(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."
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.
(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.
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.