Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Finding Inspiration at Poke-O Moonshine

(Photo: That's me on C-Tips (5.10c).)

I've been searching all year for my next big thing.

In 2015, my goal was simple. I wanted to attack every 5.10 climb in the Gunks that I'd ever been afraid to try. The choices were obvious, and they fell like dominoes over the course of the year. For me it was a dream season, including many ultra-classics, and I tacked on my first trad 5.11's to boot.

This year it hasn't been quite as easy to figure out "the way." There are still plenty of legendary targets left for me in the Gunks, of course, in the 5.10-5.11 range and beyond. I've continued to go after them, and I have managed a few 5.11 ticks so far this year. I knocked off Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a) back in March, and in June I got the send on a tricky face climb called Cars That Eat People (5.11a) out at Lost City.

But I don't want 2016 to be the year in which all I did was to climb the easiest 5.11's in the Gunks (as awesome as that is). I want to improve, to become a climber with broader range. And to do that I know I need to get out of the Trapps and the Nears and climb at other crags.

To that end, I've been trying to get around. I've climbed more at Lost City (it really is different!) and committed to doing more sport climbing. And recently I've made a concerted effort to climb in the Adirondacks.

One day in June I was to meet up with my longtime partner Adrian, who has been living in Montreal. He's made the long trip from Canada to the Gunks to meet me on many occasions, and once in a while I try to return the favor by heading north from Brooklyn to meet him on turf which is closer to him. The issue for me is that I can seldom take two days in a row, so for me to go the Dacks, even on a weekend, involves an "alpine start" very early in the morning and then a long drive home at night. If I get up early enough I can get in a reasonably full day of climbing, along with the nine or ten hours of driving.

When I was planning to meet with Adrian in June, the summer heat provided enough motivation for me to make the long drive. It is always at least a little bit cooler up in the Dacks. So Adrian and I planned to meet at Poke-O Moonshine, the big cliff which sits just off of the Northway at exit 33.

We'd both been there on several occasions, both separately and together, and we'd done a lot of the easier classics, like the FM (5.7+), Gamesmanship (5.8+), Bloody Mary (5.9+) and Fastest Gun (5.10a). I've enjoyed all of the climbing I've done at Poke-O. The routes tend to follow vertical crack systems but seldom involve pure crack climbing. The terrain is often steep, but slightly less than vertical, with technical, slabby moves and seemingly blank sections requiring commitment and creativity. The difficulties tend to be continuous and sustained. Especially on the multi-pitch routes, the climbs have an adventurous feel, with route-finding challenges and loose sections requiring a heads-up mentality.

Fastest Gun in particular really opened my eyes as to what the harder climbing at Poke-O is like. And I loved it. I also found it very challenging and I wanted to get better at it. I always felt sandbagged at Poke-O-- everything seemed hard. I thought that if I could learn the ways of the granite at Poke-O, I would feel more confident on my toes at other granite areas like Cathedral Ledges, Cannon Cliff, or Yosemite. 

On our hot day in June, I hoped to find other multi-pitch tens like Fastest Gun on which Adrian and I could struggle and find some adventure. We settled on Mayflower, a three pitch route that looked doable. The first pitch-- the hardest one, at 5.10c-- is entirely bolt-protected and we found it to be in the shade. How bad could it be? The second and third pitches were both 5.10 as well, but a little bit easier. I figured we'd be fine.

We got our butts kicked.

(Photo: Adrian confronting the blank, clean streak that is the first pitch of Mayflower (5.10c).)

Adrian tried leading pitch one and found the climbing extremely thin and tenuous, up a lonely clean streak on this dark, dirty wall. He worked his way up to the third or fourth bolt, but after several falls, he decided to take a break and offered me the lead, pronouncing this thing way harder than 5.10.

Upon taking over I sketched my way up to his high point with the security of the rope above me, and then proceeded to fall repeatedly where Adrian had given in. Finally I worked out a sequence and was able to lead up to the top of the pitch. This pitch is hard!

(Photo: I'm coming up pitch two (5.10a) of Mayflower.)

Our first pitch had taken a long time, and we still had two to go. Adrian resumed leading on the 5.10a pitch two and he got it cleanly. Following the pitch, I enjoyed the interesting face moves on clean rock. 

Now it was my turn to lead pitch three, which features an airy, hanging dihedral. This pitch, rated 5.10b, isn't the hardest one on the climb but the guidebook suggests it is the money pitch.

I was nervous and struggled in the early going, moving up and right off of the belay towards the open book looming above. After taking a hang I figured out how to get into the dihedral, and once I clipped a bolt on the left wall I breathed a sigh of relief.

(Photo: Heading up pitch three (5.10b) of Mayflower.)

But my stress was actually just beginning. I found as I moved above the bolt that the (dusty) rock at the back of the open book was crumbly. I managed to place a nut but I didn't have a lot of faith that it would hold if I tested it. As I continued to make the delicate moves up the open book, with plenty of air beneath my feet, the lone bolt started to feel very far away. By the time I got to the top I was well into do-not-fall territory.

I was psyched to reach the anchor. I was exhausted, but happy. This was a quality route in which (typical for Poke-O) the interesting challenges just kept on coming, one after another.

(Photo: Adrian emerging from the rope-eating Mayflower dihedral at the top of pitch three.)

I thought we'd finished with Mayflower but it wasn't finished with us. We rapped off of the route with my double ropes tied together. When we got down we found that the ropes were hopelessly stuck. Luckily we reached the ground in a single rap, so we weren't trapped on the wall.

We tried every which way to free the ropes but nothing worked. The struggle went on and on. At some point I looked at my watch and realized we'd spent our whole day on this one route. I had four or five hours of driving ahead of me and here we were, still dicking around with my ropes stuck on the cliff.

Adrian had a spare rope back in his car. We could go get it, and climb back up to free the ropes. Or we could ascend the stuck ropes with prussiks. Neither option seemed terribly appealing to me.

Eventually we left the ropes behind. I'm not proud of this decision. We didn't clean up our own mess. At the time, I was tired and I couldn't bring myself to make the effort to get the ropes down. I was willing to write them off. The ropes were in pretty good condition but they were at least nine years old. I was considering retiring them anyway. And Adrian thought he might be able to come back and get them the following weekend, though he didn't end up making it.

After a week or two a climber from Montreal retrieved the ropes and returned them to us. So the story has a happy ending. I got my ropes back and the good samaritan got some beer out of the bargain. But the ropes were hanging there for a while and they got quite bleached in the sun. They are definitely retired now!

Our misadventure on Mayflower made me hungry for more climbing at Poke-O. I felt like we'd been spanked, and I knew we could do better. I resolved to go back, but the opportunity didn't come for me until after Labor Day. I made the trek up there on a Sunday in early September, and liked the climbing we did so much that I took a day off from work and made the drive again on the following Thursday.

During these two September days I tried to figure out how to better climb these Poke-O tens. I made some progress. As always, for me I think the biggest challenge is psychological. I've found out out that I can do every move on these climbs, but I need to feel secure in the knowledge that my toes will stick or I fail in lots of ways: I rush, I over-grip, I refuse to commit.

(Photo: That's me in the early going on Cooney-Norton face (5.10b).)

I got things off to an inauspicious start with the Cooney-Norton Face (5.10b). This route has great climbing all the way, with cool moves up a shallow stem box followed by thin face climbing past two bolts. I felt insecure on my feet as a leader on this pitch, pressing the stems way too hard and clutching madly at whatever holds I could find. I wore myself out and, after hanging, offered Adrian the lead. He then led up through my gear and finished it.

Trying the route again on top rope, I thought it wasn't exactly easy but it was all there and it went fine. On TR I could easily stand in the stems, releasing both hands. If I'd relaxed like this on lead I would have been okay, I think. As I moved up on TR I found out that I'd given up on the lead one move from a jug and a good rest, which was infuriating. I will go back and send this route. It shouldn't even be a big deal.

(Photo: Adrian on Macho (5.11a).)

Adrian and I threw a top rope over Macho (5.11a) and while neither of us sent this one, either, I felt like this was where I finally started to find my way on Poke-O face climbing. I loved the moves on this pitch, and by the time we were done I started thinking this was a Poke-O 5.11 I could come back and send on the lead, though I might like to figure out my placements on top rope first. The positions are balancy and above the initial bolts the gear might be a real challenge to place.

(Photo: I'm stemming it out at the crux of pitch one (5.10a) of the Snatch.)

On our second September day we tried another ten called the Snatch (5.10b). This route ascends a left-facing corner for two pitches. It gets four stars in the guidebook but I wasn't expecting much, since I couldn't recall ever hearing anything about it.

It turned out to be an awesome route. Both pitches are really good. I led pitch one (5.10a), which wanders up a blocky face to the main corner system, and then ascends the super-cool technical stem corner until a ledge with an anchor appears on the left. I was happy to get the send, for once, as I led up the challenging corner to the belay without incident. Things were looking up.

(Photo: Adrian at the crux of pitch two (5.10b) of the Snatch.)

Adrian (who, it should be noted, was allegedly fighting a cold) started up the 5.10b pitch two, and got into the weeds pretty fast as he confronted the overhanging jam-crack crux on the right wall of the corner. After a couple of hangs he got through this section but then the difficulties continued with more thin moves up the corner. At one tough move Adrian decided he'd had enough and we did another hand-off of the lead. I lowered him back to the belay. Taking over, I too had to hang in the crux jam crack but then sent it the rest of the way. I felt okay about it. Like pitch one of Mayflower I thought this pitch was pretty darn tough for its grade.

(Photo: I'm doing some of the hardest bits on C-Tips (5.10c).)

We also took on C-Tips (5.10c), a bolt-protected line up a bulging, black face. From below it appears to be utterly blank. I took the lead again. I told myself to think of this as a 5.11 sport climb. No big deal. There are bolts!

But I was still a bit nervous after I clipped the second bolt. The third bolt seemed very far away, the slab beneath me was very close, and the next holds were so, so small. I was afraid I would hit the slab if I fell, so I called out "take" and took a hang.

Immediately I kicked myself for giving up. I resolved to go for it. And then everything went fine. This climb is full of beautiful sequences. After the hardest moves, around the third and fourth bolts, the angle of the wall kicks back a little and the climbing becomes a bit easier. I marvel at the vision of the first ascensionists, who saw a route here on this featureless face.

(Photo: Adrian leading Group Therapy (5.9).

Late in the afternoon of our weekday at Poke-O, Adrian and I decided to dial it back a little and do something more casual. We ended up picking out a link-up of the first pitch of Group Therapy (5.9) and the second pitch of Discord (5.8). It doesn't appear that these climbs get done all that often despite a recommendation in the guidebook and their convenient location right where the approach trail meets the cliff.

Neither of these pitches is fantastic but both are quite worthwhile. Adrian led Group Therapy, a route with some face moves over bulges which lead to a slab finish. The rock is good and all of the harder bits are well protected by bolts or solid gear placements. 

I took the lead for pitch two of Discord, and this pitch provided some full value Poke-O adventure. The crux came right away, after I stepped to the right from the belay and had to commit to pulling over a low roof and into a right-facing corner system.

(Photo: That's me fooling around past the initial roof on pitch two of Discord (5.8).)

Once I grunted my way past the (dirty, crumbling) overhang, I had to confront twenty feet of corner climbing with an off-width crack at the back. I'd just placed my largest cam beneath my feet, to protect the initial crux, and it looked like I'd have no gear big enough to place anything again until I reached the top of this corner. 

Luckily the climbing was pretty secure and easy. Cramming my foot and leg in the crack, I made sure there was no way I could fall out and inched my way up to the top of the corner, where I was relieved to find solid gear. Then a fun traverse under another roof and a final layback corner led to the belay.

(Photo: Adrian coming up the final bits of pitch two of Discord (5.8).)

Adrian got to the top of Discord and announced "that pitch was crazy!" I certainly thought it provided a bit of everything: route finding, questionable rock, fun moves, technical problems, spice....

In the end I think Group Therapy/Discord is a fun 5.9 linkup-- for the 5.10 leader.

The three days I've spent at Poke-O this year have been a challenge for me, and I've really enjoyed getting schooled on the routes at this big cliff. I've still only experienced a fraction of what the place has to offer and even as I sit here typing I'm racking my brain trying to figure out when I'll get another chance to go back.

By the end of the third day I started to feel like I was really getting the hang of the climbing there, which surely means I'm ready to have my butt kicked by another Poke-O multi-pitch route.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

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

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

Over the past few years I've gotten to know the Mac Wall pretty well.

The wall is stacked with classic 5.10 climbs. For a long time I was intimidated by several of the routes, but as the years went by I eventually climbed all of them (except for Water King (5.10d R), which no one ever does). I'm most familiar with the hardest ones, since I had to work to get them clean. A few of them I've only done once or twice, and one of them-- MF Direct (5.10a)-- I've only followed.

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

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

Ten tens. It is quite a list! Some of them are hard for 5.10 and many of them have some serious moments.

I thought this would be a good challenge for me because while I believed it would be difficult, it didn't sound utterly crazy. I was inspired by the day on which those guys did 30 pitches of 5.10, but I needed a more realistic objective, something that seemed within the realm of the possible for ordinary humans like me.

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

This wasn't a "birthday challenge," exactly. I wanted to do it when it was still cool out. My birthday is in June. But as 2016 got going I couldn't seem to find a time to do the challenge. As we got into June, I decided to call it a birthday challenge and just to go ahead and try to do it on my next day out.

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

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

Andy was an instant supporter.

"Challenge accepted," he wrote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I change my approach and "try again."

I fall again.

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

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

Andy cruises the pitch as the second.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What am I missing? Staring at the holds, I realize I've been grabbing the wrong feature with my left hand. I've become blinded by a faulty memory-- a slave to bad beta.

I sail over the roof. It feels easier than Try Again.

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

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

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

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

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

It goes well. I really like the climbing on this route. But there are moves of 5.9-ish difficulty all over it that are above so-so placements. After the upper crux move (above a tiny nut) there is a significant runout before you can get a piece again. I am not happy to be so far above my gear. 

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

Andy follows the pitch with no issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy follows the pitch cleanly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo: Ryan on MF (5.9).)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*             *              *

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

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

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

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

In other words: it sounds fun!

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Getting Sporty in the New River Gorge

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

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

I have been slow to post about it.

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

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

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

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

Crazy talk, right?

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

The movie had just come out.

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

I know this raises some important questions.

Such as:

Why does Andy own superhero onesies?

And why were we talking about them?

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

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

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


But not right away.

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

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

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

(1) Ratings at the New are stiff!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We also had to put on our onesies.

It was now or never.

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

Getting into costume, we assumed our battle positions.

(Photos: Getting into character at Summersville Lake.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

Learning the (Top) Ropes in Lost City

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

I'm getting frustrated.

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

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

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

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

I try for the throw and come up short, swinging out and away from the wall. As I fly outward my feet barely clear the talus blocks.

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

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

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

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

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

I psych myself up to try again.

"Just do the move, idiot."

Eventually I get the jug.

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

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

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

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

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

*    *    * 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I was almost done. Easy peasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I watched them gleefully working these routes, I knew that I should be doing exactly what they were doing. If I had the same attitude, I would improve. I felt shamed. So Andy and I did some top-roping.

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

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

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

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

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

This is Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).

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

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

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

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

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

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

*    *    *

I'm getting frustrated again.

Is this really the move?

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

This crux is heinous!

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

Andy says he's heard that one before.

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

I keep on falling.

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

I hate this.

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

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

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

But never mind, I take it as validation.

I'm learning.

I can do this.

I can top-rope.