7+).)

It was an impressive on-sight for Adrian. He seemed to get gear for all of the moves up the face and then, after hesitating for a moment and testing the possible holds, he cruised through the crux move smoothly.

When I followed the pitch I was even more impressed with Adrian's lead. The climb's style resembles Higher Stannard (a route I really enjoy), but Still Crazy is more difficult and the gear is less reliable. The protection comes at spaced horizontals that are often shallow and/or pebbly. I thought some of Adrian's gear was pretty iffy and not because of any failing on his part. The cracks just aren't that great for gear. And the climbing past the questionable gear is consistently thoughtful, in the 5.8-5.9 range at least.

The brief crux sequence is really nice, and the gear here is good, though it is at your feet when you do the move.

I was happy to get Still Crazy cleanly as the second, and though my injured right knee complained a bit at the high steps it seemed like I was still able to climb.

It was now or never.

I told Adrian I wanted to lead Doubleissima.

"Really?" he said. "Okay."

We trooped on down to the High E buttress to find a party slowly working their way up the climb. This was fine with me. I wanted a good long rest before I hit Doubleissima. I relaxed and tried to think through my plan, visualizing success.

(Photo: Between the two cruxes on Doubleissima (5.10b).)

When the party ahead of us cleared the cruxes, I headed up and I'm proud to say it went down perfectly. I fired through the steep bulge off the ledge without a problem. Moving to the right and up, I could feel the fatigue coming on, but I tried not to do anything sloppy as I approached the roof, and then I managed to shake out enough to power through the overhang. After that the angle eased and I was smiling all the way to the GT Ledge.

Score one for the good guys. I could limp home with my head held high. I'd sent a hard 5.10. And such a great climb.

(Photo: Adrian finishing up the crux pitch of Doubleissima (5.10b).)

Now I was satisfied, I didn't care what else we did. We rapped back down and looked for something fun for Adrian to lead.

We settled on the 5.8 first pitch of Erect Direction. We'd both done it before. It is a juggy good time.

(Photo: Adrian starting up Erect Direction (pitch one, 5.8).)

I ended our day by leading Moonlight (5.6) from the GT Ledge to the top. This is a high quality pitch, exciting and varied, with the exposed moves around the crux corner and then beautiful, slabby climbing up white rock to the top. It is nothing but fun, so long as you're prepared for the fact that the gear stinks until after the crux-- you might as well be soloing for much of the first half of the pitch.

(Photo: At the crux of pitch two of Moonlight (5.6).)

I'd been using my injured leg all day, keeping it loose, but after the two-hour car ride back to Brooklyn the leg was pretty stiff. The next morning I found it hard to walk without a limp. The swelling in the knee had increased, making it a challenge just to bend my leg. As I struggled to navigate the subway I wondered if the previous day's climbing had been nothing but a dream. Had we really climbed three 5.10's after I busted up my knee?

I was a little worried about the injury for a few days but it seems I'm on the mend now. The swelling is mostly gone and I am walking around pretty much normally again. I think I'll get back to climbing very soon, certainly in time for my trip to the Red River Gorge in October.

And the next time I go to the Gunks I might want to hop right back on Doubleissima. I think it is my new favorite climb. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Doubling Down on Doubleissima (5.10b) & More!

(Photo: Climbers on High Exposure (5.6+), seen from where Doubleissima (5.10b) reaches the GT Ledge.)

My first trip to the Red River Gorge is just a few weeks away.

I've been trying to prepare. I'm working to get into better shape. I feel more motivated than I have in a while.

I've had a pretty good month on my bicycle, riding regularly.

I've been leading the overhanging 5.11 climbs in the gym (and occasionally sending). Maybe when I climb the overhanging 5.11 sport climbs in the Red, they won't feel too unfamiliar?

And I've changed my diet. For a little more than a week-- i.e., more than SEVEN DAYS-- I've been following a strictly vegan diet.

Yes, I said it: I'm a vegan.

The big "V."

The beast with no meat.

(Or dairy.)

It is a big change for me. I have always eaten animals and animal products. I do the cooking in our household and we are all rather enthusiastic carnivores. Chicken, beef, pork, fish, cheese, you name it-- we eat probably way too much animal protein. I also love to bake desserts, and the notion of saying goodbye to eggs and butter seems like crazy talk.

This isn't an ethical stand I'm taking. I'm not going vegan because I have a concern about the unjust subjugation of animals. I mean, don't get me wrong, I do of course care about the subjugation of animals. I care deeply about the subjugation of animals. Just not enough to stop me from eating and exploiting them.

Rather, my goal in all this is simple. I'm trying to reduce my caloric intake and decrease the amount of junk food on which I snack during the day. You see, as I decrease the number of things I can eat, it becomes easier not to eat a lot of crap. If I'm not allowed to eat anything, I won't eat at all. It's perfectly logical.

And it's working. Over the past few weeks I've lost a few pounds. I feel lighter and fitter.

A side benefit of the veganism is that it seems to drive my wife Robin utterly crazy. When she saw that I'd purchased soy milk she instantly knew what I was up to and went into a rage. "This is what you're doing now??" she said, incredulous.

I could only shrug.

Something about the vegan thing just pushes her buttons.

The other night I cooked steak for her and the kids, but I didn't eat any.

"So you're not having any of this??" she asked.

"You know I can't," I explained, patiently. "I'm a vegan."


She did have a point there.

But actually I am a vegan, at least for a while. And I'm enjoying it, so far.

It hasn't been that much of a deprivation. I've been cooking new, delicious dishes that have been a pleasure to eat. I've made gazpacho and ratatouille and chana dal. I'm sure there are tons of other tasty, nutritious meals I'll make before I get hopelessly bored with the vegan lifestyle. I know I won't be vegan forever, and anyway I'm not sure it is the best diet in the long run. But in the short term I think it may be very good for me.

I should have told my climbing partner Nani about this new vegan lifestyle before we got together to climb last Sunday. Nani often brings tasty treats to share when we go climbing. I meant to mention it to her, but I forgot, and then I was forced to decline the ham and egg sandwich she brought me for breakfast.

That one hurt. I can still smell that tasty sandwich.

But you would have been proud of me. I got through it. I persevered. I spurned the sandwich. And I think Nani forgave me for not eating it.

Sunday was a beautiful day. The scheduled high was in the seventies. I hoped the Gunks wouldn't be too crowded since Saturday had been a disaster: hot, humid, and stormy.

I had a 5.10 on my mind. It was one of my past failures: Directississima aka Doubleissima (5.10b). I felt like I'd let too much time pass (two years!) since I tried it the first time. And I really needed to improve on my past performance. When I first tried it, I got my butt kicked. I struggled so much in the crux bulge that I got exhausted and I abandoned the climb without finishing it.

It was time to try again. I knew I could do better. And I thought the steep, pumpy nature of the climb would be good prep for the Red River Gorge.

But I wasn't about to warm up with such a hard route. I thought we could do some other stuff nearby and then if I felt good I could hit Doubleissima.

We walked down to the High E area and saw that everything was basically open. I hadn't been on Bonnie's Roof (one of my favorites) this year and it occurred to me that though I'd led the route a few times I'd never led Bonnie's Direct (5.9) from the ground to the top in a single pitch before. I thought it would be a nice way to start our day with a bang. And if the Direct finish felt pretty casual I'd be well set for Doubleissima.

(Photo: Just past the namesake pitch one ceiling on Bonnie's Roof (5.9).)

It went well. I tried to conserve gear by placing nuts instead of cams during the early going. It turned out to be easy: you can protect almost the whole climb with great sinker nuts! It was a good exercise and I think I probably had the most reliable gear I've ever had on the climb. I still threw in the schweeet blue # 3 Camalot at the first roof crux. But aside from that piece I used very few of my favorites and I arrived at the perch beneath the Direct finish with a full range of cams.

(Photo: Nani at the final overhang on Bonnie's Direct (5.9).)

I needn't have worried so much about the gear. Once you place a piece at the stance beneath the final roofs you need, at most, two more cams before the climb is done. And there are several different-sized cracks available for pro; you could pop in just about anything. 

The big move that starts the Direct is very exposed and exciting, then it's all jugs to the finish. Done as one pitch, Bonnie's Direct has to be one of the very best single-pitch climbs in the Gunks. Great fun.

Nani was looking to lead some sevens, which I was excited about. She has flirted on and off with trad leading and the last time we were together she led several pitches easier than 5.7. I suggested she try Sleepwalk (5.7), which is just to the left of Bonnie's. Nani followed me up Sleepwalk five years ago but I doubt she remembers. (Not everyone is as obsessed with these details as I am.) I thought it would be a good lead for her because the angle is low and there's always gear nearby. You can stop and think whenever you need to. I knew she could handle any 5.7 but I thought this one would be nice and comfortable for her.

(Photo: Nani heading up Sleepwalk (5.7).)

In my opinion it is on the easy side of 5.7 but there are a few technical sequences. It is clean and fun and it ends at a bolted anchor, which makes setting up the belay simple for the budding leader.

Nani led it without a hitch, of course. The climb is well beneath her abilities. When I joined her at the bolts I decided it might be nice to lead the 5.7- second pitch of Lichen 40 Winks. This was a new one for me. Dick Williams describes the pitch as having clean white rock and a good roof problem.

(Photo: Nani at the crux on the 5.7- pitch two of Lichen 40 Winks.)

And Dick is right. It is a nice little pitch, with enjoyable climbing and an interesting little roof. The quality climbing is pretty brief, though, and I thought the gear was a little bit spaced out. I wouldn't necessarily put a new 5.7 leader on this pitch. It has three or four nice moves and is certainly worth doing once.

(Photo: View down the cliff from the belay stance atop pitch two of Lichen 40 Winks. A climber is visible on the GT Ledge beneath the crux pitch of High Exposure (5.6+).)

After we rapped back down it was time for Doubleissima.

We walked over and found the route open and in the shade. It was gorgeous out. Conditions were never going to be better than this.

I had a plan. As I did on Bonnie's, I wanted to conserve gear through the traditional first pitch (which is 5.8 and only 40 feet long), and then I'd keep on going right into the second, which begins with a crux bulge right off of a ledge. I would climb up into the bulge and place good pro, then I'd climb back down and rest, so that I could then fire through the bulge and still have some gas left for the steep climbing up to the roof, which is the second crux.

(Photo: Nani on Doubleissima, after both cruxes.)

I tried really hard to execute my plan perfectly. After I walked up the initial 40 feet with no worries, I found that I could go up and down into the crux bulge and place as much gear as I liked. So that part worked out well. I ended up going up and down a couple of times. I got a good rest before I decided to go for it at the crux move.

But I still blew it, getting a little befuddled by a loose hold (with chalk all over it) in the middle of the crux. I adjusted, trying to avoid this hold, but I got tired, misread the sequence and then took a hang.

It went much better after that, however. I went back up and got over the bulge easily on the next try, without using the little loose hold. And I managed to climb the rest of the pitch cleanly. I milked whatever rests I could find on my way up to the roof and got through the second crux just fine. After the roof, the angle eased off a bit and I found it less difficult the rest of the way to the GT Ledge.

Man, what a climb! It just keeps coming at you, so steep and sustained. I was disappointed that I blew the send but it went so much better than my last attempt that I'm reasonably pleased about how it all worked out. I know I can do this climb now, it's just a matter of time. And I was very safe about it. People have tweaked their ankles when they've fallen at the bulge but I think if you take the trouble to place the obvious gear this won't happen to you. The cruxes on Doubleissima are very well protected.

(Photo: Some dude up on the GT Ledge above Doubleissima.)

We had several options about what to do once we reached the GT Ledge. Should we do High E? Maybe Modern Times? Ultimately I decided to lead the pitch directly above us: the final, 5.8 pitch of Lakatakissima. It was another new pitch for me. Dick gives it two stars, a high rating. It looked juggy and steep. The initial overhang, about 15 feet up, looked steep but fun. I figured it would ease off after that. Why not try it?

I enjoyed the pitch and I'd definitely do it again, but like Doubleissima this pitch is sustained and steep. It may appear it will get easier after the rooflet but there are a few more steep bulges yet to go. It doesn't really ease up until just before the top of the cliff. It is good, juggy climbing all the way, though. I haven't checked out the last pitch of Doubleissima, twelve feet to the left, but if you've come up the first two pitches of Doubleissima then you should consider finishing on Lakatakissima. It is a worthwhile continuation of the climbing up to the GT Ledge.

When we got back to the base of the cliff we took a break, having a snack while we watched two other leaders struggle with Doubleissima. It was suddenly very crowded at the base of High E.

We'd done seven guidebook pitches and it was already late afternoon. We had time for one more climb. I suggested to Nani that we could do Modern Times (5.8+). It was sitting there open and I hadn't been on it this year. (It is another favorite of mine.) I thought Nani would enjoy leading the mellow 5.7 pitch one. I wasn't sure if she'd enjoy the amazing, scary roof on pitch two but she'd never done it and I thought she should have the experience!

(Photo: Arriving at the GT Ledge after pitch one of Modern Times.)

Nani had fun leading the first pitch. It is a pretty unremarkable stretch of Gunks face climbing. But it is rather long (maybe 160 feet?), so the leader has to be careful to conserve gear for the little roof crux which comes almost at the end, just before the GT Ledge.

Leading pitch two, I had no worries. It was my third time leading Modern Times. Nevertheless, as I got up to the stance before the big move out into the roofs, I still felt the thrill of it all. There is great gear, and I already knew what to do, but the climb requires such a big move out off of the wall, with so much air beneath you, that I got a little bit scared despite my prior experience on the route.

(Photo: That's me waving from the belay stance above the crux overhangs of Modern Times (5.8+).)

But it all went fine and soon enough I was on the ledge above the crux, which I always think of as a great park bench in the sky. I love to sit there with my feet dangling in space, relaxing and taking in the view. I put Nani on belay and hoped she would send the route and, more importantly, enjoy its airy qualities as much as I do.

I couldn't see Nani as she followed the pitch. But I heard her expressing concern about the huge flake-- really just a stack of blocks-- that the pitch ascends to get to the roof. I remember being a little troubled by this stack myself the first time I was on the route. The blocks aren't attached to anything and they are just sitting there, leaning against the main wall of the cliff. But they are pretty big. I'd bet they aren't going anywhere. At least I want to think so.

Then Nani got to the roof. It didn't sound like she was enjoying herself. It sounded like a bit of a struggle. "No way this is 5.8!" she yelled.

Then: "This is too hard! I can't do this!"

Of course, I knew that she could do it; I've seen Nani do much harder climbs, both inside and outside. She does harder climbs than I can do.

But it is pretty universal, I think: your view of what you can do changes when you're under an enormous overhang and there's two hundred feet of air beneath your feet.

I thought she was about to fall. I knew she was capable of ascending the rope if she ended up hanging out in space. But I wanted to minimize the distance so I started pulling in the rope.

"Don't pull on me!" she screamed.

Oops, my bad, I thought. I decided just to wait.

I worried that she was going to be pissed off when this pitch was over. When I proposed Modern Times, I had hoped to offer a good kind of challenge-- a very exciting climb that I knew would be safe and fun. But maybe I'd let Nani down. You traverse through the roofs, and anyone following the pitch could be a bit freaked out at the prospect of a swinging fall into space. I wouldn't want to do anything in climbing that would spook my partner. Maybe I was pushing too much?

Nothing Nani said made me think she actually felt this way. These were my own insecurities expressing themselves.

But it turned out she'd found the rest stance in the middle of the crux. She was just taking a break and when I yanked on the rope I was pulling her off the stance. She never weighted the rope, and after she made the last few moves to the ledge she was happy, much to my relief! She gushed that Modern Times was the "best climb ever!"

I was so pleased to be there to congratulate her on the send. I felt like the siblings in the old Life commercial, relieved that she liked it.

I don't know if I agree about Modern Times being the best ever. There is a lot of mediocre climbing on it. But the crux is incredibly thrilling. With its spectacular position and committing moves, and all at a moderate 5.8+ grade, Modern Times is a prime example of what makes the Gunks such a special place.

I can't wait to go back to try Doubleissima again. I want the redpoint on it, badly. It is maybe a better candidate for best climb ever, to my mind. It is definitely one of the best tens in the Gunks.