Thursday, August 28, 2014

Back to Boulder: First Flatiron Direct East Face (5.6) and Two Eldo Classics

(Photo: The First, Second and Third Flatirons (from right to left), looming above Boulder.)

Another summer vacation in Colorado meant another chance for me to do a little climbing.

My family spent a week in the (beautiful!) Salida area doing lots of fun stuff that did not include rock climbing. Horseback riding, zip lining, hiking (including our first fourteener, Mount Yale), stand-up paddle boarding, mountain biking... we had tons of outdoor fun, but all week I eagerly anticipated the two days of rock climbing I was planning to do with my old friend and partner Vass when my family returned to the greater Denver area.

Two years ago, while I was in Colorado on a similar vacation, Vass and I had a good day in Boulder Canyon and the next morning climbed the Yellow Spur (5.9) in Eldorado Canyon. I liked our day in Boulder Canyon well enough, but I loved our time in Eldo. I was taken in by the red sandstone with the bright green lichen, and by the majesty of the enormous Redgarden wall. And the climbing, while not exactly like the Gunks, was instantly comfortable for me. There is a certain Gunksy quality to the climbing at Eldo, both in the grades and the feel of the rock. The cracks aren't as relentlessly horizontal as they are in the Gunks (in fact, usually they are diagonal) but the techniques and the gear placements are similar.

The last time I was in Colorado I knew ahead of time that I wanted to tackle the Yellow Spur, one of the best 5.9 climbs in the state. This year I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. As my two days with Vass approached, I thought the weather forecast might preclude any climbing at all. Rain was predicted for several days in a row. I remembered topping out on the Yellow Spur two years ago with a storm coming in and I wasn't sure I wanted to put myself in that position again. But Vass wasn't worried. He assured me that rain in the forecast at this time of year usually meant afternoon showers. We could probably get plenty of climbing done in the mornings and then see how the afternoons shaped up.

Vass suggested we could start with one of the Flatirons. These flat sandstone rock faces lean back on the hills just above Boulder. The major formations are numbered from the north to south. The Flatirons were the scene of much of the early development of rock climbing in Colorado, and today there are thousands of routes spread among the many formations. But most of the traffic is centered on the trade routes up the popular First and Third Flatirons, which are close to central Boulder. The main routes up these Flatirons feature run out low-angled slab climbing at a moderate grade. On any given day you can see beginners taking much of the day pitching out the classic routes on these Flatirons, while confident free soloists run past, finishing the same routes in an hour or less.

We weren't planning to go ropeless, but Vass figured we could quickly romp up the Direct East Face route (5.6) on the First Flatiron. This route covers over 1000 feet of climbing, and is traditionally done in around ten pitches, but Vass believed we could knock it off in a few hours if we simul-climbed the easiest pitches, meaning that we would climb together at the same time, at either end of the rope, with several pieces of gear between us. I had never simul-climbed before but I was willing to try it so long as I felt comfortable on the slab. Slab climbing is not wholly unfamiliar to me but my experience in it is limited. Vass has known me a long time, and he knew our route well. I trusted him to know what we could reasonably do. He explained that the first pitch has the hardest climbing on the route. If I could follow the first pitch easily then he figured we'd be fine to simul-climb.

When we met up on Monday, some dark clouds were rolling through the Boulder area, but it looked like it might clear up in short order. We hiked up to the First Flatiron to find another party already bailing off of our route. They'd done the first pitch but decided to come down when it rained for a few minutes.

This was not a great sign.

We hadn't detected any rain on the walk up. We decided to go ahead with the climb. It was getting much brighter out and Vass knew there was a bolted anchor at the top of the traditional pitch two. He would combine the first two traditional leads into one pitch and if the weather was poor we could always bail from there.

I watched Vass calmly lead this extremely run out pitch, using almost the entire length of our 60 meter rope. There are two protection bolts along the way but they don't provide a great deal of comfort. Despite these bolts there are many spots at which a fall would be a very bad idea. Vass got through it all with no worries, getting maybe three gear placements (besides the bolts) in nearly 200 feet of climbing. I was happy I could follow him cleanly without any trouble, though I wasn't sure I felt comfortable enough to lead through this same territory. The early going on this route has pure friction climbing, without much in the way of features for the hands or the feet. Though at first I felt jittery, as I settled into it I started to really enjoy it. The sandstone has a grippy texture and as I grew accustomed to the movement I started to feel more confident in my feet.

(Photo: Vass has just clipped the first bolt on pitch one of the Direct East Face of the First Flatiron (5.6).)

By the time I joined Vass at the belay all traces of rain were gone. It was now a sunny morning. I had to decide whether to lead the next pitch, another 200-foot rope stretcher with very little gear. Vass told me it was going to be easier than the last pitch. I'd felt fine on the rock so far, so I decided to go for it. It turned out to be great fun, and it was indeed easier, with more features to grab here and there. The climbing was mellow; Vass said it was 5.5 but that was meaningless to me when it came to slab. All I cared about was that it felt casual. I found four or five gear placements in nearly 200 feet. I tried to be very precise with my footwork and not to fret about the distance to the gear. By the time I finished leading this pitch I was feeling pretty comfortable with the Flatiron style.

(Photo: Vass following me on our long, sparsely protected pitch two.)

Now Vass proposed we simul-climb the next three pitches. Vass was definitely the stronger climber of the two of us in this environment, given his greater slab and Flatiron experience, and he was planning to go first. This violated the prime directive of simul-climbing, which holds that the stronger climber should go second. This rule exists to minimize the risk of the second falling and pulling the leader down off of the rock. But Vass was thinking that the climbing over the next few pitches would be very easy, with lots of features, and that a mistake in route finding would be the only way either of us was likely to fall. Since he basically knew the way already it made sense for him to go first.

(Photo: Vass heading up our middle simul section of the Direct East Face.)

I went with it and it worked out fine. For at least half the distance I had him on belay as usual but when the rope was nearly tight I dismantled the anchor, took Vass off belay, and started climbing behind him. As he predicted, everything was totally calm and easy.

I led the next two pitches to the summit ridge. The final pitch to the ridge was the best one on the route, in my opinion, with several pure slab moves around a ceiling/corner and into a notch with a crack at the back. This pitch has some committing moments but because it follows a corner and a crack it has much better gear than most of the route. I never felt that I was terribly run out on this pitch.

(Photo: I'm setting off on our pitch four, with a view over to the Third Flatiron. Still sunny!)

Now we were almost atop the First Flatiron, with a scramble up the ridge our only obstacle to the summit. (This last bit is traditionally done in three pitches.) We were in a great position, with expansive views over Boulder and, looking sideways, to the summit of the Third Flatiron. And now that we could see over the back of the formation we had a clear view of the Front Range in Rocky Mountain National Park, including Long's Peak.

But now we could also see some dark clouds about to roll in. Luckily, due to the peculiar geography of the Flatirons, even though we'd been climbing for 1000 feet we were only a single rappel away from reaching the ground behind the leaning cliff from pretty much anywhere on the summit ridge. We could leave gear and bail at any time if we really needed to.

(Photo: Vass racing up to the top as the clouds rapidly roll in.)

Our plan was to simul-climb quickly to the summit where there is a bolted rap anchor. Vass led off as the clouds came closer. Once I took him off belay and started climbing behind him it started to sprinkle. I tried not to worry and was very careful not to do anything stupid. Just then a shirtless free soloist came running past me. He politely asked permission to pass and when I granted it he hurried on, pausing only to utter an expletive about the rain. Soon he was out of sight, and as I resumed climbing, shaking my head, I could tell from the way the rope was being pulled in that Vass had reached the top and that I was now on a traditional belay. Feeling relieved, I finished scrambling to the top in a light rain. As I reached the summit the storm passed over, giving us an opportunity to take in the view from the top for a few minutes before we rapped off and walked back down to Boulder.

I loved the experience of climbing in the Flatirons and would gladly do it again. The unique formations of the area are a real treat, and by the end of the route I started to enjoy the slab mindset, though this kind of climbing only makes sense to me if it is several grades below your limit, making a fall extremely unlikely.

Unfortunately our day was just about shot, even though it was early afternoon and we still had plenty of time left. We drove over to Eldo, hoping to run up the Bastille Crack (5.7). But another, bigger storm came in as we parked. We never got started. After waiting a while in vain for the rain to pass we drove back to Boulder to find that Boulder Canyon was actually dry-- it appeared not to have rained there at all. But after all the driving around and waiting we only managed to squeeze in one more mediocre pitch there before we had to call it quits.

The next day dawned cloudy and damp, with more thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. Vass and I met up at Eldo anyway and found that despite it all everything looked dry. There were plenty of people out climbing at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. The Wind Tower, a mecca of moderate routes, was full of climbers. And there were already two parties on the aforementioned Bastille Crack (5.7), which was no surprise since it is the most popular climbing route in Colorado (and perhaps the world). Its moderate difficulty and proximity to the parking lot make it the High Exposure of Eldo. There is almost always a crowd waiting to climb it.

There were countless other classic climbs in Eldo that I'd never tried so there was no reason to wait for anything. Even though it was looking brighter out we still had the threat of rain hanging over us, so we decided to head up to the huge Redgarden Wall to climb Rewritten, a six pitch 5.7 with a famous airy traverse pitch and a glorious, exposed finishing variation to the top of the cliff up a knife-edge ridge known as Rebuffat's Arete. We figured we could get this climb done without wasting too much time. We decided to up the ante just a little bit by skipping the first pitch of Rewritten and instead doing the popular alternative first pitch of its harder neighbor, The Great Zot (5.8).

By the time we hiked up to the base of the Great Zot it was warm and sunny out. We were in business.

I led up the Great Zot and really enjoyed the first pitch. The crux is puzzling, pulling over an awkward wide crack/pod. Steve Levin's guidebook advises you to jam out of it but Vass told me he'd laid it back. I suppose I chose to jam, but this was not exactly sustained Yosemite-style jamming. This was more like Gunks jamming, throwing a fist in for just long enough to get your feet up so you can grab higher face holds. I'd bet that there are multiple solutions to the problem and the gear is good, so I highly recommend it. At Vass' urging I continued up the easy and loose second pitch of Rewritten and made it in a single lead to the bolted anchor 200 feet up on what is known as the Red Ledge.

(Photo: Already high above the ground after a single long pitch on The Great Zot/Rewritten.)

Vass led the next pitch. It started out a little junky off of the rotten Red Ledge but ended with a fun 5.6 chimney. And then it was time for me to lead the famous traverse pitch, which heads straight left for about fifteen feet. There is a great handrail and wonderful gear, but the footholds are just tiny nubbins. I was drooling with excitement just looking at it. It is not unlike Thin Slabs Direct (5.7+) back in the Gunks, but it is shorter and not as steep.

(Photo: I'm just past the traverse and into the vertical crack on Rewritten (5.7).)

I enjoyed it tremendously, marveling all the way at the perfect tiny toe bumps that appeared just where I wanted them. After the thrill of the traverse, the pitch follows a fun crack system upward. I stopped to belay at a ledge with a dead tree which was at the base of Rebuffat's Arete, the final knife-edge feature to the top of the cliff.

(Photo: Vass reaching the end of the traverse pitch of Rewritten (5.7).)

As I waited for Vass to reach me at the dead tree ledge, I started to grow alarmed.

It was happening again. Rain clouds were headed our way.

Were we doomed to finish every long climb in the rain? This was our third one in a row! It had even happened to Vass and me a fourth time, back in the Gunks a few years back, when we got totally drenched by a sudden storm as we topped out on the last pitch of Lisa (5.6) in the Trapps. We seemed to be in the habit of getting soaked.

This time it appeared to me that we might be cutting it kind of close. This was an electrical storm, though the lightning still seemed to be miles away. We'd left our raincoats behind, at the base of the cliff, thinking we were in the clear.

It was Vass' turn to lead, but he'd led Rebuffat's Arete before and wanted me to have the opportunity. I was eager to lead it-- it looked awesome-- and I wanted to get a move on to get us out of the rain. So I took the gear and hurried onward.

It is a beautiful pitch, incredibly exposed with very good climbing up the thin arete, some 500 feet off the ground. Just as I got to the knife-point edge of the arete and started upward, the rain reached us. The thunder and lightning were still some ways off but everything started to get wet. I tried to motor on up and happily I found the arete to be easier than the advertised 5.7. Gear was plentiful too. I was tempted to run it out but then I started to have morbid (and unrealistic) thoughts of what would happen if I were struck by lightning without gear nearby. Shuddering, I resolved to place gear often, but quickly.

(Photo: A rushed shot of Vass working his way up Rebuffat's Arete in the rain.)

At the top of the amazing arete I was peeved to discover that there was another fifty feet of climbing still to go, up a wall behind the arete! I hustled up an easy crack, getting wetter. Flopping over the top edge of the cliff, I put Vass on belay and silently urged him to move quickly to the summit so we could get the hell out of there. As he climbed I listened to the anxious belay commands of others who, like us, were still working to get themselves quickly off the wall before the situation got serious. I tried to judge the distance to the center of the storm, watching the lightning flashes in the distance and counting the seconds until I heard the corresponding peals of thunder.

(Photo: Vass working to free a stuck nut just below the very top of Rewritten (5.7), 550 feet up, in the rain.)

Once we were both on top we got a brief reprieve. The rain slowed to a trickle as we briskly walked off of the north end of the Redgarden Wall. We'd made it, though we should probably have brought up our raincoats.

I don't mean to be too dramatic. We deliberately chose a route that we would feel comfortable climbing even if it were wet. We were lucky that it only rained lightly until we were basically finished, so we were never truly drenched. Just as we returned to our packs and got our rain gear it began coming down again in earnest, and by the time we got back to the car it was a steady downpour.

We drove into Boulder for burgers and beer at the Southern Sun Pub and Brewery. We figured we were done.

After our meal we went next door to Neptune Mountaineering and browsed for a bit. To our surprise, the weather suddenly seemed to clear up. The bacon cheeseburger and fries I'd ingested were still rolling around in my core and the pint of ale I'd thrown down had rendered me just a little bit light-headed. Vass was supposed to drop me in Denver in a couple of hours, but we still had some time to kill....

Could we climb a little more?

Really there was no question about the right course of action. After a quick "should we?" glance at each other, we ran back to Eldo (with a stop for coffee along the way) and I finally led the first pitch of the famous Bastille Crack.

(Photo: That's me placing bomber gear for the step across on pitch one of the Bastille Crack (5.7).)

It was fun. The crux for me (other than wiping all of the wet dirt off of my climbing shoes) was moving up on polished footholds to the big left-facing flake just 20 feet or so off the ground, with somewhat iffy gear underneath the flexing flake. Once I made this move up I found it easy to reach over and place a bomber cam in the left crack before committing to the step across. The rest of the pitch has giant holds, perfect foot jams, and bomber pro. 5.7 seems like a fair grade. It might be a touch soft for 5.7.

I didn't think this pitch was anything amazing but I didn't get to do the rest of the climb. If the whole thing is as good as the first pitch then it is certainly a worthwhile multi-pitch outing.

With our remaining time I quickly top-roped the Northcutt Start (5.10d), a nice line just to the left of the Bastille Crack. It has interesting moves (easier than 5.10) up a vertical crack in a corner and then a hard crux sequence up and around a bulge to the right to arrive at the Bastille Crack's bolted anchor. The crux sequence is crimpy, with poor footholds. I got flustered trying to figure out how to move up into the bulge and took a hang, blowing the top rope on-sight. Then I committed and just did it, and it wasn't so terribly hard. I could see leading it. The crux is protected by two fixed pitons, a welcome sight for any Gunkie like me.

Now it really was time to go. As if on cue, we heard the sound of thunder in the distance while we were packing up. As we drove out of Boulder I could see our old friend the rain coming into Eldo behind us once again.

I've still barely scratched the surface of the lifetime of climbing that is available in the Boulder area and on this particular trip I can't say I really challenged myself. But the slab and simul-climbing were new experiences for me, and I'm happy with how much we got done in our two days, given the weather situation. I'd love to come back and climb in Colorado again. I'd prefer to do it with a little less anxiety about thundershowers!

But maybe when it comes to Vass and me it is simply our destiny to finish our climbs in the rain.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Secret Gunks Tricam Society: A Major Motion Picture (Soundtrack by Whitesnake)

(Photo: Looking up at the big dihedral ascended by Horseman (5.5). Adrian is barely visible at the outside corner after the traverse.)

The summer always seems to slip on by, doesn't it?

For the last few weeks both of our kids have been at sleepaway camp, leaving Robin and me free to do WHATEVER.

You might think this situation would lead to tons of rock climbing for me.

But for the second year in a row it hasn't worked out that way.

I'm not bitter about this. Robin and I did lots of fun things together. The only slight downside was that these things did not include rock climbing.

We did some outstanding hiking. We had several wonderful days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. First, before we dropped our daughter Leah at camp, we climbed three peaks out of Franconia Notch. We ascended the Falling Waters trail and hiked the ridge connecting Mounts Little Haystack, Lincoln, and Lafayette, then descended the Greenleaf Trail and the Old Bridle Path back to the notch.

(Photo: As you approach the top of the Falling Waters Trail you get a complete view of Cannon Cliff across the notch.)

Though she is not a huge fan of hiking, Leah made it through this rugged nine mile trip like a real trooper. She didn't even give me too much grief when I dropped our camera in a river.

(Photo: Checking out the view with Leah atop Mt. Lafayette.)

After we dropped Leah at camp, Robin and I did three more days of hiking, exploring the Presidential Range from many different angles.

(Photo: Nearing the top of Mt. Adams on a hazy day, with the summits of Mts. JQ Adams and Madison visible behind Robin.)

(Photo: View north from Mt. Jackson towards Mts. Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe, and Washington, though Washington's summit is obscured by a cloud.)

(Photo: View across the Great Gulf Wilderness to Mts. Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, taken while descending from Mt. Washington.)

We also spent a fun weekend with some friends in the Adirondacks, hiking up to the top of Mount Giant on Saturday and doing a little kayaking in the Saranac Lakes region on Sunday.

(Photo: View from the Giant trail of Chapel Pond Slab across the pass.)

(Photo: Robin and I paddling in sync for a brief shining moment. Photo by Karen Froehlich.)

With all of this physical activity, I was at some risk of improving my fitness while the children were away, but fear not: the rest of our free days were filled with a never-ending parade of restaurant meals and bottles of wine. By the time I finally got back to the Gunks last Sunday (after almost a month away), I felt chubby and out of shape.

Nevertheless, before our day of climbing I sent my partner Adrian a list of about fifteen 5.10 pitches I was eager to hit. Some of them were new for me but many were climbs I needed to redpoint after failing on my first (or even second) attempt.

At the top of my list was P-38 (5.10b), a climb that defeated me just a few weeks ago. I was tempted to go right to it when we arrived at the Trapps but we decided instead to warm up on Horseman (5.5).

Adrian led Horseman and to better manage drag he did not clip the fixed pin anchor when he traversed around the corner. Since there was no gear over to the left around the corner, I decided (just for a change of pace) to try the direct route when I followed, going straight up through the overhang and skipping the usual traverse. This has always looked harder than 5.5 to me, but looks can be deceiving. You don't really climb it as a roof but instead do a few casual moves on the left wall, and then very quickly you are back on the regular route. It was perfectly nice but I think the regular traverse is more fun.

With Horseman finished we marched over to P-38. This time I hoped I would remember my beta and get the send.

(Photo: Starting up my arch-nemesis, P-38 (5.10b).)

I was surprised to find myself puzzling through the first hard move over the low overhang, once again. I thought I knew what to do, but I still had to work it out. "Here I go again," I thought.

This brought to mind a song.

A Whitesnake song.

Here I go again, on my own, I sang.

Going down the only road I've ever known!

Then I decided to change it up a little bit:

Like a drifter I was born to climb the stone!

Though I'm nobody's poet I thought this variation wasn't half bad. Adrian then threw in his own contribution:

But I've made up my mind... I ain't climbing no more nines!

Hilarious. Or we thought so. Another one Adrian came up with:

But I know what it means... to climb upon this lonesome wall of seams!

All we needed was Tawny Kitaen.

(Photo: Trying to do well on P-38 (5.10b).)

Anyway, I fought through the first move successfully and then tried to do everything well. I placed good gear and made sure to milk the rest before the crux. Then I moved up and left into the business. I knew what to do; I just had to execute.

But I couldn't make it. Despite the rest, I got pumped out. It was hot outside. The holds felt greasy. And I just felt weak. I started to high step but sensed I was about to slip. I had to hang. It took me a few more tries to get it done. Finally I did the move and it felt so much harder than before. Maybe this just wasn't going to be my day.

I felt very out of shape indeed.

Adrian managed to follow it cleanly, which he made sure to mention repeatedly.

Next we moved down to the Mac Wall. Adrian wanted to climb Higher Stannard (5.9-). He'd tried to get on it the day before but there was a slow party on it so he never got around to it. It is a favorite of mine so I was happy to follow him on it. I hoped it would give me a clue as to what I could lead next. I felt so pumped out after P-38 that I wasn't sure whether I should try to lead anything else that was challenging.

(Photo: Adrian near the start of Higher Stannard (5.9-).)

Adrian did a good job on it and I felt fine following it, to my relief. I cruised through the crux blank face and enjoyed the rest of the consistent, 5.8-ish face climbing.

(Photo: That's me following Higher Stannard (5.9-).)

Now I had a dilemma: what to do? Should I try to lead another ten? We talked a bit about Try Again (5.10b), a climb I first attempted this past April. We also talked about MF (5.9). This would theoretically be easier than Try Again, but is it really? I think MF has more sustained difficulties than Try Again. Adrian was shocked that I'd only done MF the one time, three years ago, in the rain. Adrian doesn't even live around here and he's done it several times.

I decided to do a test run on MF and see if I felt up to Try Again.

(Photo: In the early going on MF (5.9). Photo taken by Debra Beattie while climbing Something Interesting (5.7+).)

We only did the first pitch. I enjoyed it a great deal and while I wouldn't call it casual I felt it was well within my limits. The crux move around the corner takes real commitment, even though the gear is good. It requires unusual technique, and balance. This is a very high quality pitch with a hard move right off the ground, then the real crux at the corner, and another final hard bit over a bulge to the chains. 

(Photo: Adrian at the corner crux on MF (5.9).)

I felt good enough on MF to hop right on Try Again. Adrian was gracious enough to let me lead twice in a row.

Back in April I'd taken three tries to figure out the hard roof. I hoped that with the beta in my mind I would get through it on the first try this time. And I hoped I'd feel strong enough.

(Photo: Trying again on Try Again (5.10b).)

Well, I tried again to do everything right. I successfully negotiated the slightly sketchy 5.9 move off the ledge. Then I got up the two corners below the roof, clipped the pin, and managed to get into the rest position.

So far, so good, but as I tried the roof I was mystified. I couldn't get over it, and I couldn't remember how I did it the last time. I took a hang. Then I fell. I fell again and kept right on falling.

Here I go again, on my own.....

Finally I realized that I'd been missing a crucial hold, right there in front of my face. Once I spotted it, I used it and got over the roof, furious with myself and exhausted.

It just wasn't my day, I guess.

(Photo: Adrian on Try Again (5.10b).)

Adrian didn't do much better than I did on Try Again and by the time we were done with it he was feeling pretty wiped out and ready to quit. He had a long drive back to Montreal ahead of him. We decided to head back to the Uberfall area where maybe I'd lead something quick if it was open.

We found Apoplexy (5.9) available so I hopped on it.

There was a ranger behind us hanging out at his truck as we began the climb. Right before I started up, Rich Romano rode up on a mountain bike and started chatting with the ranger.

Now, I don't know Rich, though I have introduced myself to him once or twice. I see him around the Gunks all the time. It is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the boldest and most prolific route developers of his generation. He basically single-handedly developed the entire Millbrook cliff without the use of a single protection bolt. While filling in the lines at Millbrook he put up numerous R/X routes in the 5.10-5.12 range, several of which are so scary they have never seen a second ascent.

He is a giant among men.

I was conscious of him being there as I began the climb but I was able to put it out of my mind relatively quickly. I am comfortable on Apoplexy and didn't mind an audience.

Soon I passed the scary flake where it can be hard to find good gear. It can be hard, that is, unless you know about the secret pink Tricam placement. I will happily let you in on this intelligence if you like, inducting you, dear reader, into the Secret Gunks Tricam Society.

Here is the beta, free of charge:

There is a shallow pocket just up and right of the scary flake. It won't take a cam but if you pop a pink Tricam in just right, with the stinger facing up, it will catch on a little lip giving you a solid placement. Set it with a flick of the wrist and you are good to go. BOMBER!

I had heard for years about this secret placement but I gave up on it after trying once in vain to find it. Later, when I was climbing Apoplexy on another occasion with Gail, she suggested I look again and I was able to make it work. I wasn't sure how solid it was but when Gail followed the pitch she bounce-tested the piece and it held. So now when I climb Apoplexy I have no worries at the flake. I pop in the secret Tricam and I move on.

(Photo: Apoplexy (5.9), with the secret Tricam in place. I'm in the photo up at the top, almost done with the chimney finish.)

As I passed the flake the other day with Adrian, I wasn't listening to Romano or the ranger but Adrian later reported to me that Romano said something to the ranger about how difficult it is to protect Apoplexy through the middle. And the ranger then pointed up and said "I don't know about that. This guy found the secret Tricam placement!"

"This guy" was me.

When I heard this story I felt very proud. I only wished I'd heard it at the time. I could have basked in the glory of the secret Tricam placement and danced that much more lightly up the rock.

Despite this undeniable triumph, it was hard not to leave the Gunks thinking that I have a lot of work to do. I am out of shape and I need to get back in it if I want to make progress. I haven't been cycling and I've gained a few pounds.

Sending season is just around the corner. I don't have tons of time, but if I just get a little more fit in the next month I'm sure I can get back on track by the time the good weather hits. In addition, I have a big trip planned to the Red River Gorge in October and I want to be in good shape for the overhanging jug fest that the Red is known to be. I don't need to be hauling any spare tires up the steepness.

Perhaps I am hard on myself. Hot weather saps the energy and makes everything feel greasy. I should be happy that climbs like Apoplexy and MF-- routes that inspired fear in me a few years ago-- are my safety choices nowadays. If in years to come, as I get even more over-the-hill, I can still feel unfazed about attacking climbs like MF, I hope I remember to feel great about it.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Better Redpoint than Deadpoint? P-38 (5.10b), Precarious Perch (5.9+) and Fun Moderates in the Uberfall

(Photo: Nani on Classic (5.7).)

We are about to embark on the great sleepaway camp trek of 2014. My wife Robin and I are taking the kids to New Hampshire, dropping them off, and then we will take a little time off to do some hiking in the White Mountains.

I am very excited about the hiking, don't get me wrong.

But let's face it: hiking isn't climbing.

Friday was supposed to be a beautiful day in the Gunks, so I decided to start my little vacation with an extra day for climbing. I made plans to meet up with Nani so we could climb together for the first time this year.

Nani and I have been partners almost as long as I've been climbing. She's been there for some of my big climbing moments, both highs and lows. She was there for some of my first 5.9 leads, and she was there when I broke my ankle in a climbing fall in 2009. But for the last couple of years she's been in and out of the climbing habit and we've seldom been able to get together. Recently she's been getting back out there and she's decided to focus on getting used to trad leading, an aspect of the game that she's flirted with uncomfortably for a long time. I'm really psyched for her and I hope I'll have the opportunity to watch her grow into the confident leader I know she can be. I know that her climbing and gear placement skills are both very strong. She just needs to get used to handling the climbing and the pro at the same time and then she'll be ripping it up out there.

On Friday we got up to the Gunks to find it was a beautiful a day, as predicted. Since it was a weekday we had our pick of lines and we gave in to the temptation to stay close to the parking lot.

(Photo: If you follow the rope you'll see me at the end of Classic (5.7); I'm the blue dot up above the roof.)

I warmed us up with Classic (5.7). This was my first 5.7 lead back in 2008. It can be a little scary for the new leader because the hardest move is right off the ground and the pro for the first several sequences consists of fixed pitons. As of this writing the pitons seem solid. One of them was replaced just last year.

(Photo: Nani striking a cool pose during the early bits of Classic (5.7).)

Since this part of the cliff gets insanely crowded on the weekends, I generally avoid the whole area. But the first pitch of Classic is so nice. I forgot how nice it is. The moves are good throughout and consistently thoughtful. As long as the pitons are okay the pro is good too. The roof at the end is all jugs. It's probably no harder than 5.5.

After I led Classic, Nani took a turn leading Jackie (5.5). This is another quality pitch full of good moves.

(Photo: Nani at the finishing roof on Jackie (5.5).)

I always find Jackie a little confusing after the tree about 20 feet up. You can head left up a vertical seam or more easily right past a little ledge. And then you pull past an overlap, either at a right-facing corner at its left end or a few feet to the right. I've never been sure which is the "correct" route and it seems I change my mind every time. It's all good climbing. I think heading up the seam to the corner at the left end of the overlap is the path with the best gear. Nani worked it out on the lead and got through it just fine, despite my poor attempts to point her in the right direction.

A few weeks ago I decided I needed to go get the send on all of the climbs I've failed to on-sight on lead. Last week I managed to knock off one of them, Frustration Syndrome (5.10c). This was a good start but I have a bunch left to do.

So after we finished with Jackie we moved over to one of these climbs I've failed to send: P-38 (5.10b). It had been over a year since my first attempt at the route, but I thought I remembered what to do at the hardest move.

(Photo: Working my way up P-38 (5.10b).)

Well, I guess I waited too long. Turns out I didn't really remember much of anything. I couldn't for the life of me remember how I previously made the first hard move right off of the ground. It took some real thinking and experimenting but I eventually got over the initial hard bit, using a secret toe hold that I don't think I found last time.

Then, moving up the diagonal crack, I got flustered. Hadn't I been able to rest last time? I found the climbing so awkward. And then when I moved left into the crux I got very confused. I wanted to do a step-through move I remembered but I couldn't find it! Where was the pebbly toe hold I was aiming for? It turned out that the step through was still a few moves away. I discovered it again as if for the first time, after a few hangs.

Once I put it together and did the crux properly it felt straightforward. Again. I think there is some kind of lesson to be learned here about memory and expectations. I should have studied the route a little more carefully before I hopped on, and I should have approached the climb with more patience. I wasn't looking and thinking enough. I let my expectations dictate my actions and when reality didn't match my memory I got all messed up.

I know I can do this route cleanly if I go back to it THIS YEAR. I have it all worked out again.

(Photo: Doing the finishing moves on P-38 (5.10b).)

P-38 remains a nice pitch. I enjoy all of it, even the mellow traverse after the crux, and the finishing moves. There is gear everywhere. There has been a lot of run-off this year and right next to P-38 there is a filthy brown streak on the wall. But don't let that deter you, the climb itself is clean.

We decided not to do the Radcliffe walk-off which is right behind the climb. There seems to be a family of vultures inhabiting this descent route and we didn't want to bother them. Instead we scrambled up the notch to the top of the cliff and walked off the Uberfall descent.

It was Nani's turn again so she led pitch one of Dennis (5.5). This is another nice easy pitch with a (surprisingly hard!) "easy" bulge right off the ground and then some fun slabby low-angled climbing right after. The pitch steepens again towards the end. The gear is great for all of the challenging bits.

(Photo: Nani getting solid gear for the hardest moves on Dennis (5.5).)

We rapped off at the tree anchor atop pitch one and made the short journey over to another one of the demons from my past: Precarious Perch (5.9+). This one I failed to send just a few weeks ago. I knew exactly what to do, but still this was not going to be easy. The long reaches between crimps over the crux roof would be hard. I could easily mess it up.

(Photo: Starting up Precarious Perch (5.9++). Look, I can place gear while standing on one foot!)

Luckily it went very well. I cruised through the puzzling 5.8 move to get into the Jean corner and then I had no hesitation during the rightward thin traverse. I plugged in two good pieces below the Precarious Perch roof and got a good rest before firing through it.

I still think it's a 5.10. That roof move is a lunge/dead point. I was able to do it but I could easily have missed it. I can't think of another 5.9 roof like this. Jean is definitely easier, as is pitch two of MF, Keep on Struttin', Grim-Ace Face... I just can't think of any comparable 5.9's.

(Photo: Working on the roof on Precarious Perch (5.9+++). Sorry about the shadow of my arm in the shot.)

Anyway I was glad to take care of Precarious Perch. Nani, who'd danced up P-38 like it was nothing, had some trouble at the Precarious Perch roof. Once she got over it we decided we might as well try pitch two. It is rated 5.8 and someone on Mountain Project once said it was worth doing. Why not check out something new?

I thought it was actually pretty terrible. Pitch two of Precarious Perch has below-average Gunks face climbing with dirty rock that is at times loose. The first few moves up aren't bad, ascending a blocky left-facing corner. But after that it is not very nice. I couldn't find any 5.8 on it, either. I think I might have skipped the crux. I came to a spot with a long reach to a pointed horizontal hold. It looked kind of fragile to me so I touched it lightly. When I did so I thought that it creaked and flexed a bit. My last piece, below me, was a green Alien in questionable rock. I wasn't about to trust my weight to this suspect hold. So I moved to the right just a few feet and easily climbed around it. I probably should have continued traversing another five or ten feet to finish on pitch two of Sixish. It would have been more fun.

(Photo: Coming up the 5.8 pitch two of Precarious Perch.)

When Nani joined me on the GT Ledge I suggested that she could end our day with pitch three of Sixish. The pitch is only 5.4 but it is one of those special Gunks pitches, offering great exposure at a moderate grade as you traverse above the lip of one roof and below another, and then finish up a fun v-notch. The traversing nature of the pitch challenges the budding leader's rope management skills and the climb's finish at the top of the cliff, over a big overhang, can make communication difficult.

(Photo: Doing the traverse on pitch three of Sixish (5.4).)

Needless to say, Nani got it done without any trouble. Like all the other climbs she led on our day together, Sixish is well below her ability level. But of course this was by design, so she could focus on the gear and not on hard moves. These were great confidence-building pitches, I hope, and anyway it's nice every so often to romp up some of these fantastic moderate climbs at the Gunks. It's easy to forget how much fun they are.

I hope Nani and I get out again soon for some more climbing, whether easy or hard or somewhere in between.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A New Route in the Trapps?!? Erogenous Zone (5.10 or 5.11 or something), plus Frustration Syndrome (still 5.10c) and Comedy in Three Acts (5.11a)

(Photo: The view out from the ravens' haven at the belay stance in the cave, on Erogenous Zone.)

I was excited to climb this past Saturday with Kathy, a new partner for me.

She isn't really a "new partner." Though this was our first time roping up together, she and I have been running into each other constantly at the gym and the crag for years. We've talked about routes and shared beta many times, and the conversation inevitably ends with us resolving to climb together. It just never seemed to happen until this week.

I love running into Kathy. She's always about to go on a great climbing trip, or she's just coming back from one. She never fails to have some amazing, ambitious project in her sights. Her enthusiasm is infectious. And her skills are impossible to deny. Through her travels she has become a solid crack climber and lately she's been obsessed with attacking off-widths, so that she can be truly well-rounded.

When we decided to get together on Saturday she told me she wanted to do this new route in the Trapps which she heard about from our local Millbrook expert (and friend of the blog) Chris Fracchia. The new route starts on the GT Ledge to the left of Andrew, inside a big cave at the back of the buttress that houses Twilight Zone. Chris and his friends named it Erogenous Zone.

Chris told Kathy that the first pitch of Erogenous Zone involves a 5.10 off-width crack. This was all Kathy needed to hear, given her recent fascination with wide cracks. If it had an off-width, she was up for it.

I have almost no experience with off-widths but I was game to try the climb. I just hoped I could get up it without making a fool of myself.

First we needed to get up to the GT Ledge. We hiked on out to the Andrew area. I was going to lead our first pitch of the day up to the ledge and I was thinking about two not-so-popular climbs in the vicinity that I hadn't yet tried, Proctor Silex (5.9+) and Man's Quest For Flight (5.8). But as I scoped them out I thought Proctor Silex looked kind of hard and Man's Quest looked really dirty, so I decided to do Silhouette (5.7), a climb that I'd really enjoyed once before.

I liked it just as much the second time around. The face climbing off the pedestal at the start is good, and then the traverse under the roof is really nice. Kathy thought the traverse was kind of thin for 5.7 and I think I agree. The final climbing up a vertical crack system over a couple of crux bulges makes for a beautiful finish. Silhouette has great, varied climbing all the way from the ground to the GT Ledge. I think it is one of my favorite 5.7's.

(Photo: Kathy just over the little roof on Silhouette (5.7).)

Once we were both on the GT Ledge we could see where we needed to go. I quickly led up the start of Andrew's second pitch, moving the belay up about 40 feet to a good ledge directly beneath the big cavern behind the Twilight Zone buttress.

Then Kathy stepped up to explore Erogenous Zone.

(Photo: Figuring out how to get into the wide crack of Erogenous Zone.)

For Kathy the biggest challenge was figuring out how to get started. She had to work her way upward into this bottomless crack. She turned herself around a few times and tested various holds before committing to the wideness. But once she went for it all hesitation disappeared. She slithered into the gap and squirmed her way up inside of it in what seemed like no time at all.

(Photo: Kathy fully swallowed by Erogenous Zone.)

After she finished the hard bit Kathy moved up to a ledge near the top of the cave, where Chris had suggested belaying by an old ravens' nest.

Now it was my turn, and I had the benefit of knowing which holds Kathy had used to get on the wall beneath the wide crack. Still, it took me a little while to get myself in place and commit to hauling my body up and into the crack.

Once I did so I realized that this isn't really an off-width. Technically, I would call it a squeeze chimney, since you get your whole body into the thing. As I pulled up into it, I quickly found myself firmly wedged inside. I knew I wouldn't fall out, which was nice. But I wasn't sure that I could move any further, which was not so nice.

Eventually, with a substantial amount of thrutching and grunting, I managed to move a little bit higher. I heard Kathy laughing at the ridiculous, involuntary sounds I was producing. I'd like to say the indignity of my situation made me even more determined to get the job done, but really I needed no additional motivation. The prospect of spending the rest of my life stuck in this stone coffin was reason enough for me to give the pitch my maximum effort.

I scrunched my way up some more, but then my progress was abruptly halted because my head got stuck. I was wearing a helmet, which (in retrospect) I do NOT recommend for this pitch. I panicked for a brief moment but then I got unstuck somehow and with a move slightly to the left I was able to get my head not just unstuck, but entirely out of the squeeze. Soon my whole body had escaped the chimney, and after I stopped hyperventilating, with victory in hand, I said to Kathy:

"That was awesome.... but I'm never doing that again!"

(Photo: View of the ridiculously overhanging territory ascended by Twilight Zone (5.13b) and its variations.)

Once I joined Kathy at the belay we tried to figure out where the next pitch was supposed to go. It appeared you could traverse out an overhanging orange face on one side of the cave. There was a sloping rail for the hands (but no feet to speak of) and a thin horizontal seam containing a couple of terrible ancient pitons (perhaps a sign of an old aid pitch or an unfinished project?). Chris had said something to Kathy about a single, desperate 5.11 move on this pitch, but to me the entire face looked desperate. And the pro appeared very thin and hard to place.

On the opposite wall of the cave we could easily traverse about fifteen or twenty feet to the v-notch of a different route called Moby Dick (5.8).

Kathy got on the orange wall a few times to see how she felt about it. It seemed very challenging, and we weren't sure this was where we were supposed to go. Maybe we were supposed to do the traverse higher, or was it lower? Was this the correct route or would we be discovering our very own Erogenous Zone (so to speak)?

Eventually Kathy decided she wasn't feeling it and we escaped to finish on Moby Dick. I was relieved. The orange face seemed like it would be scary for both the leader and the follower. Later I took a look at Chris' photos and realized that we were looking in the wrong place. Chris had traversed above, out the ceiling of the cave, which we never considered. When I told Kathy that we were looking too low, she responded with her typical enthusiasm: "Now we have to go back!"

(Photo: Kathy trying to make sense of the orange face after moving to beneath the notch on Moby Dick (5.8).)

I'm not sure I'll ever go back but Erogenous Zone was something rare in the Trapps: an unknown. I was glad we did it and I was pleased Kathy didn't have to hire a crane to haul me out of the squeeze chimney. It was also a good shady choice for this hot day.

We already had four pitches down and the day was slipping away. I needed to get on with my plan. I really wanted to go knock off Frustration Syndrome (5.10c), a climb that had given me fits during the last weekend in June. I figured the Slime Wall would have shade for us and we'd find some other good stuff to do down at that end of the cliff.

We arrived there to find no one around. We had the whole area to ourselves.

I felt strangely nervous as I started up the route. I don't know why. I knew exactly what I had to do. I wanted the red point and knew I could do it. I think I was just worried I'd do something stupid and blow a sequence somewhere unexpectedly.

(Photo: Climbing Frustration Syndrome (5.10c) in June.)

Everything went fine despite my shakiness. Once I got through the initial traverse and stood up in the main corner I calmed down a bit. I got my crux gear and then the hard move up to just beneath the final roof went well. I got a little pumped placing a nest of pro at the roof but when I stepped up into the finishing sequence it was never in doubt.

I felt very satisfied and not frustrated at all this time. Frustration Syndrome is a really nice little pitch with some good technical moments. And if you take the time to place the nuts it is very safe. I have it totally worked out now and I'd lead it any time.

(Photo: Kathy at the technical crux of Frustration Syndrome (5.10c).)

After we were done with Frustration Syndrome, Kathy took a look at some of the 5.11 climbs to its left. The Slime Wall has a whole bunch of these short 5.11 pitches. Kathy had previously led what looks to me like the best one, The Stand (5.11a). So she and I examined the other ones: April Showers (5.11a), Golden Showers (5.11a) and Comedy in Three Acts (5.11a). I was intrigued to see what these climbs were all about.

Though we were by now totally in the shade of the mid-afternoon, both of the Showers climbs felt pretty slimy in the heat and the opening moves seemed just about impossible. Kathy tested the holds a bit but then shifted her attention to Comedy in Three Acts.

(Photo: Kathy approaching the initial rooflet on Comedy in Three Acts (5.11a).)

Comedy in Three Acts is short. The hard bits are really hard. The opening rooflet is challenging and then the real crux comes above at a vertical cleft through a bulge in the rock. At this final crux you have to find a way to use the sloping edge of a little corner and some tiny crimps above it that face the opposite direction. Kathy didn't get it clean but I admired the way she worked at this hard lead. It is a bit heady, since the final crux is protected by a tiny nut and even assuming it holds you could hit the ledge below.

(Photo: Kathy entering the upper crux of Comedy in Three Acts (5.11a).)

After Kathy finished the pitch I hoped there was a chance for me to send it on my first try on top rope but I wasn't even close, sadly. I struggled on Comedy, much more than Kathy did. I needed more than one go at the initial overhang and then the final balance move up the cleft was a toughie. Eventually after several tries I found a way to make the last move and we were done.

(Photo: Starting up Comedy in Three Acts (5.11a).)

I'd like to think I could lead Comedy some time but I'm not even sure I care. I didn't enjoy it all that much. I know there are some spectacular 5.11's in the Gunks. Comedy in Three Acts isn't one of them. It's no Yellow Wall, that's for sure. It is a 45-foot scramble to a ledge with two brief hard sequences on it. And the fixed anchor is pretty manky, with some okay slings tied to a bunch of very rusty fixed nuts and hexes.

Still, even if I didn't think that much of the pitch, it was good to work on some moves above my level, something I should do much more often.

It was time for us to head out. It had been a good day, not too overwhelmingly hot and not at all crowded. I don't mind these summer days when the temperatures are in the eighties and the crowds go elsewhere. If you look for shade it isn't too bad out, and by mid-afternoon, when the sun goes behind the cliff, it can be perfectly pleasant. The only downside is the chiggers, and ugh, they seem to have been out in force for us. I was wearing long pants and I'm still covered in bites.

I'm so glad Kathy and I finally climbed together. I got some good experience in wide crack climbing and we had a very nice, easygoing time. I hope it won't take years for us to do it again.

UPDATE: Check out Kathy's blog post about our day together!