Monday, December 11, 2017

Not So Mellow in Yellow


(Photo: Andy following pitch one of Matinee (5.10d).)

So psyched! We were going rock climbing in December.

Andy and I were headed to the Gunks. He was planning to take it easy. He was in the middle of a self-imposed break from hard climbing. He wanted to rest for a couple of weeks before resuming his let's-climb-every-day training schedule.

Andy figured that following me around on some trad climbs in the Gunks would be easy enough that it would still qualify as "taking a break." My hardest trad projects are still pretty easy, in Andy's sport-climbing world.

As for me, I had no plans to take it easy. This was likely to be my last climbing day of 2017. I couldn't afford to take a break, whatever that meant. I had too much left to do!

As I'm sure you recall, dear reader, I still had a number of climbs to send as part of my little 5.10 completion project. I was oh so close to sending, on lead, every star-worthy 5.10 in the Trapps, and with a little luck I figured I could knock off the four remaining climbs on my list in a single day.

But I also wanted to send a 5.11. It felt like it had been a long long time since I'd sent a 5.11 in the Gunks.

In 2016 I’d managed to do several of them. I’d hoped to work through several more of them in 2017. But here we were in December, and I hadn’t put together a single 5.11 trad send all year.

It wasn't for lack of trying. As 2017 got under way, I was feeling really good. Not long after the season began I decided to attempt the top pitch of Enduro Man (5.11c), and I almost sent it! It would have been my proudest on-sight ever, but I got lost on the route after the two cruxes and I had to hang. It was so close.

Still, I was thrilled with how it went. I had every intention of going back to send it in short order. But then I was briefly sidelined by a neck injury. After some physical therapy and some rest, my condition improved, but by the time I really got back in the swing of things it was already June. My spring had gone up in smoke, and I never quite got that early-season confidence back again.


(Photo: That's me, attempting pitch three of Enduro Man (5.11c) for the second time. photo by Andy.)

On a hot day in July, I decided to try Enduro Man again. I knew the oppressive heat was an issue, but I wanted to give it a go anyway. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that it didn’t go that well. I can’t say whether the heat or my own decreased fitness was to blame. But this time, at the first set of overhangs, I couldn’t immediately find my way through. As I ventured up and down, looking for whatever it was I’d done the first time, all of the holds felt so greasy and slippery. Nothing seemed to work. It wasn’t too long before I had to hang. And then I decided I just wasn’t feeling it, and I climbed back down to the High E ledge, aborting the lead.


(Photo: Adrian at the crux of Harvest Moon (5.11a) on top rope.)

On another steamy, muggy day in June, I tried Harvest Moon (5.11a) for the first time, on top rope with a group of friends. I loved the route. I had to work to figure out the crux near the top, but I felt like I could come back and lead it without too much difficulty. I still intend to do it, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

As the year went on, my focus turned to a few other 5.11 routes. The main target of my attentions was Ent Line (direct 5.11b). I led this climb on three separate occasions in September and October, trying for the send, without success.

And then there was the big one:

The Yellow Wall (5.11c)



(Photo: Rob coming up the 5.8 first pitch of The Yellow Wall (5.11c).)

"It's no fun to be yellow." -- Holden Caulfield.

I started 2017 determined to try this climb before the year was over. But I didn't make it happen in the early season, when I was really feeling strong. And by the fall, as the year started to slip away without ever cooling off, I wondered if I would ever get up the nerve to do it. When it finally started to feel like autumn outside, I decided I had to take my shot at it. On one late October day, with Rob, the time finally seemed right.

The Yellow Wall is considered by many to be the very best climb in the Gunks. It has an intimidating aura, sitting as it does in the middle of the most imposing wall in the Trapps. As you stand at the base of the route, looking up, numerous impossibly large overhangs fan out above you, reaching far into the distance behind your head as you crane your neck towards the sky.

The route's daunting atmosphere is heightened by its recent tragic history. In 2014, a young woman named Heidi Duartes Wahl was killed when she fell from about twenty feet up on The Yellow Wall. She was soloing the easier initial portion of the route, placing no gear, in an attempt to do the entire route in a single pitch to the top. This is a common tactic employed by strong climbers on The Yellow Wall to avoid drag, and apparently Heidi had been on the route before and knew what the route required. I’m sure she felt there was no chance that she would fall during this early section of the climb, but obviously something went wrong up there and it had horrific consequences.

Heidi was very much in my mind as I stood beneath The Yellow Wall with Rob, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be at risk of an accident like hers. I wasn’t planning to solo the 5.8 pitch. Instead I intended to place lots of gear-- as much as I could!-- and to stop at the traditional first pitch belay.


(Photo: I'm leading pitch one of The Yellow Wall. Photo by Rob.)

Still, as I racked up and took my first tentative steps up the blocky start to the route, I couldn't stop thinking about what had happened to Heidi. I felt jittery and I found the climbing to be strange. I knew I had to go up a right-facing corner until I could transition around left onto the face. There was good gear available in the corner, and I was happy to have it, since the moves were awkward and I had a hard time figuring out exactly where to turn the corner. I couldn't imagine soloing this pitch.

Eventually I got onto the slab and cruised up to the obvious horizontal crack where the pitch traditionally ends. As Rob came up to join me I kept staring at the gargantuan crux roof, looming above.

I continued to feel nervous as I began pitch two. I hoped to find a placement pretty quickly to protect the belay, but I couldn't come up with anything until I completed several steep moves to a fixed piton. At some distance above me I could see my next protection, a hunk of metal that everyone calls the "Thank God Bolt." I successfully navigated the territory to this bolt, clipped it, and resumed breathing. Then I had to make a thin traverse to the right under the big roof to a second bolt. As I moved to the right, I couldn't stop shaking, even though I was perfectly safe-- I'd just clipped a bolt! I hadn't expected the protection to be quite so sparse during the early going on this pitch, and I found it unsettling.

I still had to confront the actual hard climbing, all of which was still to come. Once I clipped the second bolt and made a big move up to the overhang, I threw in the first piece from my rack on this pitch: a perfect blue Camalot in the roof.

Now I was in steep territory at the lip of the roof. It was go time. I worked hard to find the way over the ceiling. I went up and down several times, surveying the large number of potential holds that might possibly provide the way upward. Eventually I got tired and had to either hang on the rope or commit to something. I didn't want to hang; I wanted to commit. I locked my heel in the roof and reached up to some crimpy ripples above the initial tier. Rocking upward over my heel, I attempted to find a good hold above, but I was unsuccessful and soon found myself falling.

There was no risk of hitting anything, but since my heel was securely locked in the roof my leg got twisted as I fell away from the roof. I could tell immediately that my knee was mildly tweaked.

I was still eager to solve this roof, and I went back up, several times. I didn't commit again with quite the same abandon, but I tried numerous approaches, going left and going right. I'm sorry to say that nothing worked for me.

Eventually I gave up and we bailed.


(Photo: Rob coming up to join me at the point from which we bailed off of The Yellow Wall.)

I was bummed to find myself shut down by The Yellow Wall. I had expected that I would probably fall, but I thought I would eventually work out the sequence, as I had on similar climbs like Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a), No Man's Land (5.11b), and Enduro Man (5.11c). Once I was back on the ground, limping away from The Yellow Wall, I felt like I'd taken a beating. I'd been spooked by the climb's special atmosphere and I'd been unable to unlock its mysteries.

The very next week I found myself standing on top of Bonnie's Roof, with a bird's eye view as another climber got the send on The Yellow Wall. I didn't see what he did at the crux, but I watched him finish the climb. He was ecstatic as he topped out and I was insanely jealous.

I have to go back.

* * * 

As I headed up to the Gunks with Andy in December I knew The Yellow Wall wasn't going to make it onto our agenda for the day. It was going to be cold, barely above forty degrees. I didn't want to leave Andy shivering at the first pitch belay while I had another epic at the big overhang. And let's face it, I didn't feel up to it.

Instead I figured that we could knock off the four remaining climbs on my list of star-worthy tens that I hadn't sent in the Trapps. Since one of these tens (Ent Line) was actually a 5.11b if you do the direct variation, I could also potentially get a 5.11 send to cap off my season.

Nurse's Aid (Pitch two, 5.10a)

We started our day at the Arrow Wall. I quickly ran up pitch one of Cold Turkeys (5.8) to set us up for pitch two of Nurse's Aid (5.10a).


(Photo: Andy at the crux of pitch two of Nurse's Aid (5.10a).)

I first did this pitch exactly one year ago with Connie. On that occasion I took a hang during the wild traverse. But then I quickly figured out a mantel move that got me through the crux. As I went back with Andy, a year later, I thought I had this pitch all sussed out and that it would feel easy.

Things went well enough as I negotiated past the very worrisome rock in the early part of the pitch. And when I got to the alcove before the real business I didn't hesitate at all as I placed my crux gear and then heel-hooked out the amazing horizontal crack, which traverses over a sheer two-hundred-foot drop to the ground.

I set up for the mantel move that I thought I remembered, but I suppose I didn't push with my hands forcefully enough as I tried to get into the mantel. Suddenly I found that I was slipping backward instead of moving upward. I tried to correct my position but it was too late. I was flying through space! Although I had to admit it was a fun (and totally clean) whipper, I was furious.

Climbing back up, I tried the mantel again with a little more oomph and it worked perfectly.

I was so mad.

I will have to repeat this pitch again in 2018.

Ent Line (5.11b)

After we were done with Nurse's Aid, I started to lead the way over to Ent Line, the next climb on my list. In all honesty, I wasn't all that psyched to do it. As we trooped over to the climb, I had a whole list of excuses running through my mind.

Maybe it was too cold out for this climb. Maybe I'd lost the mojo and it should wait until next year. Maybe, if Nurse's Aid was any indication, this just wasn't going to be my day.

I figured the climb would likely be occupied, which would give us just the out I needed. Surely, I thought, the area around Ent/Ants' Line would be crawling with people and we'd have to go do something else.

But when we got there we were all alone.

I knew I had no real excuse for not doing this climb. I had every move rehearsed, every placement memorized. I just needed to execute.

I decided to give it my best shot. I tried to convince myself that the stakes were low and that I didn't care whether I got the send or not. I grabbed all the gear I needed-- eight cams and one nut-- and I set off.


(Photo: That's me, setting off on lead on Ent Line (5.11c). Photo by Andy.)

It went well! The tricky 5.10d crux, a thin step to the right, felt smooth as silk. Settling in, I felt increasingly solid as I made the big next move to a sidepull and then stepped up and left to the juggy hold right before the 5.11 crux roof. I made sure I correctly placed my bomber red Camalot in a vertical slot, and then I carefully reached up to the tiny crimps at the base of the overhang. This move is probably the real crux for me, but today it was no problem. Everything was working out just right, and as I reached to the better holds just above the lip I knew that this time, finally, I had this climb in the bag. I adjusted my feet and reached easily to the shelf above the roof.

Everything was going great, but I was getting pretty chilly. Unlike Nurse's Aid, this climb was in the shade. The rock was noticeably cold to the touch. I wasn't bothered by it right away, but by the time I got to the 5.11 crux my fingertips were on fire and I could barely feel the rock. As I tried to shake out and warm my fingers above the roof, I knew I still had one more hard move to do before it was really all over. I was determined not to make any mistakes. There was no way I was going to let myself blow it at this point. I carefully placed my last gear in the big pebbly horizontal, made it through the final tough sequence, and romped to the chains.

I was so happy to end the year with a send on Ent Line. I put a lot of work into it, more than I thought would be necessary. But it was very satisfying to see it pay off.


(Photo: Andy getting set up for the crux overhang on Ent Line (5.11b).)

Andy usually just shrugs at every Gunks climb we do, but this time, he let me know that he thought it was legit. As he reached the top he said "Good job; THAT was a nice lead."

Bragg-Hatch (5.10d)

Having cruised up Ent Line, I was hoping to get an easy redpoint on Bragg-Hatch. The climb is thin and devious but the hard moves come and go quickly.

On my first attempt back in October I'd fallen at the crux moves out of the initial corner and I'd welded a little nut in the fall. When Andy and I arrived at the base in December, I was pleased to see that my nut was still in place.


(Photo: I'm mid-crux on Bragg-Hatch (5.10d). Photo by Andy.)

Unfortunately, the fixed nut didn't make the climbing all that much easier! It was tense getting up to and past the nut, and I still needed to place gear from a very thin position afterwards. I realized as I tried to move up that I'd sketched through these moves on my second try in October without really working out the best sequence. I had no memory of what I'd done and all the holds felt bad.

I fell again.

Andy encouraged me to do whatever I needed to do to work the climb and tick it off. So I took a little time to put together a better sequence through the crux. Then, once I had it figured out, I did the route again on TR to clean it. And then I started over again on lead from the ground for the send.

This time it went smoothly. I really like this pitch. I still wish it were longer. But the crux section has several great moves all in a row.

Matinee (5.10d)



(Photo: I'm on pitch one of Matinee (5.10d). Photo by Andy.)

"It's better in the matinee. The dark of the matinee is mine." -- Franz Ferdinand.

There was only one climb left on my list, and I was dreading it.

Matinee had turned into a bit of an epic for Connie and me a year ago. I’d tried to do it all in one pitch but I encountered horrible drag and we ended up getting benighted, along with some other mishaps.

This time around, with Andy, I knew we had enough daylight left in which to do the climb. And I planned to split it into the traditional two pitches, so as to avoid any rope drag disasters.

I wasn’t worried about the spot where I’d had to hang last year, at the pitch two crux. This crux comes at the very beginning of the second pitch. It is literally one hard move up a corner. There is ample gear and a clean fall if you blow it. I expected to redpoint this pitch without a problem. And if I fell, I intended to just start the pitch over again and keep trying until I could call it done.

My real worry was pitch one.

I’d on-sighted this pitch last year. It was one of my best climbing achievements. But the horizontal traverse under the big roof had felt desperate. The handholds weren't great and the footholds were tiny, polished indentations on a smooth, glassy face.

It was slabby and slick, the stuff of climbing nightmares.


(Photo: Andy in the midst of the crux on pitch one of Matinee (5.10d).)

I was afraid that my success on this pitch had been a fluke, and that if I went back again I might fall all over it. I’d negate my prior send and I’d be revealed as the fraud that I surely am.

But I had no choice. It was my mission to redpoint pitch two so we had to do pitch one, in order to get there.

I needn’t have been so concerned. It went great.

I loved pitch one. It didn’t feel desperate at all, this time around.


(Photo: I'm at the early crux of pitch two of Matinee (5.10d).)

And I really liked pitch two as well. After the hard stuff is over the pitch remains interesting and exposed, as you work your way up and left around a few roofs and corners. Last year I hadn't been able to take the time to appreciate this pitch, what with the rope drag, the impending darkness, the snow, and whatever else was going on.

This time, it was a joy.

As Andy came up to join me I felt so grateful to be in the Gunks, and to be fit and healthy enough to climb as often as I do.


(Photo: Andy making the final moves on pitch two of Matinee (5.10d).)

Even though 2017 didn't go exactly as I planned, I still feel like I made progress. I remain more than capable of falling on a 5.10, as Nurse's Aid demonstrated. But I send my fair share of them as well, sometimes on the first try. And I'm capable of working harder climbs into submission.

I may not have talent, but I am stubborn. It is probably my greatest asset. I'm obsessive and I keep trying.

Next year, after I send the second pitch of Nurse's Aid, I have to turn my attention to the Nears and take down all my remaining star-worthy tens over there. And I intend to go back to all of the elevens that I've failed on, and maybe I'll even find some twelves to fail on as well!

Enjoy the winter, people. Maybe I'll see you out there, ice climbing. Or maybe I'll just be biding my time, waiting for that balmy, 37-degree day in February on which I can run back to the Gunks. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

2017: The Year in 5.10 and Beyond


(Photo: That's me, leading Turdland Direct Direct (5.10d). Photo by Nancy.)

It is always fun to take stock of the year as the climbing season draws to a close.

We had a weird autumn this year. Summer seemed to drag on forever, and after just a couple of weekends with good temperatures we find ourselves with little left of 2017. While we often get some good days here and there during the winter months (so long as there isn't too much snow), it seems like our Gunks season is for the most part at an end.

So what did I accomplish in 2017? If you know me, you know I like to have goals. I always go to the Gunks with a list of things I need to get done.

The top agenda item for me this year was my project to finish off the 5.10 grade in the Gunks. More specifically, I wanted to send all of the "star-worthy" 5.10 climbs in the Trapps and the Nears, on lead. I came up with this goal in late 2016, when it occurred to me that I was already pretty close to achieving it. I figured that with a little bit of focus I might be able to get through all of the remaining climbs on the list in 2017.

My guru for this project has been Dick Williams. I view his assessments of the routes in the Gunks as definitive. When I look at Dick's ratings for difficulty, quality, and protection, I generally know exactly what to expect. When I rely on his description to do a route that is new to me, I usually walk away feeling like I get why he says what he does. Even if I find some surprises on a route, or occasionally disagree with Dick's opinion, I can usually construct a rationale to defend his point of view.

I used Dick's guidebooks for the Trapps and the Nears to put together my list of the 5.10 routes to which he assigns at least one star, and which I had not yet sent on lead as of the end of 2016. As soon as 2017 got under way, I started working on the list, checking them off.

As of mid-May, which was the  last time I reported to you on my progress, this is where things stood on my list:

Trapps:

Sonja (5.10a/b)
Matinee pitch two (5.10d) 
Birdie Party pitch two roof (5.10b)
Interstice pitch two roof (5.10d)
Mother's Day Party pitch two roof (5.10a)
Reach of Faith (5.10c) 
Nurse's Aid pitch two (5.10a) 
Ent Line (5.10d or 5.11a) 
Space Invaders (5.10d) 
Bragg-Hatch (5.10d)
Creaky Joints and Trigger Points (5.10b)
Tennish Anyone? (5.10c) 

Near Trapps:

Topeka (5.10a)
Outer Space Direct (5.10b)
Fat Stick Direct (5.10b)
Wooly Clam Taco (5.10c) 
Spinal Exam (5.10b/c)

In the second half of the year, I've made significant progress towards completing the list. But I'm still not finished.

I've accomplished nothing in the Nears since May. I went back once on a very hot day in June. I managed to fail for the second time on Hang Ten, hanging twice before I figured out where to put my feet as I pulled the roof. So my Nears list is exactly as it was halfway through the year.

But in the Trapps I have much to report. I redpointed Turdland Direct Direct (5.10d) with Nancy in early September, and on an assortment of different dates I attacked most of the other remaining climbs on my list.

Sonja (5.10a)

I've been both attracted to, and repelled by, Sonja for a long time, because it is a vertical crack climb. We don't have too many of these in the Gunks, and crack climbing is not my strong suit. People often describe this as a "thin hands" crack, but it actually varies. In the portion of the crack that I think is the toughest/steepest, there are textbook, gold-Camalot-sized hand jams.


(Photo: Attempting Sonja (5.10a) in the dog days of August. Photo by Gail.)

Because I am a crappy crack climber, I had to try this one on two different occasions before I got the send. On my first visit to Sonja with Gail in August, everything felt slippery in the heat. We both struggled in the crack. My so-called jams felt insecure. I had to hang a couple of times on my lead attempt, and I was soaked with sweat by the time I finished. I ran up it again for practice, getting it cleanly it on TR after Gail took her turn. I figured I was sure to send it on lead as soon as it got cooler.

In early November I went back with a new partner, Will. This time around, I got it done, though it was touch-and-go there for a minute as I got into the thinner hands part up towards the top. After I was done, I watched Will casually stroll up the thing on TR and saw that I still have a lot to learn about crack climbing. While I had executed a high-stepping layback move off the crack to get up to a stance near the finish, Will never deviated from straight-in jams and looked totally solid doing so.


(Photo: Cruxing out on Sonja (5.10a) in November. Photo by Will.)

I should go back and try to learn some more from Sonja but now that I've gotten a clean lead on the climb I'm not sure if I ever will. My first thought as I got to the top was "Thank God, I never have to do that again!" It is a very worthwhile climb, short but challenging. Steep and varied. You can place great gear over your head before you commit to anything so there really is no excuse not to lead it.

Mac Wall Roof Pitches

I have spent more than my fair share of days at the Mac Wall over the past several years. Sometimes I feel sick and tired of the whole wall. And yet, in all of the time that I logged at this wall prior to 2017, I never led the second pitches of Interstice (5.10d), Mother's Day Party (5.10a), or Birdie Party (5.10b). I think that I'm not unusual; few people bother to do these roof pitches, which is a shame. The Birdie Party roof gets done the most out of the three, but I hardly ever see anyone on that one and I've NEVER seen anyone on the other two!

When I finally got around to doing these pitches, I found out that they are all great. If you have a seventy-meter rope you are really cheating yourself if you don't tack on one of these roofs whenever you do any of the Mac Wall tens at this part of the wall. It is a simple matter to continue in a single pitch through any of the roofs to the fixed anchor that sits above.

I led the Birdie Party roof pitch in early November with Will. (I chose to start with pitch one of Mother's Day Party (5.10b), making for a very direct line.) I'd followed this roof pitch before so I knew what to expect and ticked it off without a problem. It is a typical Gunks 5.10 roof. With a heel hook and a couple of crimps, you are done. It is a little bit spicy after the roof. You need to move up on some non-juggy holds for a couple of 5.8/5.9 moves before you can get gear again. Once you do, you are very close to the fixed anchor.

Later in November I returned to the Mac Wall with Rob to do the other two roofs.

I started with Interstice, which breaks the overhang just a few feet to the left of Birdie Party's obvious flake in the ceiling. I was a little bit worried about Interstice because in the guidebook Dick describes the face above the roof as R-rated. But I believe Dick has it wrong in this one instance. I found this roof to be as well-protected as any roof in the Gunks. You can place a bomber piece above the lip before you pull over the roof, and once you stand up, you can get a good Alien or other small cam, although at this point the gear is strenuous to place because you are standing in an overhanging position on some small holds.

I actually blew it on my first attempt as I stood up over the roof, before I got to place the small cam, and the fall was totally clean. Then I started over from the level of the MF bolts and led through the whole roof so I'm counting it as a redpoint send and calling it done.


(Photo: Rob making the reach over the roof on Interstice (5.10d).)

I loved this roof. It is my favorite of the three. It takes a big reach to get past the initial overhang and then a few more good moves in a steep little concave section of the wall before you reach easier climbing and the fixed anchor. If you do Interstice in one pitch from the ground through the roof (which is what I did), you get three incredible cruxes, all completely different from one another. I think this is one of the very best tens in the Gunks, which is saying a lot.

After we got done with Interstice I led MF Direct into the Mother's Day Party roof. This roof is just to the right of the Birdie Party roof, directly above MF's bolted anchor. Aim for a rectangular notch in the roof. If you look to the right you can see the pin on MF approximately five feet further over.


(Photo: Rob getting through the rectangular notch on Mother's Day Party (5.10a).)

This roof presents a very interesting, bouldery problem. You have to make a big, committing move up into the rectangular notch (with pro at your ankles), and then move left to a bomber horizontal that takes good gear. Once you reach this horizontal the actual roof pull that comes afterwards is straightforward and easier. I got the on-sight on this one (with much stepping up and down), but I would say it felt harder to me than 5.10a. I think it is tougher than the Birdie Party roof and maybe as hard as Interstice.

I'm so glad my little 5.10 project led me finally to get around to these roof pitches! I will definitely go back to all three of them.

Reach of Faith (5.10c)

I can't say the same for Reach of Faith. I did all three pitches of this climb with Rob on the same day that we did those Mac Wall roof routes. I will likely never return to it.

I was curious about Reach of Faith, since no one does the route. I expected it to be dirty and loose. But Dick had to have some reason for giving it a star in the guidebook.  

I found the first two pitches to be poorly protected. The first pitch goes at 5.4, so the sparse gear isn't terribly troubling. The second pitch, on the other hand, is one of the scarier 5.8 pitches that I have ever led. There isn't any gear to speak of as you trend up and right over a couple of ledges with blueberry bushes. I finally found some pro when I reached a spot of rock that is lighter in color than the surrounding stone, but I was dismayed to find that all of the features there rang hollow. I felt like I was in a do-not-fall situation as I entered the crux 5.8 climbing, venturing left on a mystery traverse (with no additional gear) for ten or fifteen feet until I could head up through a notch and easier climbing to a belay ledge.


(Photo: Rob coming up the final bits of pitch two of Reach of Faith (5.10c).)

When I led the crux 5.10c pitch, I could sort of see why Dick granted the climb a star. This pitch is better than the other two, and you can reach it by taking Hawk or Southern Pillar to the GT Ledge if you want to check it out, though I'm not sure it is worth the trouble. You have to battle past a tree to get over an initial overhang, and then finally you are rewarded with a good mid-5.10 roof, with solid pro. Then you top out through a thick field of lichen.

I wrote up Reach of Faith for Mountain Project if you want a more detailed description.

Space Invaders (5.10d)

I'd done Space Invaders on toprope, but it was a few years ago and I couldn't really remember much of anything about the climbing. Call this an alzheimer's on-sight. I led it in November with Will.

This climb has a variation to the left and one to the right, but Dick's book only lists the right-hand version so that's the one I led.

I felt pretty good about how I performed on this one. The climb has lots of fun bits as you work your way up the overhanging, right-slanting crack. To my relief, I found great gear. I placed something every time I reached a good hold. And the climbing is really good, sequency and interesting.

Creaky Joints (5.10b) and Tennish Anyone? (5.10c)


(Photo: Leading Creaky Joints and Trigger Points (5.10b). Photo by Rob.)

I knocked both of these off with Rob on a beautiful October day.

I liked Creaky Joints and Trigger Points (5.10b). I wish it were longer. But the crux is my favorite sort of climbing: thin moves with gear placed under pressure. The business comes right away, as you step onto a a steep face with a slanting, thin crack. You can get gear before you commit to getting out there but once I was into the real climbing I really wanted another piece before making the crux move up. I placed a small nut in a hurry and I think it would have held if I tested it, but luckily I never had to, as I made the move and it was all over.

This climb is well worth checking out if you are down in the area.

I'd previously attempted Tennish Anyone? during a very hot and humid Memorial Day weekend back in 2016, and on that occasion I'd had to hang in the crux traverse. I'd found the crimpy holds to be difficult to use.


(Photo: Rob heading into the crux on Tennish Anyone? (5.10c).)

When I returned to the route in 2017, in perfect October conditions, the holds felt huge! This is a great pitch, a bit technical and demanding, different from the usual thing. With its crimpy moves sideways and then up, it reminds me a bit of Black Crack (5.10+) out in Lost City, but I think Tennish Anyone? is easier.  Not too many people lead it, since it is very easy to toprope the route after you do Wegetables (5.10a), but it is a very good lead. The crux is well-protected. There is a committing move up to a jug before the crux, which I protect with a tiny tiny nut that I think would hold. This move isn't really difficult, but it is smeary and might give one pause.

Ent Line (5.10d or 5.11b)

This climb has been my white whale of 2017, occupying too much of my time and frustrating my every attempt. I still intend to go back to finish it off but I'm starting to grow weary of my own failures on the route. I'm tempted to call it done for 5.10 purposes but I know that this would be dishonest and break my own rules, since I haven't yet led the thing to the finish without falling.

I've never done it the 5.10 way, in which you merge with Ants' Line through the overhang, after the 5.10 crux. Instead I've tried to do it the 5.11b way every time, staying left of the Ants' Line crux and blasting straight over the roof. 

My first attempt, with Nancy back in September, was a reconnaissance mission. Even though I had done the climb before on toprope, I was wary of the PG/R rating that this climb gets in the guidebook, so my main concern wasn't the climbing but the gear. I was also concerned about smacking into the big tree next to the wall. Of course, since I was worried about falling it became a self-fulfilling prophecy and I took a whip from the 5.10 crux, which is a tricky move where you have to step to the right using very small holds. The fall was clean, much to my relief, and from that point on I explored the gear with every move, stopping several times to hang and inspect the potential placements.


(Photo: That's me heading up Ent Line (5.11b). Photo by Gail.)

A week later I went back with Gail and tried for the send. It was a super summery, hot day, and every move felt difficult. Nevertheless I got through the 5.10 crux and made it all the way up to the 5.11 roof, where I fell off after making a weak throw to the ledge above the roof. This fall, too, was totally clean. Going up for the second time, the roof felt easy. So I walked away secure in the knowledge that I had everything worked out, and that I could come back on a cooler day and finish Ent Line off.


(Photo: Gail approaching the crux roof on Ent Line (5.11b).)

That cooler day arrived in October, with Josh. Conditions were perfect and I started up the route for my third attempt with confidence. The rock felt great and the 5.10 crux was over before I knew it. Everything felt right as I got set up for the 5.11 roof. But somehow I fumbled my footwork up there, and though I made a game effort to regroup and actually grabbed the shelf above the overhang, I slipped off and took the fall AGAIN. 

There were numerous people standing around on this peak-season weekend day. I know that most people don't lead this route, so just getting up there and leading Ent Line is pretty cool, I suppose. Several of the spectators offered words of praise about my efforts. I was happy to give them a show, including a nice whipper, but I felt like a chump. I couldn't believe I'd blown it again. Up until the moment I slipped off I felt like I had it.

I still have to go back. I'm disappointed in my performance but now I know what to do. I just have to execute. 

And the route is really awesome. It is relentlessly steep and the moves are tricky/beta intensive. The protection is very good at the cruxes but I hesitate to say that the gear is exactly what you'd want throughout. In between the first 5.10 crux and the 5.11 roof there are a few moves where hitting the tree is a real possibility and I wouldn't want to fall. But I feel very good about those moves and I think Ent Line is a safe lead for me.

Bragg-Hatch (5.10d)

On that same October day with Josh I failed at my on-sight attempt on Bragg-Hatch. 

This is a short but high-quality climb up a tricky corner below a roof. At the top of the short corner you escape right on some more tricky moves on crimps, for just a few feet, and then move up to easier territory.

I struggled to place a good nut at the top of the corner, but hung in there, only to fall as I tried to move to the right. My nut got totally welded when I fell on it and Josh could not remove it. I don't know if the nut is still there but if it is the climb will now be much easier to lead! Even if it isn't there I think I will find the climb easier the second time, and should be able to get the send without too much trouble.


(Photo: Josh on Bragg-Hatch (5.10d).)

Bragg-Hatch is very different from Creaky Joints, discussed above, but the two climbs are similar in that they both would be truly great if they were longer. Both climbs feature tense moves with gear placed in the midst of the action. They are both worthwhile climbs but I wouldn't make a special trip for either of them.

There are two options for finishing Bragg-Hatch, after the hard part. You can continue straight up a right-facing corner to a tree with slings. Or you can traverse right to a left-facing corner. I chose to traverse to the right and I enjoyed the 5.8/5.9 climbing up this corner. 

* * *

As of now, I have just four pitches left on my 5.10 list for the Trapps: Ent Line, Bragg-Hatch, the second pitch of Matinee and the second pitch of Nurse's Aid. These are all redpoints. I have led every one of these pitches, just not cleanly. So I think I know what I need to do.

If we get the right conditions in December I just might be able to finish all of these tens in the Trapps by the end of the year. I'm trying to stay motivated and to seize whatever opportunities I get. If the high is above 40 degrees you can expect to see me out there!

I hope I'll see you out there too, working on whatever your own personal project may be.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Red Rain


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

It is an annual tradition: the autumn climbing trip. 

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

I've never really tried.   

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

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

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


How could I pass by these wonderful climbs?

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

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

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


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


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


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




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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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




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

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




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

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



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

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


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




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

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




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

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


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


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


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




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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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



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

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



(Photo: The Fury (5.11c).)

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

And then we trooped on out of there.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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