Friday, December 2, 2016

Las Vegas on the Rocks 2016

(Photo: A leader named Brian at the 5.11a roof on Levitation 29 (5.11c).)

Vegas, baby!

I was excited to be back. 

I've been to Vegas on several occasions-- a few times for the climbing at Red Rocks, and a few times for (let's say) other miscellaneous pursuits.

My last visit was in 2011, and it was all about the rock climbing. Five years ago, I wasn't the polished, confident climber (!) that you, dear reader, have come to know and love. I was much greener back then, passionate to be sure, but unseasoned. During that trip to Red Rocks, with my longtime partner Adrian, I managed to get up a few of the area classics. I was tentative and had no idea what I could do. I was quaking in my boots climbing 5.8, and I was prone to bailing on my leads. I remember taking a hang because I couldn't commit to a single hand jam in 5.7 territory on Ragged Edges

But that was then. This year I was sure it was going to be entirely different. I had in mind many of the most legendary, heralded climbs in Red Rocks. For me the most important thing was that the climbs be long, multi-pitch outings up big walls, of the kind for which the area is famous. I wanted to do everything, although to me the most appealing choices seemed to be in the 5.10 range and beyond.

(Photo: Adrian's capture of Rainbow Mountain at sunrise, with moon.)

Adrian was to be my partner again for this 2016 Vegas adventure. He's been to Red Rocks on countless occasions over the last twenty years. He's done almost every great Red Rocks climb you can name. Nevertheless, he came to Vegas this year with a brief list of climbs that he had never tried.

We had four short November days with which to make memories.

Flying into Las Vegas for the first time in a long time, I was struck anew by the duality of this strange place. The beauty of Red Rocks, always visible in the distance, stands in stark contrast to the ugliness of the sprawling city. The genuine natural wonder of the desert surrounds the wholly artificial glitter of The Strip. The pure, noble attraction of the mountains is ever present, but is juxtaposed with the cheap, tawdry enticements of the town.

How many visitors to Las Vegas are even aware of the glorious landscape that sits just outside the city limits? For the most part, people don't come to Sin City for outdoorsy games. They come for the other Vegas. They value the ugliness, the artificial glamour, the cheap and tawdry entertainments. Do they ever lift their eyes from their poker chips for just a second to scan the horizon? Do they wonder what is out there?

(Photo: Red Rocks in the afternoon.)

I ought to hate Las Vegas. Sometimes, driving around the city, I would play a little mental game in which I would try to see if I could spot in Las Vegas the most depressing place in the world. Everywhere you look in the city, you'll find a candidate for the title. How about this nasty-looking tattoo parlor? Pretty sad. Or maybe that seedy strip club in a sketchy strip mall? Could be a winner. Perhaps one of the countless little local casinos, with worn carpets and blinking fluorescent lights, empty but for a couple of patrons wearing thousand-yard stares as they slowly drain their bank accounts into slot machines?

There is much to dislike, and much to be depressed about, but I have to admit that I like Vegas. I like that people come to the city to let loose, to let go. I like the groups of women strutting out for a good time, dressed in a trashy way that I imagine they'd never consider back at home. I like the families with little kids, racially and economically diverse, entranced at the ersatz wonders on every corner. I like the conventioneers, gathered for marijuana industry panels or obscure religious meetings, and I like the groups of teenagers brought together for baseball championships and chess tournaments.

In Vegas, you encounter a broader cross-section of America than you're likely to find anywhere else-- much broader than I ever see in my home town of New York City. Every time I step into an elevator in Vegas I feel like I'm about to be introduced to a new example, previously unknown to me, of What's Out There.

And we climbers are part of the freaky parade. I'm sure Adrian and I looked quite unusual to everyone else in our (cheap) hotel, trooping through the lobby as we did in the wee hours of the morning carrying our packs and ropes and gear. This was our main interaction with the normal Las Vegas; we'd speed through the lobby on our way out, and stumble back through after climbing all day and grabbing a quick dinner, ready to shower, crash, and do it all over again.

(Photo: The famous Las Vegas sign, with a shadowy stranger lurking beneath it.)

Our routine was to awaken at 5:00 in the morning. We'd get our crap together and hit the road, with only a stop at Starbucks for a coffee and a sandwich before heading out Charleston Avenue to Red Rocks. Our aim was always to be at the gate as close to the 6:00 a.m. opening time as possible, so we could make the most of the available daylight and have the best chance of being first to our chosen climbs. This worked well for us on the first two days, when we climbed routes that were accessed from the loop road. On days 3 and 4, we drove to Black Velvet Canyon, which is outside the loop, and found out that 6:00 isn't necessarily early enough to be first when there is no gate. But arriving second didn't end up hurting us much.

We did a lot of excellent climbing in our four days. There were many pitches of 5.10 face climbing, which the two of us handled pretty comfortably, generally speaking. I thought we did well as a climbing team, too, moving quickly enough on the approaches, handling the changeovers efficiently, and avoiding any true rope management disasters. We never got bogged down or spent too much time on a pitch. All in all we succeeded in what we set out to do, climbed some wonderful classics, and had a great time doing it.

Day 1: Unimpeachable Groping (7 pitches, 5.10b)

Our first route was Adrian's selection, chosen mostly because he'd never done it before. I hadn't put Unimpeachable Groping high on my list because it is essentially sport-bolted, with just a few optional gear placements here and there. I was more keen to do real trad climbs.

But I was willing. The guidebook describes the climb as having six pitches in a row of 5.10a & b face climbing. Adrian argued, convincingly, that this route would get us acclimated to the Red Rocks style.

In the morning we arrived in pretty good time and we were first at the base. It was chilly and shady in the gully below the climb, but it was nice and sunny up on the wall, which caused me to make a potentially serious mistake: I decided to leave my jacket on the ground. I figured that with high temperatures expected in the fifties and the sun on the rock, I'd be comfortable in a my shirt sleeves, just like in the Gunks.

Adrian led pitch number one, using the tree-climbing start recommended in the guidebook. It looked a little bit dicey off the deck, but once he reached over and placed an Alien to protect the move onto the face, it all seemed good and he made steady progress. As he climbed I took in the beautiful surroundings. It was good to be there, communing with nature.

(Photo: Adrian using the tree-climbing start on Unimpeachable Groping (5.10b).)

Soon we had company. Another pair of climbers arrived at the wall. They'd been partying a little too hard the night before. Right after they arrived, one of them started puking in the bushes!

My reverie was spoiled. I couldn't believe these dudes made the hour-plus hike.

After the guy finished purging his breakfast, he lit a cigarette and wouldn't shut up.

Standing there, shivering a bit, I couldn't wait to get going. Thankfully, Adrian finished the long pitch with dispatch and soon enough I got on the wall and escaped the barfing bros. They ultimately bailed after one pitch.

Once I got to climbing I quickly became comfortable on the sandstone. It sometimes felt a little bit slippery to me but I got used to the style and confident on my toes by the end of our first pitch. I liked the climbing on the route. It was all thin face climbing, but it wasn't a monotonous slog straight up the bolt line. There were interesting sequences weaving left and right past the bolts. Climbing into the sunlight on the wall, I felt warm and happy.

(Photo: Adrian's shot of me climbing into the light on Unimpeachable Groping (5.10b).)

I led pitch two. It went well, and though there were some interesting moves there was nothing that felt desperate.

I took an unexpected fall. I was standing at the anchor at the end of the pitch, about to clip in. I can't tell you what happened. My foot must have popped. I was suddenly airborne. It was to be my only fall of the day. Furious, I quickly climbed back up and kept going, linking the second pitch into the short third pitch, which brought me to a ledge beneath a big roof. Adrian offered me the lead again on pitch four, knowing that I'd be eager to use my Gunks superpowers on the 5.10 roof just above us.

(Photo: Adrian's pic of me clearing the roof on pitch four of Unimpeachable Groping (5.10b).)

Soon the wall fell into the shade, and this is where the trouble began. It might have been fifty degrees at the base of the wall, but up a few hundred feet, with no sun and no shelter from the wind at the hanging belays, it felt much colder to me. As Adrian climbed and I waited, I started to shiver uncontrollably.

When Adrian arrived at the belay I expressed an interest in leading again, so I could get moving. Adrian-- that bastard!-- was comfy in his jacket and he agreed.

(Photo: Adrian, appropriately dressed, on one of the upper pitches on Unimpeachable Groping (5.10b). You can see a party behind us on the route.)

The rest of the climb went by in a blur. I moved quickly while leading to get warm and then shivered, teeth chattering, at the belays until Adrian joined me and I could start climbing again. I remember good, steep climbing, but not many details. As I led the final 5.10 pitch, I blew past the last rap anchor and realized later, as I reached a big ledge, that I'd inadvertently committed us to doing the final 5.8 pitch to the top of the tower.

This last pitch was very enjoyable, with some space between the bolts and airy positioning at the left edge of the face. I'm glad we did it, in retrospect. At the time I just wanted to get down and put my jacket on.

(Photo: I'm taking it to the top on Unimpeachable Groping. Photo by Adrian.)

During our descent over another route called Power Failure (5.10b), we had an encounter with the renowned rope-eating features at Red Rocks. One of our ropes got hopelessly stuck on a blocky ledge. It wasn't a crisis, but I had to climb back up to the ledge to free the rope. We'd been speedy, so we had plenty of time.

(Photo: Adrian rappelling over Power Failure (5.10b).)

I liked Unimpeachable Groping, much more than I expected to. It has pitch after pitch of consistent, high quality face climbing, and a fun roof problem. You really don't need any trad gear, although we brought a set of nuts and a few cams and placed them on occasion. I'd gladly go back and do the route again. And I'd like to do Power Failure, the route we rapped over. Looks very nice. You could easily do both routes in a single day when the days are longer.

The most significant thing about the climb, from my perspective, was that we'd now done many pitches of 5.10 and (apart from my one mystery fall) it had all been casual and fun. This was what I'd hoped for. I was going to have a great time climbing in Red Rocks.

Day 2: Eagle Dance (9 pitches, 5.10c)

Our second day was projected to be slightly warmer, but not by much. I wanted sunshine. Over dinner we looked through the guidebook for walls that stayed in the sun all day. I was surprised to see that there really aren't that many. One option stood out: the Eagle Wall, home to some mega classic lines.

This wall hadn't figured into my plans. The traditional approach takes two hours. I wasn't sure we'd have time to do a big route at this wall in November.

But I saw some useful beta on Mountain Project for a direct "Wily Climber's Approach" that takes only an hour and a half. After some rough calculations we decided that if we moved quickly we could get a route done in daylight. We might end up walking out in the dark, but that wouldn't be a big deal.

Adrian had done all of the most popular routes at this wall, and he wasn't exactly thrilled about hiking all the way up there again. But he knew that if we could knock off a climb like Eagle Dance (5.10c) or Levitation 29 (5.11c), it would be a big deal for me. He could see the pleading in my eyes. So he agreed.

(Photo: Adrian on the scrambly direct approach to the Eagle Wall.)

The "Wily" approach went well for us; I would recommend it. Because we hadn't done it before, it wasn't much faster than the traditional approach for us. It took us just under two hours to reach the base of the wall. But it was fun, and it avoided the endless boulder scrambling that is required by the traditional approach.

Although we'd entered the loop road just after 6:00 a.m., we weren't the first to arrive at the wall. There was a party just ahead of us, getting set up for Levitation 29 as we walked up. Our intended target, Eagle Dance, was sitting there open, so we were in luck.

(Photo: I'm standing not far from the end of the scrambling but still some distance from the Eagle Wall. You can see the bird-shaped streak of brown varnish which gives the wall its name. Photo by Adrian.)

Like many of the most popular climbs in Red Rocks, Eagle Dance was put up by Jorge and Joanne Urioste, whose routes tend to feature lots and lots of bolts. Eagle Dance is no exception, though it is definitely not a sport route like Unimpeachable Groping. Eagle Dance's first two pitches are protected entirely with trad gear.

(Photo: Adrian's shot of me leading pitch one (5.9) of Eagle Dance (5.10c).)

We fired off the first several pitches quickly. The opening pitch (supposedly 5.9 but probably not) went easily, as did the 5.7 pitch two. An unexpected hiccup: as I followed pitch two, I sensed that I'd dropped something. Looking down, I was horrified to see my wallet tumbling down the wall! The stitching in my pants pocket had blown out.

The wallet landed at the top of a 150-foot tower that is to the left of the start of Eagle Dance. It was about 40 feet below me. It had fallen into a thin crack. I could only hope that I'd be able to reach in and get the wallet out.

I had Adrian lower me to the tower and then I located the wallet. It wasn't very far into the crack but I couldn't quite wedge my arm in to retrieve it. With a little work, however, I was able to fish the wallet out with my nut tool. I was fortunate that the wallet fell when it did. It didn't go very far, I was able to get it back, and nothing fell out! It was a minor miracle, and only cost us about ten minutes. I quickly got back to climbing.

(Photo: I'm leading pitch three (5.10a) of Eagle Dance (5.10c).)

The middle pitches of Eagle Dance, all generously bolted, are among the best on the route. I led pitches three and four. Pitch three (5.10a) is incredibly sustained, with consistent great moves as it traverses right and then trends back left up a diagonal seam. And then pitch four goes straight up the beautiful face at 5.10c. I remember the hardest moves coming at the beginning of the pitch and then again near the end, at a shallow vertical slot. Adrian handled pitch five, with more bolted 5.10a face climbing.

(Photo: Adrian at the final bits of pitch four, one of the two 5.10c crux pitches on Eagle Dance. You can see the top of the tower where my wallet landed, now far below us.)

During pitch six the rock started to change, with the features getting more fragile. The climbing was good but I passed many loose flakes.

As Adrian tackled the straightforward but strenuous aid climbing on the pitch seven bolt ladder, I started to really relax. We were cruising, and we had only two more pitches to go. I had brought my jacket but I never needed it, since I was very comfortable in the sun. The climbing so far had been awesome. Our position high on the remote Eagle Wall provided beautiful views over Oak Creek Canyon. And we had a front row seat to the guys to our right (named Brian and Gerry) on Levitation 29. They were struggling at the 5.11 cruxes but they made steady progress up the wall. Looking around, I basked a bit in our success. This was the Red Rocks experience I'd always dreamed of.

(Photo: Adrian's shot of Brian on the crux pitch of Levitation 29 (5.11c).)

I led the final two pitches, which ascend a shallow open book with smooth white walls on either side. These turned out to be the hardest pitches on the route. Pitch eight is rated at a modest 5.10a in the guidebook, but it is awkward and difficult right off the hanging belay. I got through this section with delicate wide stemming up the open book and then was proud of myself for hand-jamming, without hesitation, through a bulge to finish the pitch. Take that, Ragged Edges!

(Photo: Adrian doing the final jams on the 5.10a pitch eight of Eagle Dance (5.10c).)

Pitch nine upped the ante to 5.10c, and here I struggled, for the first time all day. At the start of the pitch I was unnerved when I gently touched a flake and it snapped right off in my hand. I desperately held on to the wall and the flake, worried about dropping it. Fortunately there was a little slot to my right where I could place some gear and, after a move or two, I shoved the broken flake in there as well.

(Photo: I'm holding the flake I broke off on pitch nine of Eagle Dance (5.10c). Photo by Adrian.)

The crux climbing then came pretty quickly as I got back into the shallow open book. The wall had few features, and they were all hollow; it seemed like anything I touched could easily break. Using tiny ripples on the wall, I tried stemming upward again, but I slipped and took a fall. Going back at it, I changed tactics, throwing a shoulder into the crease of the open book, and this time I got through the hardest climbing, placing a cam under pressure during a somewhat spacious stretch between bolts. This was great climbing, thin and challenging, and not the usual crimping and reaching. As I got higher I resumed stemming. The pitch remained delicate, requiring precise movements and balance, but as the angle eased I knew it was all over.

(Photo: Looking down pitch nine to Adrian from the final anchor on Eagle Dance (5.10c).)

It was 3:00. We had an hour and a half before sunset, which was plenty of time to rap off and negotiate the ledges back to the drainage. Barring a rope-snag disaster, we'd be well on our way back to the car by the time it got dark. On our second rap, the knot got briefly stuck, but after a moment of panic we got it loose. I held my breath during every subsequent pull of the rope, but we made it down without incident.

Walking out, I felt like we'd just finished one of my best-ever days of climbing. The route had been fantastic, with great moves, varied challenges, and stunning scenery. Adrian and I had worked together with efficiency, getting up and down with time to spare.

Though I didn't get a perfect on-sight of every last move, the day was still a validation of sorts for me. I know I am not a talented climber. I've been a mediocre weekend warrior for many years. But I've steadily plugged away at it, hoping one day to be able to travel to the great rock climbing destinations of the world to do routes like Eagle Dance. And now, here we were, going after it and getting it done. It was all I'd ever wanted.

Day 3: Bourbon Street (7 pitches, 5.8+)

Our second day had been pretty big and, being old men, both Adrian and I woke up on day three feeling a bit sore. Our plan was to head into Black Velvet Canyon and see what was available. We had many options in mind at Whiskey Peak, which is the closest formation to the parking lot. We also considered doing something at the Black Velvet Wall, which sits just beyond Whiskey Peak. There are tons of great routes at both of these locations. I'd never been in Black Velvet Canyon before, so it was all new for me. 

Adrian pushed for us to do Bourbon Street (5.8+), a full-length route up Whiskey Peak that he'd never climbed. I was fine with it, but I was also up for something harder if we felt the urge once we got moving, or if Bourbon Street was unavailable.

When we arrived, there were only a few cars in the lot, so we figured Bourbon Street would be open. We did the forty-five minute hike in to the base and found that we were the first to arrive. I think we were the only people on the route all day on this beautiful Saturday, though there were a couple of parties on Frogland (5.8), right next door.

The climb was in the shade for the whole day, and I brought my jacket. I sometimes needed it, even though the temperatures climbed into the sixties.

I had hogged all of the best pitches on Eagle Dance, so we set things up for Adrian to lead the money pitches on Bourbon Street: the crux second pitch, and the long face-climbing pitch five.

(Photo: I'm heading up the 5.7 pitch one of Bourbon Street (5.8+). Photo by Adrian.)

Starting up pitch one, I had a couple of uncertain moments. This pitch (which is just 5.7) follows a .75 Camalot-sized vertical crack in a corner for about 40 or 50 feet. I had two green .75 Camalots, but I stupidly left one in the crack early, and then found myself constantly sliding the other one up with me while I looked for other gear. The climbing was reasonable, but I didn't like the feeling of repeatedly moving the only piece of gear keeping me off the ground. Soon I reached a small overhang, where other gear appeared, and all was well from there. I really enjoyed the last bits of the pitch, using hand jams to get in and out of an alcove with a blue Camalot-sized vertical crack at the back.

(Photo: Adrian leading the crux crack section on pitch two of Bourbon Street (5.8+).)

Pitch two is definitely the business, and Adrian did well managing the finger-lock moves up a crack just to the right of Frogland's second-pitch corner.

I led pitches three and four. Pitch three (5.7) is the closest thing to a throwaway pitch on the route, but I still found it fun. It wanders up a few bushy corners and then follows a brown face with many features and thin gear to a stance beneath an obvious hanging horn/corner. Pitch four (5.7+) ascends the hanging horn/corner, which is juggy and no big deal. Then an easier ramp takes you to the base of a crack.

(Photo: Adrian following my lead of the 5.7 pitch three of Bourbon Street (5.8+).)

Adrian took the lead again for pitch five (5.6), a beautiful long pitch (150 feet) of face climbing up to a little shelf beneath a break in the final overhangs at the top of the mountain.

(Photo: Adrian is all smiles as he starts up the 5.6 pitch five of Bourbon Street (5.8+).)

I brought it home by combining the short pitches six (5.7) and seven (5.5) into one lead. I found I was able to avoid rope drag by not placing much gear and by double-extending a few of the pieces.

(Photo: I'm doing the exposed but easy moves up the 5.7 pitch 6 of Bourbon Street (5.8+). Photo by Adrian.)

Compared to our first two days, Bourbon Street was an easy romp. But I found it to be a very worthwhile climb, with much to recommend it. The first two pitches feature great climbing up vertical cracks. The rest of the climb is adventurous, with some route-finding challenges. I liked the hanging corner of pitch four, the nice face on pitch five, and the exposure of the short wall ascended by pitch six. It was gratifying to top out at a real summit, with good views over the canyon below. And finally, the descent was an easy half-hour scramble down the back side of Whiskey Peak. What's not to love?

(Photo: Looking down at Adrian from the middle of the last pitch of Bourbon Street (5.8+).)

I haven't done Frogland, Bourbon Street's more popular neighbor, so I can't compare the two. But I can say this in Bourbon Street's favor: there is not a single piece of fixed gear on the route. Frogland (another Urioste route) has bolts next to cracks. Bourbon Street has no bolts, period! And no fixed anchors. It is a true trad experience. I found it refreshing after two days of heavily bolted routes.

Day 4: Sour Mash (7 pitches, 5.10a)

When we finished Bourbon Street we could see several parties climbing on the Black Velvet Wall, just a little bit further into the canyon. It is a popular area and the sheer, steep wall looked very appealing to me. I wanted to come back on day four and hit one of these routes before we left Las Vegas.

(Photo: Black Velvet Peak seen from the summit of Whiskey Peak.)

Adrian and I talked about the many classics available on the wall. He's done almost all of them. The two he's never tried-- Rock Warrior (5.10a) and Fiddler on the Roof (5.10d)-- are considered somewhat run out and scary. I was feeling pretty good and thought I could handle either of these. But Adrian wasn't enthused, and I didn't want to bite off more than I could chew. Eventually I proposed we just do something good; I didn't care which climb. I knew Adrian wasn't particularly fond of the two most popular routes here, Prince of Darkness (5.10b) and Dream of the Wild Turkeys (5.10a). So I suggested we do Sour Mash (5.10a). I'd heard Adrian describe this route as a favorite over the years. It has seven pitches, most of them easier than 5.10. Seemed like a nice, breezy way to end our trip, with no worries about finishing in time to head to the airport.

(Photo: Some rain clouds in the distance at first light.)

As we headed in, we were a bit concerned about the gloomy skies above us. There were threatening clouds here and there, and the forecast put the chance of rain at 30 to 40 percent by 11:00 a.m. Adrian had once had a scary experience on the Black Velvet Wall in which a sudden storm sent a stream of water down the wall, soaking everyone and sending Adrian nearly into hypothermia. So we brought a pack with our raincoats. I knew we could retreat from any pitch so I wasn't particularly worried.

I was much more upset to see that the parking lot was practically full as we pulled in at 6:00. I wasn't expecting this, since there were so few people in the canyon the day before, when the weather was better.

There was nothing to do but to hike in. If we were stuck behind too many parties on Sour Mash we could pick something else. We could even shift gears and do Rock Warrior, after all...

We found ourselves second in line for Sour Mash. The first party was just getting started as we arrived, and they looked pretty speedy, so we decided to just wait it out and start up behind them. It worked out fine, and after the initial waiting we weren't held up.

I led the first two traditional pitches in one. The first pitch is rated 5.8 in the guidebook, but the crux move is a committing step up with good hands and polished, tiny footholds. There is gear nearby but the territory below is ledgy so there is still some splat potential. After this move, the climbing eases up to the traditional belay ledge and then some very nice thin face climbing (5.9) past bolts takes you up to a second ledge where you belay at a small tree.

(Photo: I'm past the slightly sketchy 5.8 on pitch one of Sour Mash (5.10a), and heading into the 5.9 face climbing of pitch two. Photo by Adrian.)

As we ascended these first two pitches, the air felt moist and the occasional raindrop came down out of the sky. The rock was still dry and we persevered, hoping it would blow over or hold off. I quickly got started on pitch three, a brilliant 5.8 pitch out a roof and then to the right up a diagonal ramp, which eventually led to a steep, juggy section up to a ledge.

(Photo: Adrian's shot of me scoping out the roof on the 5.8 pitch two of Sour Mash (5.10a).)

I really enjoyed the climbing on this long pitch, but I couldn't understand why there were so many bolts. Sour Mash is yet another Urioste route. I expected bolts, but some of their choices baffle me. I was sure that I could have found placements on this pitch. The ramp was featured with cracks. But every time I thought about looking for a piece of gear, I found another bolt instead.

(Photo: Adrian following me up the 5.8 pitch three of Sour Mash (5.10a).)

As Adrian came up behind me, I looked at pitches four and five. They looked beautiful, and easy to combine. The short, 5.7 pitch four goes straight into the 5.9 pitch five. There are no bolts on these pitches, which follow a vertical crack system up a varnished, smooth, brown face.

The wind started to pick up as I began pitch four, and soon it was raining. I decided to hurry up to the ledge at the end of pitch four, where there is a rappel anchor. I hoped the rain would stop again or pass over. We were moving fast, and if we got a reprieve for even an hour we might be able to finish the climb!

But as I reached the anchor it became apparent that the rain had truly arrived. It began really coming down, mixed with a bit of light sleet. I could see the smooth wall above me becoming slick and wet. Even if the rain stopped now, I didn't want to climb the next pitch. I could see the party above us moving to retreat.

It was time to bail.

Of course, once we were off the wall, the skies cleared and it was sunny for the rest of the day. We weren't in a hurry to leave, so we sat there a while, watching some other climbers who'd decided to stay up on the wall. I was sorry we didn't get to finish the climb, but I thought we'd made the right decision. Our climb was positioned such that it got quite wet in the brief storm. And you aren't supposed to climb on the fragile sandstone right after the rock gets wet.

(Photo: Adrian took this shot of the Black Velvet Wall after we bailed. If you click on the photo to enlarge, you can easily make out climbers on Prince of Darkness (5.10a), Dream of the Wild Turkeys (5.10a), and the upper pitches of Epinephrine (5.9).)

Sour Mash seems like a terrific route. I really enjoyed the parts we did and it looked like the best bits were still to come. All quibbling about bolts aside, the Uriostes picked out a great line with this climb, following fun natural features up the wall.

(Photo: So long Red Rocks! Photo by Adrian.)

I left Red Rocks feeling like we'd had a very successful visit. We did about as much climbing as we could possibly do. I enjoyed every climb that we did, but for me the biggest highlight was obviously Eagle Dance. I had some other huge routes on my list, like Epinephrine (5.9) and Woman of Mountain Dreams (5.11a), that we didn't get around to doing. But in the end I don't think that November was the best time of year for these objectives, at least for us. I think it may be better to try these climbs in April or early May, when it isn't beastly hot yet but the days are longer.

After this trip, I now know that these sorts of routes are well within reach for Adrian and me, and this knowledge is so valuable to me. I've felt great all fall, and this little excursion to Vegas put a fitting cap on my season. I'll look forward to coming back and putting another dent in the lifetime of climbing that is available in Red Rocks.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Oceans of Elevens in the Gunks

(Photo: That's me, setting off with some trepidation toward the many roofs of No Man's Land (5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

I've been feeling good lately. I'm climbing better than I have all year.

And it's high season! We've had some beautiful fall days in the Gunks.

I am a man in a hurry.

For me the goal is simple: I want to push into the 5.11's. For real.

I've done very few of them. I have my pick of the lot. As of a few weeks ago, I'd sent just three elevens in the Gunks. It shouldn't be hard for me to find some more. I can walk up to the best ones and try leading them. 

If only it were so easy. These climbs are at my limit. Not so long ago, I thought leading trad 5.11 was something I was incapable of doing. It should go without saying that I need to explore these routes safely.

The problem is that in the Gunks, a lot of the climbs that are harder than 5.10 have pretty sparse gear. It isn't like other areas such as, say, Indian Creek, where a harder grade just means the cracks aren't the right size for your hand. In the Gunks, the harder grades often signify that there aren't any cracks at all. With difficulty comes extra commitment.

But I know there are many Gunks elevens that have more than adequate gear. I just have to find them.

In my last two visits to the Gunks I starting wading into the 5.11 pool with a purpose. I tried to on-sight some elevens, and to check out some others on top rope to see if I could find a way to lead them with adequate protection.

I got out with Andy on an October day that was supposed to be rainy. But at 6:00 a.m. the weather in NYC looked good enough for the time being, and after driving up to the Gunks we headed straight down to the area near the Yellow Wall.

There are several 5.11 climbs nearby.

(Photo: Andy resembling a climbing ninja on Ent Line (5.11b).)

We started out by warming up on Ants' Line (5.9) and then we used its bolted anchor to take a top rope run on Ent Line (5.11b).

I'd done Ent Line on TR once before, and I remembered the initial 5.10d face as kind of tricky. And then, as I recalled, the 5.11 roof above wasn't too hard. I'd never seen anyone lead the climb. The guidebook says it is PG-R during the 5.10 part, and just plain R for the 5.11 at the top. I wanted to check out the placements for myself.

As I climbed the route with the security of the top rope, I was surprised to find lots of spots for gear all the way through the (very nice!) 5.10 climbing up the steep face to the rooflet. This part of the climb would be a great 5.10d lead on its own. And at the top of the face, there is gear at the 5.11 roof as well, at the bottom of the overlap where the handholds are. Above the roof there is another hard move or two on the upper face, and this is where it gets complicated: I'm not sure there is any pro for these last moves. It would be a big whip if you blew it at the top.

Despite the runout at the end, I think that I will lead Ent Line. It appears safe to lead the climb up to and over the roof (just watch out for the tree next to the wall). After the overhang, you can step to the right and finish on Ants' Line, or place some gear over on Ants' Line and then step back to the left to do the final moves on Ent Line. Either way it is a good 5.11 lead.

Now it was time for our big target for the day: No Man's Land (5.11b). I'd been talking about hitting this route for a while.

Like all the routes at the Yellow Wall, No Man's Land climbs through an impressive and intimidating multi-tiered roof system. Standing beneath the wall, you can feel the aura of the place wash over you. The overhangs are immense. I'd previously done one of the routes here, Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). It had been tough and it had taken me a few tries to get it cleanly. And when I attempted Carbs, I knew there were bolts protecting the technical crux moves. This knowledge took away some of the fear, though later in the climb when I did the mental crux, moving out a hanging corner with no footholds (and no bolts), it was still plenty scary.

As far as No Man's Land was concerned, I knew that there would be no bolts. The bottom part of the pitch was reputed to be easy but poorly protected. And in the hard climbing above, I expected the pro to be difficult to place as I moved through the three tiers of the big roof system.

I racked up and dove in. 

The climb begins up an easy slab past a tree, with good pro in some cracks. Then the wall steepens and you climb 40-50 feet in 5.7-ish terrain on orange rock with almost no gear. The climbing is fun and casual but you have to be careful. As you approach the first giant overhang the pro situation improves; I was relieved to find great gear the entire rest of the way.

(Photo: That's me past the runout face and into the first tier of the overhang on No Man's Land (5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

I ended up taking a couple of hangs. I made it through the first tier, which is probably 5.10. Then I found harder moves to get over the second and third tiers. For me, the only issue at tier number two was commitment. Once I really went for it and found gear up there, the move was no problem. At the final ceiling I had more trouble. I had to hang to figure out the move, but once I did, I was pretty sure I would get it the next time.

My partner Andy had no issues at all as the second.

(Photo: Andy in the midst of the overhangs on No Man's Land (5.11b).)

Walking away from No Man's Land, I felt like maybe I would have been more successful if I'd been more aggressive. But I also felt pretty positive about how it went. I'd sorted it all out, the gear was good where it counted, and I knew I could come back and get the send. It wasn't THAT hard. I thought maybe it was easier than Carbs and Caffeine. It is a great line, with a thrilling atmosphere.

Next I ran up the first pitch of Airy Aria (5.8) so we could throw a rope over yet another 5.11b: the first pitch of Scary Area.

Now, I don't pretend to have enough experience in the 5.11 grade to be an expert, but this thing felt much harder to me then either Ent Line or No Man's Land. The pitch isn't long, but the wall is steep and the holds are small and sloping. There are several bouldery, hard moves.

And it is a dangerous lead. There are two protection bolts, but the first one comes after two very difficult sequences. There is a potential placement in between the two hard moves but I think you'd still hit the boulders on the ground if you blew it during either of the hard bits below the bolt. After the first bolt, the gear is adequate for the difficult moves that follow. The second bolt is completely unnecessary; it is slightly off-line and comes in between two good horizontals.

(Photo: Top-roping Scary Area (P1 5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

Andy got Scary Area cleanly on his first try on top rope. I didn't, but I felt like I worked it out and I could see coming back and setting it up again to take a few more runs on it. Then I could either leave the first bolt stick-clipped and lead it with the rope above me for the first cruxes, or if I felt like I really had it dialed I could try to lead it from the ground up. It is doable but I'd want to know for certain that I have it in the bag before taking on the initial moves without gear.

In any event, this first pitch of Scary Area is worthwhile. There is a lot of good climbing on it, even if you just do it on top rope.

Scary Area ended up being our last climb of the day. The rain finally arrived, sending us running for cover. Even though our day was cut short, I felt like we'd done some excellent work.

I now had some new projects to complete.

Andy and I were soon back in the Gunks for another day. I was pumped to hop back on No Man's Land... eventually. At some point.

Why rush? We had a full day ahead of us.

While I got mentally prepared for No Man's Land, there were plenty of other options.

I've been meaning to attempt Matinee (5.10d) all year. It remains one of the few big tens that I haven't tried. So with Matinee in mind, we started our day on Pink Laurel (5.9), which is right around the corner.

(Photo: Andy coming up the final bits of Pink Laurel (5.9).)

This was actually my first time leading Pink Laurel, after all these years. And my first time doing the pitch two roof. I ran it from the ground to the top in one pitch. I thought the first pitch was great. The crux move out of the alcove is awkward, and there is good exposure during the easier climbing up the corner to the ledge. I thought the second pitch was kind of a waste of time. It wasn't that interesting and felt easier than 5.9.

When we finished with Pink Laurel we found Matinee occupied. So we shifted gears and walked on down to the Seasons area.

(Photo: I'm in the early going on The Winter (5.10d). Photo by Andy.)

I was excited to do The Winter (5.10d). I'd been on this route before, but needed to get the redpoint on pitch one. And I wanted to try the second pitch of The Spring (5.10b/c), which sits directly above pitch one of The Winter. (It is confusing. The second pitches criss-cross above the first pitches.) The Winter/Spring link-up, done together in one long pitch, is sometimes called The Winter Direct. I'd never done the second half of the link-up.

It went very well, and man oh man, what a climb! The first pitch of The Winter is excellent and demanding, with a tough move off the deck just to get established and then wonderful thin climbing up a corner with tiny nuts for gear. When you throw in the second pitch of The Spring in one lead, you add a completely different challenge; a big roof in a corner. It too is mentally challenging, with a committing move out into space to get established in the roofs. The guidebook gives this pitch a PG-R rating, but I think the gear is good once you commit.

I was psyched to get the send on pitch one and the on-sight on pitch two. I think this double-length pitch is one of the best tens in the Gunks.

(Photo: Andy finishing the difficulties on pitch one of The Winter/Spring, with the challenging roof/corner of pitch two looming above.)

The Spring (P1 5.9) was sitting there open to our right so we did that one too, and again I led straight up at the end of pitch one and tacked on pitch two of The Winter. This upper pitch is rated 5.10b/c or d depending on how you do the crux. Dick Williams says in the guidebook that if you go straight up at the crux it is 5.10d, but if you hand traverse five feet to the left it is 5.10b/c, a little easier.

For most of its length, The Spring/Winter link-up features good, technical 5.9 corner climbing. Then there is a great slot for protection just below the obvious 5.10 move but you do have to step up above the gear. A couple of seasons ago I led up to this point and chickened out, traversing off to the right when I wasn't feeling it. But this time I wasn't worried. I followed the little handholds upward and was through it in no time.

I thought that I'd done the direct 5.10d version, but when Andy followed he reached to his right for a sidepull that I didn't use, so maybe I did it the 5.10 b/c way? The two options are within easy reach of each other, without anything that seemed like a "hand traverse."

(Photo: Andy at the second pitch crux of The Spring/Winter link-up (5.10d).)

Whichever way you finish it, the climbing on The Spring/The Winter link-up is nice, but not remotely as challenging as The Winter/Spring link-up to the left. The climb has a lot of good 5.9 on it and just one sequence of 5.10.

Andy and I had now ticked off six guidebook pitches pretty quickly. We were well into our short day and I still hadn't hopped on No Man's Land.

I figured we had to do it now. I told myself that I knew what to do.

Racking up, I felt a little bit nervous, but once I started climbing everything went off without a hitch. I negotiated the runout section without much worry. I remembered my beta for each of the three overhangs. The gear was good. The moves went fine.

I sent it in 17 minutes.

It is definitely easier than Carbs and Caffeine. Or maybe I'm better now? Who can say?

What a thrill! I was very very happy about it.

While Andy cleaned the pitch, I took a quick look at the namesake route for the area, The Yellow Wall (5.11c), just to our right. I thought about getting on it.  This would REALLY be the big one.

Staring up at the gargantuan roofs, I thought that I should do it. I had to do it. It would be a dereliction of duty NOT to do it.

But I came up with a million excuses and reasons not to... and then I remembered Matinee.

This was my out.

"Hey Andy, let's go back to Matinee!" I said.

We walked back down there but it was still occupied.

I decided to try another nearby climb: A-Gape (5.11b). This one has a crux roof with good gear, right next to the classic 5.8 Ape Call.

(Photo: That's me at the 5.9 move protected by an old pin on A-Gape (5.11b). The crux roof is above me in the upper left-hand portion of the picture. Photo by Andy.)

I thought the climbing at the start was interesting, up a layback crack. Then a 5.9 step to the right with only a very rusty old pin for pro was a little bit dicey. After that it was easy climbing up and further right (almost touching Ape Call) and then back left up the slab to the obvious big roof with a pointed flake underneath.

I was relieved to get good gear in the roof. I started out with two pieces, and then bumped it up to three after I fell off.

And I kept falling off. This is a hard roof.

(Photo: Attempting the roof on A-Gape (5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

There are some poor-to-middling holds above the lip. I could reach them. But I couldn't figure out how to get my feet up. I kept flaming out and taking the whip, several times. This was a real lead fall past the gear and down the slab, but it was clean. I must have taken the ride at least five or six times. Eventually I decided it wasn't going to happen. I gave up and traversed over to finish on Ape Call. I had to leave my blue Alien behind, hopelessly fixed at the ceiling.

I'm not sorry I tried A-Gape. It may be no Yellow Wall but it is a quality route. I'm pleased I made a game effort at it. My only regret (apart from the lost Alien) is that I never figured out the move. This was my fourth 5.11b in recent weeks and it felt much more mysterious to me than the others. I must have missed some kind of heel trickery or something. Since I traversed off and never finished the lead, Andy never got to try the roof. I'm sure he would have figured out what I was doing wrong.

(Photo: That's me, finishing our day on some obscure 5.9. Photo by Andy.)

As we walked out in the twilight I felt pretty darn good about our day, despite my semi-epic on A-Gape. I'd had some amazing sends on The Winter Direct and No Man's Land, and I felt like I had laid a foundation to make real progress into the 5.11 grade in the Gunks.

I don't know how much more climbing I'll get done at my home crag this season. Next week I am headed to Red Rocks for four days with my old pal Adrian. I have some big goals in mind. My enthusiasm is surging. I feel lucky to be going there before they turn the Bureau of Land Management into a mining company. Given recent developments in the real world, I may be tempted to hike into one of those big canyons and never come out...

Sorry. This is not a blog about politics.

I shall return. And if the weather permits, I may yet find some more 5.11's to attempt in the Gunks in 2016!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Some Golden Showers (5.11a) With 10,000 Restless Virgins (5.10d)

(Photo: Nancy following 10,000 Restless Virgins (5.10d).)

We are well into high season in the Gunks. I need to get my ass in gear.

I haven't set my sights on any big climbing objectives for quite a while.

During my weekend with Adrian in early October, I saw that it was time to ramp things up a bit. We did many 5.10's in a row and to me they all felt good, solid... even casual. After I cruised up J'Accuse, Nevermore, and Welcome to the Gunks (all of them 5.10b), I realized that I was ready to pick some harder objectives.

So when I met up with a new partner, Nancy, last Sunday, I wanted to pick a 5.11 to attempt. I didn't have a particular target in mind but Nancy was thinking of maybe trying the Winter (5.10d), so I suggested I might try one of the nearby elevens at the Slime Wall or maybe even No Man's Land (5.11b), or the top pitch of Enduro Man (5.11c), at some point.

When we arrived it was quite chilly, and we were content to warm up on some easier classics and work our way down to the Seasons area.

(Photo: Nancy leading Son of Easy O (5.8).)

After we had a couple of climbs behind us I decided to go for the redpoint on Cheap Thrills (5.10c). I'd had to take a hang on this climb on my first attempt, mostly because I'd been so nervous clipping the crux pin that I couldn't calm down and get over the roof. When I'd gone back up on the second try it wasn't so bad.

When I tried it again with Nancy, I decided to do the climb as it is described in the guidebook, as a wholly independent pitch, and not to do it by starting on Alley Oop, as I think most people do and as it is described in the Trapps App. 

I began from the ground and found out that I'd skipped some great climbing on my first visit to Cheap Thrills! There are interesting, fun face moves in maybe the 5.9 range as you work up some shallow left-facing corners before the orange face leading to the roofs. There is gear, too, although it is somewhat spaced out and finicky. I recall one micronut placement at one of the corners and a pink Tricam in a shallow, pebbly horizontal that might also take a cam if you work to find the right spot for it.

Once I reached the orange face I felt totally in control, this time, as I moved up to the pin and clipped it. So far, so good. Reaching up to the good holds over the roof, I calmly backed up the piton with a cam and then just had to execute my beta to get over the roof. It went fine, and seemed like it was over in no time.

Cheap Thrills, done in its entirety, is now one of my favorite tens. It is a thoughtful, challenging pitch. I can see going back to it again and again.

Nancy and I walked on down to the Seasons area, but it was a zoo, as I suppose we should have expected on this peak-season Sunday. We kept on walking to Sleepy Hollow, where I hoped to try 10,000 Restless Virgins (5.10d). This is a very popular and highly regarded ten that I somehow have never gotten around to, until now. 

Things were much more peaceful down at the far end of the cliff, though there were some people here and there. I recognized a climber named Alex, who I've seen at the cliffs a few times. I don't really know him at all but he is the sort of climber I aspire to be in the near future. He tackles the 5.12's in the Gunks and works them, getting the moves dialed and leading them when he can, in headpoint style. He has a video of himself on a Lost City climb called Brave New World (5.12a?), in which he is so smooth, he makes the climb look like a 5.6. I tried Brave New World on TR with Andy in July and while we were able to do almost all of the moves, we were both stumped by the boulder problem off of the ground. If I ever figure out this move, I may try to work the route with an eye towards leading it.

(Photo: Andy on Brave New World (5.12).)

The other week, with Adrian, I tried another "introductory" twelve in the Nears called Eraserhead. This one can be easily set up on TR if you lead Roseland (5.9) or Shitface (5.10c) to the bolted anchor. On Eraserhead there was, again, just one move we struggled with, although this time the crux came pretty high on the pitch, just past a piton. If I could get this one move nailed down I could consider leading this one too.

(Photo: That's me at the crux of Eraserhead (5.12a) on TR.)

Alex was down in Sleepy Hollow with a friend working on two twelves, Future Shock Direct (5.12d) and Bone Hard (5.12b). Both routes looked clean, steep, and difficult. I chatted with Alex about Brave New World and Eraserhead. He had some beta for me on the Eraserhead crux that I'm excited to go back and try.

But I digress. There was no one on 10,000 Restless Virgins; it was wide open. Looking at it, I was psyched to do it. It is a beautiful, natural line up a left-facing flake system, capped by a large ceiling. 

It went very well. The opening flakes are juggy (probably 5.8?) and there is gear available at will. The wall is slightly overhanging, so it gets a bit pumpy as you head towards the roof.

When I got to the roof, I thought the main challenge was finding good rock in which to place pro. There are some loose flakes just below the ceiling, so be careful. I got what I thought was a bomber yellow Alien in a downward facing slot next to the big undercling block.

Once I was satisfied with the gear, it was perfectly obvious what to do. I got my feet up and made the reach to the horizontal above the roof. It was easy to get a good piece in this horizontal, and then one more big reach up to a jug essentially finished the crux.

(Photo: Nancy at the roof on 10,000 Restless Virgins (5.10d).)

I think this route is easy for 5.10d-- certainly it was easier for me than Cheap Thrills. Anyway I was really happy to get the on-sight and to feel so good doing it. It was nothing but fun.

With the day slipping away, I figured I needed to try something harder or it wouldn't happen. We walked over to the Slime Wall and I took a hard look at two short climbs that sit right next to each other, April Showers and Golden Showers (both 5.11a). Both climbs seemed to feature some desperate moves on blank, nearly vertical faces. As I examined the routes it seemed to me that I had a better shot at getting off the ground on the one on the right-- Golden Showers. So I decided to try it.

Nancy tried, gently, to talk me out of it. She'd had a strong partner who took repeated falls on micro nuts at the crux of Golden Showers, and who then gave up.

It sounded a bit hairy, but I was undeterred, for some dumb reason. How hard could it be? After all, I'd just waltzed up a climb that was supposedly only a single letter grade easier. The climbs had completely different styles, but still... the guidebook said it was PG and I was sure to figure out something, I reasoned. So I racked up and threw myself at Golden Showers.

The very first move was hard, and height-related. There is a wide horizontal at about chest level and then a blank gap to an obvious little left-facing corner above. Stepping onto the wall, I managed to stand up, just so, to reach the key hold. But I was already shaking, and I floundered with my feet. I nearly popped off but eventually I found a toehold of some kind and stepped up to a horizontal seam where, trembling, I got some gear.

Then it took another tough move to get up to the next horizontal, where I placed two tiny pieces. And another thin step up and left to a semi-rest, where again I could get some placements. I stuffed the thin crack with everything I could here-- two small nuts and a C3-- since I believed I was now facing the crux climbing. I thought the placements were good, but everything was quite small. As I looked up, I could see the next stretch was very blank, with one possible slot for a micronut a few moves above me.

Every sequence on the route so far had been challenging and I was feeling pretty rattled. I found it difficult to commit to stepping above the gear even though, on an intellectual level, I was pretty happy with what I had. The gear seemed so dinky, the possible footholds were so desperate, and I had to step up and balance myself with my fingertips against the edges of a tiny vertical seam. It was frightening, even though I knew that I was not in any real danger at all. 

I tried to move up, but with the gear at my knees I couldn't commit to going further. The move seemed too unlikely. I dropped down on my gear, which held just fine. I repeated this same dance several times, trying to build up some courage. But I never got any further. I didn't want to take a real whipper. I decided to give up. 

I could see that from my stance on Golden Showers I could easily traverse a bit left and take April Showers to the chains. And although April Showers is also 5.11a, the only 5.11 move is right off the ground. Thus when I moved left to join the route I had to do just one 5.10 move up a crack before I found easy climbing to the finish. 

There is some very good climbing on my accidental 5.10++ link up. Call it Golden April? It avoids the hardest bits of both climbs. And the gear is reasonable. Try not to blow it right off the deck!

Having now done half of each of the "Shower" climbs I want to go back and do both of them again. If I can unlock the move off the ground on April Showers then that route should be a snap. And maybe if I can get to my previous high point a bit more calmly on Golden Showers I can get through the next couple of moves and complete that one too. Even though it is "only" 5.11a I will be proud when I can lead Golden Showers. It is a head trip for sure. I found it humbling.

When I got back to the ground, after all that, Nancy suggested that No Man's Land would probably be easier for me than Golden Showers. And I think that's true. Though I've not done the climb, I expect the roofs on No Man's Land would be hard, but not mysterious. Golden Showers is more of a steep slab, a mental strength exercise. It is outside my comfort zone and has more to teach me, I think.

(Photo: Nancy on Art's Route (5.9).)

I hope to get back to the Gunks at least a few more times before our season is over. The big news for me is that Adrian and I are going to spend four days in Red Rocks next month. It's been five years since I was there and I am a completely different climber now. We have some big stuff planned and I can't wait to see what we can get done.