Wednesday, May 6, 2015

No Need for Nurse's Aid (5.10c) on Insuhlation (5.9), Plus More Ridiculliss-ness (5.10d)!

(Photo: Olivier coming up Insuhlation (5.9).)

It has been an eventful few weeks for me, climbing wise. I'm not sure where to begin.

I tried a few Gunks routes that were new to me.

I returned to an old nemesis, Insuhlation (5.9).

I went back at my recent project, Ridicullissima (5.10d).

And holy frijoles, I led pitch one of Nurse's Aid (5.10c)!

It began two Sundays ago, when I got out with Adrian and Gail in a party of three. This was a last hurrah of sorts for Adrian, as he was about to move back out west to Vancouver. He'll be back 'round these parts occasionally, but he won't be driving down regularly to the Gunks from Montreal any more.

Gail and Adrian both knew that my agenda for the day started and ended with Ridicullissima, the climb I'd one-hanged a few weeks before. So the three of us walked in its general direction and looked for something new and different with which to get warmed up on the way there.

We ended up starting out on Faithful Journey (5.7). This was a new one for Adrian and me, though Gail had done it before. Adrian took the lead and made quick work of the first pitch, despite the fact that the route has rather poor gear. There are spaced placements, but they aren't always right where you want them and some of them are iffy. When I followed the pitch I felt like the climbing was a little thin and technical for 5.7. The route has nice moves on clean rock, though the line feels indistinct and a bit squeezed-in between Wonderland and Middle Earth.

(Photo: Adrian at the first hard move on Faithful Journey (5.7).)

Once Adrian reached the usual belay ledge (where the big Middle Earth tree sits), he continued straight up to the next ledge, where there is another tree with some fixed slings. From there I took it to the top of the cliff on what I believe is the last pitch of Bombs Away Dream Baby (5.7). It goes through the roof above the GT Ledge at a small, hanging, right-facing corner, directly above the higher tree with slings.

I thought the Bombs Away roof was nice enough but, again, the gear isn't exactly what you'd want. There are good pieces but they are several feet below the overhang. Falling would not be a good idea. But the climbing is straightforward. There is a good knob to grab over the ceiling and then it's all over.

Our link up of Faithful Journey into Bombs Away Dream Baby made for a pleasant, straight line of poorly protected 5.7 from the bottom of the cliff to the top.

Next we marched on down to the High E buttress. Adrian decided to lay siege to Doubleissima (5.10b). I probably should have bowed out of this one, and just let Adrian and Gail do it while I rested up for Ridicullissima. But I just couldn't turn down a lap on the best 5.10 in the world.

(Photo: Getting into the steepness on Ridicullissima (5.10d). Photo by Gail.)

Following Doubleissima made me tired.

But I didn't know it yet. I stepped up for my big project, Ridicullissima. I thought I remembered my gear beta and the crux moves from two weeks before. And it really went pretty well, for a while. I placed every piece I wanted and moved efficiently up to the crux. It was steep and pumpy, as expected, but I was managing. I sank in my key nut and got through the crux sequence. Grabbing the shelf below the small roof I moved left to the magic toehold I remembered.

(Photo: Placing gear at the crux on Ridicullissima (5.10d). Photo by Gail.)

At this point I should have been golden-- the hardest moves were over-- but I quickly realized I was screwed. I didn't have the guns. I was flaming out below the roof and there was no way to place the piece that I needed. There was a great horizontal crack right in front of my face but I knew I didn't have the strength to let go with one hand and put in a cam. I was pretty certain my crux nut was good (I'd hung on this same nut the last time) and that the fall would be clean, but I was going to cover some distance. The gear was below my feet. I was looking at bit of a whipper.

(Photo: After the crux on Ridicullissima (5.10d), about to tackle the overhang. Photo by Gail.)

I remember yelling something about coming off and then I took the fall. It was a clean fall, as I'd expected and hoped, and apparently it made for exciting viewing. Adrian told me that people were talking about it. Glad to oblige you, Gunks gawkers!

After a bit of a rest I climbed through the crux again and finished the pitch.

We dialed it back a bit for the rest of the day.

(Photo: Adrian on Bonnie's Roof (5.9).)

I was back the following Sunday with Olivier and I was determined to put Ridicullissima finally to bed.

I thought about just hopping on Ridicullissima first thing, but even though we arrived early there was a climber on it, top-rope soloing the route. We met him later; a very nice fellow named Jeremy.

Looking around for other options, I decided to lead Insuhlation (5.9) as our warm-up.

Insuhlation and I have a history together. I broke my ankle on this climb when I took a lead fall at one of the finishing roofs in 2009. After the accident I spilled a lot of ink over it and was set back in my leading for almost two years. Ever since, I have avoided the climb, fearing and dreading it. Part of me has wanted to return to it to vanquish whatever anxiety it still causes in me. But another part of me has thought it would be unwise to tempt fate by climbing it again. What if it all went wrong again and I got injured?

Seriously: what kind of idiot gets himself injured twice on the same climb??

As a great man once said, "Fool me once, shame on..... shame on you? Fool me twice...... uhm, you can't get fooled again!"

The point is that I didn't want to get fooled again by Insuhlation.

But people I respect have told me that Insuhlation is a perfectly reasonable 5.9. I have done the other climbs on this buttress (Obstacle Delusion (5.9) and Teeny Face (5.10a)) and I really like them. I've been feeling more solid than ever before lately. So why not get it over with and put Insuhlation behind me?

It turned out fine. This is a good 5.9. I couldn't make any sense of it. It didn't match my memory. The cruxy bits at the end involve straightforward, steep moves over two overhangs. There are jugs. In 2009, I experienced a wet hold that was sort of like a keyhole and then another mediocre edge that I slipped off of when I fell. In 2015, I couldn't find these bad holds-- the holds seemed great. And the pro was good.

What happened to the climb of my nightmares? Did someone secretly chip out some new juggy holds with a chisel?

(Photo: Olivier at the final roof on Insuhlation (5.9).)

I guess I'm just a different climber than the guy who hurt himself on this climb almost six years ago. I recognize now that I was in over my head back then. I am definitely a much better climber today, and I hope I'm a much better judge of my own capabilities as well.

The climb is nice, though I think I like Obstacle Delusion and Teeny Face more. Insuhlation is the most straightforward of the three, with a 5.8 overhang right above the big tree and then the one-two punch of 5.9 steepness at the end.

(Photo: Olivier scoping out the 5.8 move around the nose on the first pitch of Directissima.)

With Insuhlation finished, Olivier and I walked over to Ridicullissima to find it open. But there was a party on Doubleissima and we didn't want to be right on top of them. Olivier had a good idea. He led the first 5.8 bit of Directissima and then once he rounded the nose of the High E buttress he set up a belay on the ramp directly below the start of Ridicullissima, and I took it from there. This worked out well.

This time around I finally got the send. The third time was the charm. It still wasn't easy.

I felt fresher than the last time but I upped the difficulty level by placing more gear in the crux. Even though I knew my key nut was good I wanted higher pro so I stepped up into the crux and hung in there while I worked out an Alien placement a few feet above the nut. I was glad to have this higher piece but it came at a cost.

I was hurting as I moved left to the notch below the roof but this time I was able to keep going, placing a piece and moving up. I almost blew it at the overhang. I really wanted to get over it and I rushed it, nearly taking a fall. But I hung on and stepped down, cursing. Shaking out, I resolved to set my feet better and then powered up to the stance. With just 40 feet of 5.8 between me and the ledge I knew I could finally relax. It was a great feeling.

(Photo: Getting the send on Ridicullissima (5.10d). Photo by Jeremy, the top-rope soloist.)

By the time we got back down I was hungry for more.

I've recently been sort of fascinated with a climb called Nurse's Aid. I'd never been on it. Both pitches are supposed to be great. The first pitch has a somewhat scary 5.9 face and then a well-protected 5.10c roof. The second pitch ends with what I'm told is a spectacular traverse out a horizontal crack over big air. It is rated 5.10a but the incredible exposure almost renders the grade immaterial.

(Photo: Unknown climber on the wild traverse at the end of pitch two of Nurse's Aid. I took this photo in 2010 while I was rapping off of Limelight (5.7).)

I've been attracted to pitch one of Nurse's Aid because I have really come to enjoy thin 5.9 faces at the Gunks, on climbs such as Proctoscope and Turdland. And the 5.10c Nurse's Aid pitch one roof looked huge and exciting from below. Seemed like an awesome challenge.

When I suggested it to Olivier, he seemed worried for me. He'd followed this pitch and he felt that the pro was hard to place during the 5.9 face. He also recommended I take his purple Number 5 Camalot for the wide crack just before the business. I looked in the guidebook and saw that Dick recommends a black Camalot for this section. I thought the black cam was the old-style Number 4 so I took my new-style Number 4 instead of Olivier's Number 5.

I should have listened to Olivier and taken the Number 5. I headed on up, negotiating a lot of crapola rock in the first 50 feet of the pitch, and staying to the right of a poison ivy patch (!!) behind the big boulder sitting on a ledge. I started to wonder if this climb was really a good idea. Then I arrived at the beautiful orange and white face beneath the roof. I got my Number 4 into the wide horizontal at my feet but the cam was a little bit too small. I had to place it off to the right where the crack narrowed a bit but the cam was still kind of tipped out. A Number 5 would be perfect right beneath the moves, though even with an ideal placement at your feet, if you blew the first moves up onto the thin face you'd hit the ledgy stuff below. There's no avoiding it.

(Photo: Alex Honnold (see below) on the first pitch of Nurse's Aid (5.10c). My friend Maryana took this photo after Olivier and I left the area. Honnold is standing right where it starts to get serious, and according to Maryana he had not yet found it necessary to place any gear.)

This is where you have to be careful. Two delicate moves up, and you have an opportunity for questionable/hard to place gear. I managed to get what I thought was a good Alien in a strange pocket. It was still another easy-does-it move up before I got undeniably solid pro, and then came a really excellent thin traverse to the left with tiny crimps before the move up to the big roof.

This was great climbing, very committing. A little heady, with fun technical moves. It could have ended there beneath the overhang and I would have been happy. But there was more: a solid 5.10 roof problem. Some big reaches with outstanding gear, and then a very airy step to the right over the void and into an easier hanging corner which takes you to the GT Ledge.

This is a huge pitch up to the ledge, with a ton of climbing on it. The first fifty feet is terrible and yet the overall experience is still amazing. I was proud to on-sight this pitch. It felt pretty damn good. I'm still on a high from it.

At this point I was fried. Neither Olivier nor I wanted to tackle pitch two.

The Sunday Gunks show was going on all around us. The Arrow wall to our left was a gridlocked nightmare. A leader was standing at the first bolt on pitch two of Arrow (5.8), waiting for a follower above, who was stuck at the second bolt, taking fall after fall.

When we got back down to the ground we found that some pro climbers were hanging out next to our packs, along with an entourage. They were in the Gunks as part of the ROCK Project, offering climbing instruction, participating in a clean-up day at the crag, and getting in a little climbing to top it all off.

(Photo: Brittany Griffith headed up Feast of Fools (5.10b) with Alex Honnold offering a belay of sorts.)

Pretty cool to see Alex Honnold at the Gunks. I heard he later did Nurse's Aid and looked bored, placing almost no gear. I'm pretty sure he didn't bring a Number 5 Camalot with him, but he managed to get by without it.

We didn't stick around to watch for very long. It was such a scene there at the Arrow wall and we just wanted to do a little more, easier climbing before heading out.

(Photo: Olivier on Bloody Mary (5.7).)

I don't know what the rest of the year holds but so far 2015 has been has been very exciting and rewarding for me. Seems like all the work I put into fitness this winter is really paying off and that I'm breaking through to a new level. I feel great out there. I keep knocking on wood and pinching myself.

I can't believe it is about to get hot. I don't want the spring to end.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Mountain Momma! A Few Days in Seneca Rocks

(Photo: That's me leading Crack of Dawn (5.10a). Photo by Gail.)

The plan was for Adrian and I to take a trip to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia.

I would drive down from NYC. Adrian would fly from Montreal to Dulles Airport, where I would pick him up en route.

Then we would RAGE on the rocks for four days.

Gail decided to join us. She found a fourth, her friend Jeff. They were coming from Philadelphia and would meet us down at Seneca. I arranged a cabin for us all to share, and we were all set.

Until the day of the trip actually arrived, that is.

I was about an hour away from Dulles Airport when I found out that Adrian's flight had been cancelled. He wasn't going to make it. Also our first two days were supposed to be nice, but days three and four were going to be very rainy.

With Adrian out, what was I to do? I could climb with Jeff and Gail in a party of three, or I could abandon the trip and head back to New York.

After a flurry of text messages, I decided to bravely press on. Gail and Jeff were fine with the idea of climbing in a threesome. Jeff was a seasoned veteran of Seneca who seemed eager to play tour guide. Gail had been talking to Jeff about my ambitions and he already had a list of climbs he wanted to put me on. With no flight schedules to worry about, the three of us could stay for two days instead of four and come home once the weather turned.

We ended up having a great time. Over our two days in Seneca, I did the lion's share of the leading, as Jeff generously picked out climb after climb for me. Jeff was more than capable of taking the sharp end-- he is a 5.11 trad leader-- but he had done all of these climbs before and enjoyed watching me work to on-sight many of his favorites. Gail got to do some solid leads as well. And I got to follow Jeff up a few harder pitches that I'm grateful I didn't have to lead.

(Photo: Seneca Rocks. The North Peak is on the left, South Peak on the right.)

I loved pretty much everything about Seneca Rocks.

Before the trip, I worried that the place would be intimidating. Seneca has a stout reputation. We've all heard people say that Gunks ratings are sandbagged. But there are many who claim that the Gunks' reputation for stiff ratings is radically overblown, and that the REAL sandbag area in the East is...

Seneca Rocks.

It turned out that Seneca's reputation is well deserved. But I was instantly comfortable on my feet at Seneca because the rock felt a lot like the rock in the Gunks. The difficulty ratings, too, were in my opinion pretty consistent with the Gunks, though I would say the typical Seneca climb is steeper and more sustained than the average Gunks route, making it seem more challenging.

We spent our whole first day on the West Face of the South Peak, in the area known as the "Face of 1000 Pitons." This is one of the prime areas at Seneca, with many classic climbs stacked right next to each other.

Jeff put me right to work on Triple S, a 5.8+ testpiece which Jeff described as "the best 5.8 in the world." It is a destination climb, the High E of Seneca.

(Photo: At the first crux on Triple S (5.8+). Doing it like a chimney here. Photo by Jeff.)

It was a pretty rude warm-up but it went off without a hitch and was very enjoyable. The climb is dead vertical, up a right-angled corner for the entire length of the pitch. The left wall has lots of holds, flakes, and variations, while the right wall is mostly flat and blank. There are interesting moves throughout and, as I see it, three crux sections on the way to the anchor. You can use a variety of techniques, sometimes stemming, and sometimes putting your back on the right wall and climbing it like a chimney. As is typical in Seneca, you can place gear almost anywhere due to the vertical crack that runs up the back of the entire corner.

(Photo: Stemming it out a bit higher on Triple S (5.8+). Photo by Jeff.)

After we all took a run on Triple S we shifted our sights to Marshall's Madness, a 5.9 just a few feet to the left. The first pitch of Marshall's is short, just forty steep feet up a vertical crack system and over a small roof to a bolted anchor.

For some reason I started feeling nervous and I messed up on Marshall's Madness. Just a few moves off of the deck I managed to take a lead fall (with a perfect cam right in my face). I wasn't jamming the crack like I should have been and instead I reached to the right for a face hold that turned out not to offer a lot of purchase.

Mayan Smith-Gobat says "A hand jam is as good as a bolt." I wish I felt this way. Maybe someday.

(Photo: Marshall's Madness (5.9), take two. Photo by Gail.)

Feeling like an idiot, I went back at Marshall's Madness and this time it seemed easy. This really isn't a hard 5.9. It is kind of pumpy for just two or three moves. Once you pass these moves, the roof is probably just 5.8. The pitch has good climbing but it is brief.

(Photo: Gail on Marshall's Madness (5.9). Photo by Jeff.)

After watching Gail and Jeff waltz up Marshall's Madness (Gail pronounced it easier than Triple S!) I got set to belay Jeff on Mongoose, a 5.10d just to its left.

This pitch doesn't merit a star in the guidebook and there is no entry for it on Mountain Project. It must be unpopular. But it has high quality climbing all the way, following a steep, clean finger crack up to the left side of the same overhang that Marshall's Madness goes through.

When we did the route it was a little bit wet at the crux, increasing the difficulty. For Jeff the hardest part seemed to be in getting gear he liked in the thin crack. He got two pieces eventually but they seemed finicky and very strenuous to place. He struggled with the placements for a while, stepping up and down. Once Jeff had satisfactory gear he made the difficult-looking moves up to the overhang and then blasted over the ceiling to the belay.

(Photo: Jeff working hard to get gear at the crux of Mongoose (5.10d). Photo by Gail.)

Now it was my turn. I managed to follow Mongoose cleanly, but boy, I thought this was a hard 5.10. Very steep and strenuous, with tiny footholds through the crux. I was glad I didn't have to place the gear. (I couldn't see Gail when she ended up following this pitch but I think she found it very challenging as well.)

Maybe I was getting a taste of the Seneca sandbag effect? When I reached Jeff at the anchor, the plan was for me to take over the lead and to climb straight into a famous pitch called Crack of Dawn (5.10a). I had dreamed of coming to Seneca and doing this climb. I hoped I was ready for this. After taking a fall on Marshall's Madness and barely squeaking by on Mongoose I wasn't so sure.

To my relief, Crack of Dawn ended up going very well. It erased all my doubts.

(Photo: Finishing the crux bulge on Crack of Dawn (5.10a). Photo by Gail.)

This is a great, great pitch. My favorite of the trip. It starts up a wide crack shared with pitch two of Marshall's Madness, but pretty quickly you have to swing out right (exposed!) to the base of a hand crack through a roof. After you crank over the roof, a few more overhanging moves (all of it with great gear) take you through a bulge and then easier, lower-angled climbing leads to a ledge with an anchor.

I probably should have jammed more than I did, but I managed to get through it cleanly regardless.

A 5.10 on-sight lead on my first day at Seneca! It felt great.

(Photo: Jeff nearing the top of Crack of Dawn (5.10a), trailing a rope for Gail.)

What next? Jeff suggested a face climb to our right called Breakneck Direct (5.10b). The route follows a vertical finger crack which begins about twenty feet off the ground. Jeff warned me that when he'd led it he hadn't found too much gear in the first twenty feet, but he assured me that the gear is good once you reach the crack.

I didn't know that this was the optional "direct" start to the Direct. It is apparently easier (and probably better protected) to come into the crack from the left. Unaware of this, I went straight up to the crack through an initial rotten band of rock that takes you over a small overhang. The climbing here isn't awfully difficult, but protecting the moves requires creative placements in questionable rock. I was really happy to reach the crack, where I could plug in some reliable gear.

(Photo: Breakneck Direct Direct (5.10b). Photo by Gail.)

For the rest of the way the rock is solid and the moves are consistently thin and challenging, using the vertical finger crack and occasional small edges on the face. This climb has no stances. It is technical all the way to the bolted anchor, and though there is no one especially hard sequence, the tension builds as you get higher. Just before you reach the bolted anchor the crack thins out to a tiny seam and you have to keep it together for the last move with some small gear below you (I had a blue Alien).

I was thrilled to make it to the top cleanly. This was one of my proudest on-sight leads anywhere. Jeff seemed to approve.

(Photo: Gail on Breakneck Direct Direct (5.10b).)

At this point I was mentally drained.

We ended the day with another nearby climb: the first pitch of Neck Press (5.7+). Gail stepped up to lead this pitch, which ascends a beautiful curving corner. She made it look very easy but when I followed it I thought the final, overhanging moves up the corner were tough. There are some thoughtful, awkward moves in there. Maybe I was just tired.

(Photo: Gail on Neck Press (5.7+). Photo by Jeff.)

It was time to retire to the Front Porch (one of the only restaurants in town) for some surprisingly good pizza, a great view of the cliffs, and wifi.

On our second day Gail and I really wanted to do one of the longer routes that goes to the summit of one of the peaks at Seneca. Jeff had several suggestions for us.

We started out taking the hiker's trail up to the observation deck at the northern end of Seneca Rocks. From there we went around the back of the formation and traveled south past the East Face of the North Peak, picking out some climbs to do along the way to one of the summit routes Jeff had in mind.

Right away, just past the observation deck, Jeff suggested I warm us up with Streptococcus (5.9). This is a short (50 foot) route up a clean face with a zig-zag hand crack. I really liked this route, though I wish it were a little longer. I negotiated the initial moves up to the crack, then hesitated a bit while I examined the crux bits to come. While I stood there sussing it out (was that next hold out right a jug, or was it nothing?), Jeff kept talking about a poor woman who'd had a fatal accident on the route a few years ago. Apparently her gear ripped out.

Jeff meant well, but he seemed to go on and on about how he couldn't understand how the gear failed on such a G-rated route. As I stood there listening, the holds seemed to get smaller and smaller and my bomber gear started to look worse and worse.

(Photo: Streptococcus (5.9). Photo by Jeff.)

I began to get a little freaked out even though I knew deep down that everything was fine. I needed to get on with it. Stepping up into the crux, I placed two perfect cams, asked Jeff to PLEASE stop talking about people dying, and carried on.

Next we moved down to another good 5.9 called Desperado. This one is high quality for a full 100 feet, with a delicate step across to a stance beneath a ceiling, then a good crux getting over the roof, and finally some technical moves in a left-facing corner above.

(Photo: At the roof on Desperado (5.9). Photo by Jeff.)

I really liked Desperado. My only reservation was that I felt the pro for the roof was a bit iffy, even though I managed to get placements. I had a decent nut in a tiny crack under the roof, but the cam I placed overhead was in a slot that flared a bit more than I would have liked.

At every stance I tried to sing a bit of the song, for luck.

"Desperado, why don't you come to your senses...."

(Photo: Jeff working on a variation called Desperado Direct (5.11b). Photo by Gail.)

These single-pitch routes were fun, but the day was already slipping away. It was time for our summit route.

We negotiated a complicated system of ledges until we found ourselves beneath the impressive East Face of the South Peak. Jeff directed us to Conn's East Direct (5.8), which would take us in two short pitches to a large ledge about halfway up the face.

(Photo: Looking up at the East Face of the South Peak, with several climbing parties visible high on the face.)

Gail took on the first pitch of Conn's East Direct. The crux of this pitch is right off the deck, with polished slopey hands and small footholds. There is no gear for these first few moves, which earns the pitch a PG/R rating in the guidebook. Gail led calmly through it and then got a great nut at the first available crack. Jeff gave her a spot until she had some pro in. I think she would have been fine even if she'd blown it. During the difficult moves her feet were only a few feet off the ground. Still, this pitch feels pretty necky while you are doing it. It is a solid lead. Once Gail was through the early crux she cruised up the somewhat interesting, widening crack to the first belay ledge.

(Photo: Gail on Conn's East Direct (5.8). Photo by Jeff)

Jeff led pitch two, which again has a quick 5.8 crux right off the belay (a layback up a corner), with good gear. Then it is easy going up a ramp to the big shelf.

Several different routes ascend from this shelf to the summit. When I joined Jeff and Gail at the ledge Jeff offered me two choices: Alcoa Presents (5.8+) or Orangeaid (5.10b). He described them both as classics.

I took one look at Alcoa Presents and wanted to do it. It appeared to be a beautiful climb up steep rock. I knew that by not leading Orangeaid I might be passing up my only shot at a 5.10 on our second day, as it was already well after noon and we had to leave with time to drive up to Philadelphia in the evening. But it was sunny and hot out, and in the moment, sweating and thirsty there on the ledge, Alcoa Presents looked difficult enough for me.

It turned out to be a good choice. I loved Alcoa Presents. It was probably my favorite pitch of the trip after Crack of Dawn. It starts with steep climbing up juggy rock, and then the footholds get very thin in the technical, shallow corner that leads to the summit. Little holds in the corner and some flakes out right provide passage to the top. In the crux corner there is an overdriven aluminum piton which gives the route its name. It is pounded in too far for it to be clippable with a biner but you could run a sling through it if you wanted to. There was other gear nearby so I just ignored it.

(Photo: Gail at the crux of Alcoa Presents (5.8+).)

As we reached the summit of the South Peak we got a great view of the improbable formations that make up Seneca Rocks. When you are close to the ground Seneca feels like any other crag, but as you gain altitude you become very aware that the seemingly solid cliffs are really nothing but huge shark's fins made of stone, which at their summits are less than a meter thick.

(Photo: Looking north from the top of Alcoa Presents (5.8+). The climbers in the foreground are at the top of Conn's East (5.6). In the distance you can see much of the overhanging West Face of the North Peak, with a climber at the chains on Madmen Only (5.10a) and another climber beneath him, halfway up the face. There is also a climber visible atop a climb on the opposite side of the formation.)

Up atop Alcoa Presents we were a few feet shy of the true summit but through a hole in the cliff (which functioned like a ship's porthole) we could see through to the town and countryside on the other side of the South Peak. We could also look sideways to see practically the whole North Peak, which to all appearances was as thin as a sheet of paper and which leaned dramatically towards its West Face in the manner of the famous tower in Pisa. There were some climbers on a West Face route called Madmen Only. As I looked at them it seemed entirely possible that their weight alone would be enough to tip the whole North Peak over, sending it straight to the ground like a trap door slamming shut.

I wasn't sure how much more we would get done after our summit route but I stacked the deck against us by getting our rope stuck on our last rappel from Alcoa Presents. Another party eventually freed the rope for us but we ended up waiting around a while.

Jeff had some routes in mind on the South End, so after we retrieved our rope we headed down there. By the time we got to the South End, what with the 80-degree heat and the hike around the formation, I had to say I was pretty beat. I was glad Jeff was looking to lead something, so I wouldn't have to.

He finished our little trip with a climb called Muscle Beach. The second pitch has some 5.11a cracks but Jeff was planning on just the first pitch, which goes up around a small 5.10 roof.

As usual, Jeff did a solid job and sent the pitch. I was able to follow it cleanly as well, which felt good at the end of a hot day. It is steep, awkward, and in your face for a few moves. I enjoyed the climb but it wasn't one of our most memorable pitches. I was happy just to see the South End, a cool area of Seneca with a huge cave and lots of odd blocks and corners.

(Photo: Jeff in blocky terrain on the 5.10 first pitch of Muscle Beach. Photo by Gail.)

As we walked out Gail remarked that we'd circumnavigated the entire area on our second day. We really got to see a lot.

I thoroughly enjoyed Seneca Rocks. It doesn't have nearly the amount of climbing that the Gunks has, but what it has is of very high quality. And the climbs are of a sustained, steep nature that the Gunks doesn't often provide.

I'm very grateful to Jeff for showing us around and allowing me to lead so much! He really made it easy for Gail and me to have a great experience.

And I was pretty happy in the end with my performance on the routes. For the most part I was comfortable on all the routes we tried. I left having on-sighted two solid Seneca tens, which felt pretty darn good.

I could see returning to the area once a year. I'm definitely going to need a Seneca fix again, and a year seems like a long time to wait!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Ridiculliss-ly Nice Day in the Gunks

(Photo: Olivier on Birdie Party (5.8+).)

Last Sunday was a beautiful day-- finally!-- in the Gunks.

I was climbing with Olivier, a friend of Gail's from Philly. I'd met him several times around the cliffs, but we'd never roped up together before.

With sunny skies and highs expected in the low sixties, the conditions were just about ideal.

I was very excited, because I was finally going to see what condition I was in. I'd been out three times in March but it was so cold I hadn't felt comfortable trying anything new or difficult.

Now, however, there were no excuses. It was time to try something.

I worked hard over the winter to try to improve my climbing.

The most important step I took was to enroll in a coaching program/webinar with the training guru Don McGrath. Don's expertise is in the mental aspects of the climbing game. His approach isn't entirely mental, to be sure-- he believes physical fitness is very important. But he is not on the bandwagon with all of the recent training bibles which would have all climbers hangboarding and campusing their way to 5.13 (or perhaps to elbow and pulley injuries). Instead his primary focus is on the mental barriers which cause us to quit before our bodies really need to quit. He attempts to help climbers realize their potential by overcoming these barriers, many of which are related to fear, such as fear of falling and fear of failure.

You can read all about it Don's excellent book The Vertical Mind (written with Jeff Elison).

My friend Gail worked with Don last fall. She has struggled with her lead head and has shied away from leading climbs anywhere close to her real physical limits for years. She was happy with Don's advice and I could see the results as 2014 came to a close. Gail was out there on the lead much more often and on harder climbs, too. Gail told me that Don was offering a winter program and when I checked it out I decided to sign up. Why not?

It turned out to be an insanely good value. Don provided a set of general fitness videos he made himself, and designed a set of climbing exercises for us to perform in the gym to improve endurance and technique. He also gave us a blueprint for a weekly schedule of working out and climbing that we would follow over the course of the eight-week program, and he advised us on picking goals that we would attempt to reach during our time together. Last but not least, there was a weekly webinar in which we would all talk together as a group about our goals and progress. During the weekly webinar Don would also present a short lesson on a specific topic, such as advanced footwork or practice falls. And outside the weekly call Don was always available by email if we had questions or wanted advice. All of this for just a couple of hundred bucks!

I enjoyed the whole program and got a lot out of it. Though all of it was useful, I found two parts of the program to be most helpful to me personally: Don's general fitness videos and the goal-setting part of the course.

Don's general fitness videos convinced me to change my workout regime entirely. For many years my main exercise other than climbing has been cycling, but in recent years I've been bored to tears with it and have only sporadically kept up with it because I find riding in the park in NYC to be such a tiresome chore.

I did Don's twenty-minute workouts for a few weeks and decided I really enjoyed them. Then I took it a step further and started doing P90X3, the third iteration of the wildly popular exercise program from fitness king Tony Horton. Really P90X3 isn't so different from Don's videos (both programs feature high-intensity short workouts which tax a bunch of different muscle groups) but my wife Robin has been doing the original P90X for some time and I have come to enjoy Tony Horton's style. I was already thinking about trying it, and Don's program was just the push I needed to get going with it. I'm now most of the way through the P90X3 cycle and I feel like not only have I gotten more fit, but I'm stronger in ways that match up better with climbing. My core strength has increased, and with all of the yoga and other similar exercises my balance is better too. I'm working out antagonistic muscles to my climbing muscles (lots of push ups!), so I feel my muscles are less out-of-balance as well.

By forcing me to set concrete goals, Don showed me that I've been seriously holding myself back in the climbing gym. I picked some gym climbs to "project" that I thought were surely above my pay grade, but when I tried them it turned out that I could already do them! My mind was completely blown. Eventually I picked some climbs that were so hard that I couldn't send them before they were taken down. The process of working on these harder climbs made most of the climbs in the gym feel so much easier than before. I finished the eight-week course climbing much much harder routes in the gym than I was doing when I started out. Don made me open my eyes to my true potential, which was much greater than I realized.

My success in the climbing gym made me very excited for the outdoor season to come. I resolved (once it finally got warm) to pick some Gunks climbs outside my comfort zone, routes that I had always assumed were too hard for me, and to try them.

Before I met up with Olivier I identified two such climbs: Coexistence and Ridicullissima. Both are 5.10d but I don't think I'm saying anything too controversial if I argue that they would be 5.11's in many other places. They are both generally regarded as hard testpieces.

Olivier had been out climbing on Saturday and he was very easygoing about whatever I wanted to climb on Sunday. Maybe he was overwhelmed by my extreme enthusiasm.

I didn't want to just hop on Coex first thing so we did some warming up.

After a quick run up to the bolts on Birdie Party (5.8+) we started looking around for another good climb to do. I asked Olivier if we could take a look at Ruby Saturday Direct (5.10a). This is reputed to be an "easy" 5.10, with a single crux move on pitch one, and then a sustained, steep 5.9+ section on the traditional pitch two. I had never been on it and I was intrigued to check it out after Gail and I so enjoyed its neighbor Anguish (5.8) a few weeks ago. Olivier had done it before and was willing to do it again.

I led the first two pitches in one to the GT Ledge. It went very well. The first pitch has a few interesting moves right off of the ground and then the crux comes pretty quick, a thin section through a bulge. I thought the crux was a good move and not too hard. But the crux hold and the crux gear depend on a little left-facing flake that might rip off one day. The flake looks suspect but it feels pretty solid. I wouldn't want to be holding it when and if it breaks.

(Photo: Olivier finishing the overhanging 5.9+ section of pitch two of Ruby Saturday Direct (5.10a).)

After the crux, the climbing is casual up to a nice shelf where the second pitch begins. Once you move up to a long shelf, you hand traverse to the right and then follow the obvious holds upward through a sustained steep section. This was really good climbing, I thought. Good gear, too.

I liked Ruby Saturday, though I do not know that I'll be back to repeat pitch one. The first pitch is just okay. It is a decent quick 5.10, if that is what you are looking for. The second pitch, on the other hand, is great. This pitch would be a wonderful link-up with the first and third pitches of Anguish (as the guidebook recommends).

Olivier quickly joined me on the GT Ledge. He suggested we take the third pitch of Glypnod (5.8) to the top. This pitch is just a little bit left of Anguish/Ruby Saturday and it follows an obvious right-facing corner with two overhangs. I had never been on it before. Olivier put it up, getting great pro at the early crux ceiling. When I followed I was impressed. Like Anguish to its right, this is a tough 5.8! A committing, burly layback gets you over the first roof. The crux is brief, however, and the rest of the way is easy and a bit bushy/dirty. This pitch is worthwhile for its great crux, but I do wish the good stuff continued a little longer.

(Photo: Olivier headed quickly into the business on pitch three of Glypnod (5.8).)

With four pitches down it was time for me to hit my project climb. Coex was occupied. So we trooped on down to the High E buttress to find Ridicullissima available. The climb was in the shade. Conditions couldn't be better.

I started to feel very nervous. Before this day I had never even considered leading this climb. It seemed obvious that it was too hard for me. I wasn't sure how technically demanding the climbing was going to be. (I top-roped it once before, in 2012. But I couldn't remember anything about it.) It looked very steep. I knew the gear was supposed to be very good. I told myself there was nothing to worry about, so long as I made sure to be safe and place pro. Eventually I started upward.

I did not send it. But I came somewhat close.

There are two 5.8 crack systems right next to each other at the base of the buttress. I took the right-hand crack up to the little ledge at forty feet, because I've always been told it has better gear than the one on the left. Then I led straight into the Ridicullissima pitch.

It gets steep very quickly. After negotiating some hard, overhanging moves past a little rooflet and placing a lot of pro along the way, I reached a vertical crack below a small ceiling. This crack is probably the crux section. I spent too long hanging in there at the base of the crack, fiddling in some nuts, shaking out. Once I was satisfied with the gear I botched the sequence, getting my hands reversed. I tried to regroup, stepping down to go for it again, but the pump got to be too much and I eventually took a hang.

After taking a rest I did the crux move (it wasn't so bad) and then continued up over the (hard) overhang to a very welcome stance. I can't remember what I said but I know at this point I let out a few loud utterances. It felt really good to get over the difficulties, and everyone in the immediate vicinity found out how good it felt! I knew from this stance onward the angle eased and the climbing to the GT Ledge would be no problem.

Whew! This pitch is AMAZING. It may be my new favorite. It is steep and difficult for quite a ways. The movement is beautiful and there is gear everywhere. Now that I know the basic sequence and the gear at the crux I think I will send it soon.

(Photo: Finishing up Ridicullissima (5.10d).)

Mostly I'm just thrilled that I tried Ridicullissima, and got through it in control and very safely. It would have been awesome to send it on the first go, but just getting confirmation that I can handle it is an exciting thing.

If I can attack this climb in April, what else is on the horizon this year? As Kevin would say, what's my Dawn Wall? I have lots of legendary Gunks climbs in my sights: Fat City Direct (5.10d), Erect Direction (5.10c)..... dare I say Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a)??

Maybe in time.

Olivier and I then did another pitch that was new to me-- the 5.8 pitch to the top which Dick Williams calls the final pitch of Doubleissima. This one starts at the right end of the coffee-table block on the High E ledge. There is another 5.8 pitch further right which Dick describes as the finish to Lakatakissima. I did that pitch on the right last year with Nani and liked it very much. The one on the left is good too, juggy and pumpy, though not quite as difficult as the one on the right. I don't think these two pitches get done all that much, which is a shame. They are good climbs.

After we got back to the ground it was time to dial it back and do some easier stuff.

What an awesome day. Great weather and great climbs, so many of them new for me. The season has officially begun.

This weekend I am headed to Seneca Rocks for four days, and if it doesn't rain all weekend maybe I'll even get some climbing done! We shall see.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Anguish (5.8?) of a Long Winter

(Photo: Adam on Directissima (5.9), doing the pumpy crux traverse.)

Hello, my climbing friends.

It has been a while. When last we spoke, it was early December. The climbing season of 2014 was winding down.

Little did we know it, but we were in for another long winter.

As of this writing-- a few days after the official start of spring-- the wintry conditions remain.

And what have I done with the last four months?

I managed to avoid ice climbing for the entire season, again. I did plan to go once with my ice-loving buddy Adrian, but we ended up bailing on our chosen day because it was too cold! Yes, it was too cold for ice climbing. The idea of shearing off brittle plates of ice with every swing of the axe, in temperatures hovering around the minus-ten degree mark, seemed like no fun at all.

I did get out climbing on rock a few times.

My new partner Adam and I went to the Gunks on Christmas Day. It had rained the day before but Christmas was unseasonably warm and sunny. The slight breeze and low humidity dried most of the cliff pretty well. There were streaks of runoff everywhere, but many routes were acceptable... though the cruxes always seemed to be wet. (Doesn't it always work out that way?)

(Photo: Adam heading up Strictly From Nowhere (5.7), weaving between the wet streaks.)

We found a bunch of classic climbs we could do, and really, what more could you ask for? It was a Christmas miracle.

Adam is working his way through the 5.7's and 5.8's. Many wonderful Gunks moderates are still new to him. He reminds me of myself, just a few years ago.

(Photo: That's me, linking Strictly's into Shockley's Ceiling (5.6). Photo by Adam.)

After we did a few pitches I asked Adam if he had any climbs in mind-- the whole cliff was open to us. No one else was around. Adam started rattling off a list of three-star classics he'd never tried. After hearing a couple of them, I had to interrupt.

"Directissima? You haven't done Directissima? Oh my God, let's do that!"

(Photo: I'm at the crux of Directissima (5.9). Photo by Adam.)

Such a joy to usher someone else up an old favorite. I took care of the slightly scary 5.8 & 5.9 bits and handed it off to Adam for the beautiful 5.6 arete pitch and the High E finale.

It was a very good day.

We had no such warm, dry days in January or February.

As March rolled around I was starting to feel pretty desperate.

Previously I have held to a general rule that I would not go rock climbing unless it was above 40 degrees outside, for the whole day. So a high of 40 wouldn't do; you'd need the high to be closer to 45 or 50 so that temperatures would be in the 40's throughout the day. I arrived at this rule after I went out climbing a few times when it was in the 30's and found that my fingers got numb and tingly on cold rock, making it difficult to feel confident in my grip.

Of course, real mountaineers deal with this sort of thing all the time but there's no reason to subject yourself to this sort of torture just for a day at the crag, right?

But as March started to pass us by, it seemed like we weren't getting many days in which my minimum temperature would be met. I started to soften my position. I needed to go climbing.

Adam and I got out again on a Sunday in which the predicted high was something like 43. But I don't think it ever actually got that warm. It was 37 degrees when we left the car and I suspect the temperature never left the thirties. There was a foot of snow on the ground. But the rock was pretty dry. I'd say it was dry-ish. Seepy in spots.

(Photo: Adam on City Lights (5.8-), through the hardest moves and about to enter the easy runout.)

I started our 2015 season with Son of Easy O (5.8). The rock felt cold to the touch. My fingers, as predicted, began to go numb and I felt insecure holding on through the opening cruxy thin face. But I got over it and things improved from there. It was great to be back in the Gunks, regardless of the circumstances. I was occasionally too cold, but mostly okay.

Adam ticked off a nice 5.8 lead with City Lights, which he took to the top in one pitch. I can't believe I've never posted before about City Lights. It is a great classic I've enjoyed several times. It is a good lead for breaking into the grade because there is only one hard move with great gear, at the two triangular pods close to the ground. The route is a little run out higher up, in 5.5-ish territory, but not too bad. The second 5.6 pitch is also nice, up a steep corner and face.

I got my first 5.9 lead of the year out of the way with Apoplexy, which at this point may be the climb I've led more than any other. I haven't grown tired of it yet.

(Photo: Adam at the 5.7 crux of pitch two of Morning After, with quite a bit of snow still visible on the ground.)

Though my 37-degree day with Adam worked out surprisingly well, I resolved to wait for a little more warmth before going back out there again.

But then Gail reached out to me one Monday and asked me if I might like to take a day off of work to climb with her on Tuesday. It was only going to be about 38 degrees but we could expect some sunshine.

How could I refuse? I told her I was in.

Gail has had the worst winter imaginable.

Her husband Mitch passed away recently, just a few months after it was discovered that he had cancer. He was only 55 years old. It is a devastating loss.

If you are a reader of this blog, then you know that Gail has been my most regular Gunks climbing partner for the past four years. She is one of my favorite people in the whole world. I tend to rush into the Gunks to climb and then rush right back out again, so most of our time together is spent actually climbing. Gail and I haven't spent nearly enough time hanging out with our families, so I never got to know Mitch in the way that I know Gail. But I did climb with him a little and I hung out with him a little. I got to know him well enough to see what a kind, genuine person he was, and how deeply he and Gail loved each other.

Writing about him like this, in the past tense, seems impossible. He was just here! I saw him right after Thanksgiving, at Gail's house in Gardiner. It seems like yesterday. I had stupidly injured my eye and Mitch helped me set up an eye bath in their kitchen sink. It was classic Mitch-- he was helpful and generous but at the same time he gave me a gentle ribbing for the idiocy I demonstrated in sticking hydrogen peroxide directly into my eye.

This was not a proud moment for me and it was a very brief interaction between the two of us but I will never forget it, because everything was normal. He was Mitch, the same guy he'd always been, strong and funny. Within a few days everything changed for him and Gail. I can't make any sense of it and I don't know how Gail can even begin to process it. I do know that Gail is a very strong person and that she can overcome any challenge. (I realize how trite that must sound, but it's true.)

(Photo: Mitch and Gail in 2012, at the base of Never Never Land.)

I didn't know what Gail had in mind for our climbing day but I was so happy that we could get together. It had been months since I'd seen her one-on-one and I hoped returning to climbing might be a comfort to her.

We had a good day together, climbing and talking. We started late because it was still below thirty degrees when I arrived at Gail's house. And once we finally got out there, I got a little numbness in my fingers again as I led Sixish (5.4).

But the sun was out and it really helped. The highlight of our day was a climb called Anguish (5.8). I've written about this climb before, back in 2012. That was the only other time I've been on the route. On that occasion I led pitch one, but I chickened out of its crux 5.7 move: a left exit from a little alcove. I was afraid to commit to the move back then, because my last gear was at the back of the alcove and I didn't like the potential fall if I failed at the crux. So I escaped right.

This time, in 2015, I still couldn't find any higher gear. Gail told me that she's seen someone get a C3 at the lip of the little overhang but I couldn't make anything work. In contrast to 2012, however, this time the crux move didn't trouble me, so I went ahead and climbed out to the left and it was quite enjoyable. As soon as you commit and make the one move out of the alcove you find jugs and gear, but be careful: if you blow this one move it could be bad news for your ankles.

Once we were both on the GT Ledge I got set to lead the 5.8 pitch, which I'd followed in 2012. I couldn't remember much about it. I recalled that my partner Matt found it challenging and that he'd found a piton up there somewhere.

It turned out to be a doozy. This is a tough tough 5.8! From the ledge (immediately left and around the big corner from the Three Pines descent route) you can see up above you a hanging, right-facing corner beneath a ceiling. You need to work your way up to the top of this hanging corner and then exit left to get over the roof. Right from the start this pitch is steep and in your face. You have to move up, then make a thin traverse right, move up again and make another thin traverse left to the base of the hanging corner.

There is gear along the way but once you reach the hanging corner, your only pro for the crux move up to the roof is a junky old piton. I was glad to clip it but I sure didn't want to fall on it. If I fell and it broke I was looking at a nice swing to the right. It was a little bit tense for a minute there but I made the move and, with relief, slammed a red Camalot into the crack beneath the overhang.

The rest of the way is pleasant and just below the top of the cliff there is a surprise: a short, fun, slabby section on white rock reminiscent of the Arrow wall.

In 2012 I said that I didn't think too much of the first pitch of Anguish but now I think the whole climb is great and very worthwhile. I would warn you, however, that both cruxes are somewhat serious. I would not want to fall at either one. I'd say Anguish is a very good 5.8 for the 5.10 leader.

(Photo: Gail at the end of our day on another sandbag 5.8: Dirty Gerdie (5.8+).)

I squeezed one more cold climbing day into March this year. I met Adrian last Saturday, setting a new record low temperature for me, as far as rock climbing in the Gunks is concerned. The expected high was only in the low thirties, and there was a chance of snow. I would have called it off except that I knew Adrian was coming down from Montreal for the whole weekend and I didn't want to strand him without a partner on one of his two days.

When we got started it was below freezing and snowing. (Flurries came down all morning.)

I nearly went to pieces at the crux on our first climb, Squiggles (5.4). I was standing at the piton, about fifteen feet off the ground, just beneath a roof. I needed to move right to a crimp to avoid the overhang but my hands were cramping and burning from the cold. I wasn't sure I could hold on to the crimp and I started to panic. Eventually I stepped down so I could back up the pin and stick my hands in my puffy jacket to warm up.

"What are we doing here?" I wondered. "Is this fun?"

After I warmed my hands a bit I got going again, finishing my successful on-sight of Squiggles. It's actually not a bad pitch. Short, but good rock. Interesting moves up the ramp and around the roof.

(Photo: Adrian following my bold lead of Squiggles (5.4).)

While we waited for it to maybe get a little warmer we top-roped the two 5.10's right next to Squiggles: Squiggles Direct (5.10b) and Jacob's Ladder (5.10b).

These were both new to us as well and they too are not bad climbs, though like Squiggles they are short. Both climbs feature thin technical face climbing with quick cruxes. The rock is solid. Neither climb has any gear for the crux but the cruxes are close to the ground. With a couple of bouldering pads you could probably highball them, if you're into that kind of thing. Caveat emptor: I don't boulder.

(Photo: Adrian past the low crux on Jacob's Ladder (5.10b).)

We did some more easy stuff around the Uberfall, hoping it would warm up, but it never did. It was so cold out that at one point Adrian took a sip of his Gatorade and gave himself an ice cream headache.

We had a good time anyway. Climbing is really about the people, isn't it? It was good just to be out climbing together.

We finished the day on a high note. I was about ready to pack it in when Adrian suggested we do Retribution and Nosedive (both 5.10b).

If Adrian was willing to lead 5.10 then I guessed I had to do it too.

We trudged on over and Adrian chose to lead Nosedive, the climb on the right.

I wouldn't say it was without any shaky moments for him but he gutted it out, sending the pitch cleanly for a strong early-season performance. As the follower I had no issues with the climbing, but the sun had gone behind the cliff and my fingers started tingling and burning again. Luckily Nosedive has stances, so I was able to stop periodically to put my hands in my pockets.

I wasn't really feeling like leading anything at this point, much less a 5.10, but when I reached the top of Nosedive I decided I might as well lead Retribution. I know the climb backwards and forwards and it has good gear, so I could always hang if I needed to.

(Photo: I'm past the crux on Retribution (5.10b). Photo by Adrian.)

It went fine and it allowed me to leave the cliff feeling pretty good. I felt solid on all four tens we climbed on our cold day together and once it warms up a little I hope to hit some new ones.

Bring on Spring, PLEASE!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Blind Leading The Blind

(Photo: Will setting off on pitch two of Arrow (5.8).)

With this year's climbing season in its last days, I wanted to achieve something. I'd been out twice in November and while I'd redpointed one of my longstanding Gunks 5.10 projects I needed more.

Right after my easy Uberfall Sunday with Gail it was due to get pretty warm-- on Tuesday the high in the Gunks was supposed to be 52.

I had to get out again.

I couldn't end the season yet. I arranged to take a day off from work and found a partner on Mountain Project named Will.

Like my other new partner Andy, Will had learned to climb out west and had very little Gunks experience. I was happy to introduce him to some of my favorite local climbs, and I hoped this time to get on at least one 5.10 and maybe something new and challenging as well.

I was thinking about hitting Balrog (5.10b), so we warmed up nearby on Absurdland (5.8). The climbing was free and easy. I felt really good, and much less tired and tentative than on Sunday.

Unfortunately Balrog was wet, so we took a pass on that route. We moved over to the Arrow wall, where we ended up spending the rest of our day. I sent Will up to lead the 5.8- pitch one of Three Doves and he did a fine job. I had only done it once before and I was surprised at how good it was. I think this is one of the best of the lower pitches on this wall. It has two pleasant little overhangs and then an interesting, delicate, it's-all-there, face-climbing crux at the top of the pitch.

(Photo: Will on the 5.8- pitch one of Three Doves.)

I led pitch two of Three Doves (5.8+), one of my favorite 5.8 pitches in the Gunks. The face climbing past the pin is just so good. And the finishing traverse is great too. But this time I decided to skip the usual traverse and to do something new instead. Once I passed the crux moves over the pin I headed left instead of right, finishing on a roof problem at the top of a climb called Hawkeye (5.9+). (Below its roof, Hawkeye is overgrown and does not appear to be well protected.)

(Photo: Hawkeye (5.9+) goes through the big roof at the cleft that is at the center in the above photo.)

Just getting up to the Hawkeye roof from Three Doves involves a thin step up past a horizontal. It is good climbing. And then the roof itself is OUTSTANDING. There is great gear at the base of the cleft that splits the roof, and the move up over the roof is technical, burly and exciting. Clean rock, unique moves, great gear: what more could you ask for? I thought this was as good a 5.9 roof as I have experienced in the Gunks. It is every bit as good as the roofs on Grim-Ace Face or CCK Direct. It is a great way to finish Three Doves.

(Photo: Will just past the Hawkeye (5.9+) roof and about to move over to join me at the Three Doves (5.8+) anchor.)

After we got down from Hawkeye I decided to introduce Will to Feast of Fools (5.10b). I led pitch one and I'm proud to say it felt almost casual. I had no worries at the initial overhang and at the second crux I found it so much easier than the last time to hang in, clip the pin, and then step back down to shake out. As I fired through the moves up the little corner and reached the chains I felt like a different guy from the leader who slowly wormed his way up this same pitch last year.

Vegan POWER, my friends.

(Photo: Will on Feast of Fools (5.10b).)

We ended the day with two of the best climbs in the Gunks. I led the 5.6- pitch one of Limelight (not bad climbing but surprisingly sparse gear), and then Will took the lead for the crux pitches of both Arrow (5.8) and Limelight (5.7).

(Photo: Will at the Arrow (5.8) crux.)

I saw that Will went to the right at the upper bolt on Arrow. This is one of those great Gunks debates. Are you a left-at-the-bolt person or a right-at-the-bolt person?

I have always gone left, doing a pretty tense mantel move on the beautiful blank face-- the same move I worked out the very first time I climbed Arrow (my first 5.8 lead back in 2009). When I followed Will this time I tried going to the right instead and I was shocked to find it much easier than going left! I think if you go to the right at the upper bolt, Arrow is actually 5.8. If you go left it is harder. Who knew?

On Limelight, we had a little bit of drama. Will pulled up over the overlap that begins the crux portion of the route, and then I could see him start to struggle. He was standing on the unusual thin flake, perched on tiny footholds, barely keeping it together. He was tense and kept shaking out both of his hands. It turned out that his hands had both cramped up at the same time. This was a new experience for him, probably the result of dehydration plus the stress of leading. His left hand was clenched up so tight that he couldn't get it to open! He ended up using his mouth to pry his fingers away from his palm.

Eventually he worked through it, placed a piece, and resumed climbing. He sent the pitch.

Good work, Will.

The sun set as we were finishing with Limelight, so our day was done. We packed up and started walking out. By the time we got down to the carriage road it was completely dark out. On the way out I mentioned to Will that I'd never really climbed at night by headlamp, and that it might be fun.

As if on cue, as we passed the Madame G buttress, we heard a male climber yelling from high on the cliff to his partner, telling her that he had alerted the rangers. This got our attention.

We called up to the climbers, asking if they needed help. It turned out that the leader, a climber named Bob, had led the second and third pitches of Madame G (5.6) in one pitch, as leaders often do. But he'd started late in the day and by the time he'd put his partner on belay it was dark. He'd given her his headlamp but she was inexperienced and she was very afraid to follow the climb in the dark. She'd tried to do it but eventually she gave up and retreated to the tree atop pitch one.

Bob had asked her to untie and pulled the rope all the way up. I gather he was planning to rap down and get help. His partner was stranded one pitch up, and all of Bob's gear was left hanging on pitches two and three of Madame G.

Bob's mess was an opportunity for Will and me to be heroes. We sprung right into action, ascending the treacherous (unpaved!) approach trail to the base of the cliff and gearing up for the technical (5.4), lengthy (50 foot) pitch one of Madame G. I took the lead, volunteering for this dark journey into the unknown, my path lit only by my (insanely bright) headlamp. If I could successfully climb to the ledge where Bob's partner was stranded, I would then have the challenge of rigging a rappel in the inky black gloom of night using only my wits (and the fixed rappel rings on the tree).

In truth this may well have been the easiest rescue in the entire history of mountaineering. We had Bob's partner down in about ten minutes. She was a bit shaken up by the whole experience but she was fine. Once Bob knew Will and I were on the case he walked off from the top and met up with the rangers back in the Uberfall. As Will and I walked back down to the carriage road with Bob's partner, the rangers drove up with Bob in tow and we all got a lift back to the parking lot in the rangers' truck.

Will and I had a good time doing a very minor good deed and I finally got to climb at night. So it was all good fun from our perspective.

But poor Bob lost a lot of his gear. I hope he learns a little bit from the experience. He might have been wiser to stick to some single-pitch climbs until he had a better idea of what his partner could do. Certainly doing a long, wandering route like Madame G, so late in the day, was a poor choice. Bob placed himself in a position where he could neither rap down to collect his own gear nor descend directly to his stuck partner.

Bob sure learned his lesson the hard way. He posted to Mountain Project, asking politely for the return of his gear, and it appears he has gotten nothing but abuse for his trouble. Some of the abuse is perhaps justified but I don't think he deserves to lose all of his stuff. I'm sure someone has cleaned all the gear by now but no one has come forward to return it. I hope the person who cleaned the gear is just letting Bob suffer a bit; maybe eventually he or she will return it.

We all make mistakes.

Case in point: I was back in the Gunks on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and had the opportunity to make a big mistake of my own, though my mistake had little to do with climbing.

Right after my warm day with Will, an early-season winter storm came through the area, dumping six inches of snow on the Gunks. The temperatures hovered at around freezing for a few days thereafter, but on Sunday it was expected to reach 46 degrees, which was warm enough for climbing but not so warm that we'd see a total melty slushfest. Or that was my hope, anyway.

Gail thought I was crazy. But she was up at her house in Gardiner anyway so she agreed to climb with me if I really wanted to make the trip.

Of course, I did want to make the trip. Forget the snow-- I was still clinging to summer! And I'd been feeling so good lately, on Try Again (5.10b) and Feast of Fools. Maybe we'd find a dry 5.10 to send. It could be a last hurrah for 2014. We had to climb.

I woke up that morning and as per my usual routine I started to insert my contact lenses. I was using some cleaning solution that I'd never used before. This was a sample-sized bottle that I'd picked up as a freebie at the optician when I'd bought a new supply of my lenses.

I assumed this was the usual saline, but in fact it was a hydrogen peroxide solution. I had never used such a solution before; I didn't know anything about it. I hadn't bothered to look at the directions and I had failed to notice the special case that comes with this type of solution. I soon found out that if you don't neutralize the hydrogen peroxide solution with the special case, the hydrogen peroxide can severely burn your eyes.

Ignorant of all this, I rubbed my contact lens with the poison solution and then put it into my right eye. It was as if I'd lit my eye on fire. The pain was intense. It took all the effort I could muster to pry my eye open and remove the lens.

With the damaged eye clamped shut and the other one in tears, I tried to read the blurry, small print on the sample bottle and saw that it said something about how this solution is not intended to go directly into your eye. There was also some nonsense about the red tip on the bottle, which in theory is supposed to act as a warning. It remains a mystery to me how the uninitiated are supposed to know that the red tip is such a warning.

At the time, believe it or not, my main worry was not my eye but my climbing day. I needed to get moving or I was going to be late!

I flushed the affected eye with some water and in five or ten minutes it seemed like it was improving. I could keep the eye open, which was progress.

I got my crap together and drove off to the Gunks.

When Gail and I arrived at the cliff the conditions didn't look so bad. We were not the only climbers attempting to make a go of it. There was snow on the ground and the ledges but many walls were basically clear and dry.

We walked in and saw a lot of sun hitting the Jackie/Classic wall so we decided to set up shop there. I threw down my tarp, took my gear out and led Classic (5.7) to get us started. It was my second time on the climb this year. Again I was impressed at the quality of the face climbing, with really nice moves for the entire length of the pitch. It was a little bit wet under the finishing roof, and my fingers started to freeze a bit as I held on in the dampness and placed gear. While she was belaying me Gail occasionally had to dodge melting snow bombs as they fell from the trees. But these were small concerns. It was good to be climbing.

(Photo: Gail on Classic (5.7).)

As Gail followed the pitch I noticed my eye was getting worse. It was sensitive to direct sunlight. I couldn't stare up at Gail for more than a few seconds. There was a burning sensation. And it felt like something was stuck in the eye. It was hard not to rub it constantly. It was becoming a struggle for me to keep it open.

Nevertheless I soldiered on. Neither of us had ever done Classy (5.8), a variation to the right of Classic. So we did it. I led again. The first several moves of Classy are shared with Classic but then as Classic goes left, Classy heads upward to a left-facing corner system. There are some interesting moves up the corner system and then a pumpy traverse left (with good hands and thin feet) to the roof, where after one move up you are forced to merge again with Classic for the finish.

(Photo: Gail on the Classy (5.8) traverse.)

Classy is no Classic but it is good, and worth doing. I liked the moves up the corner and the traverse. And the gear is decent. The guidebook says it is 5.6 R before you reach the big corner but if you clip the third pin on Classic and go straight up there I don't think it is worse than PG. The rest of the way there is good gear; there is a great slot for a red Camalot right in the middle of the traverse.

I tried to put my injury out of my mind while I was leading Classy but as soon as I came down I realized it was getting worse and worse. It dawned on me that whatever I'd gotten in my eye was not adequately flushed out and it was continuing to do damage.

Gail and I tried to get some water into the eye at the base of the cliff using my Camelback but this effort was ineffective and a little ridiculous. What were we even doing there? I couldn't continue like this. We had to abort our climbing day.

Gail drove us in my car back to her house in Gardiner. She and Mitch and her son Max were incredibly kind, helping me set up a water bath for the eye in their kitchen sink. I flushed the eye repeatedly until I couldn't take any more. The eye was so inflamed, it felt like a smoking, radiating ruin. Curtis LeMay would have approved.

I needed to get home to Brooklyn but I wasn't sure I could drive. Gail and family had to head back to Philly and they quite reasonably and charitably offered to drive me in my car most of the way to NYC. But I wanted to wait. I hoped that in a few hours I'd be more sure that I could drive. So I insisted that they should go, and I would wait at Gail's house until I felt fit to drive. I could even wait until the next morning if I really had to.

I stayed a few hours and then decided to go for it. I couldn't say the eye was any better but I thought I could force it to stay open for the drive.

It turned out to be really hard to force the eye to stay open. The drive home was a nightmare. I was in pain the whole way and I worried that I was creating a hazard on the road. I stopped repeatedly to flush the eye with more water. When I finally got home I debated going to the ER but instead I sat in a dark room with my eyes closed until I fell asleep.

The next morning it felt a little better, though everyone who saw me was quick to tell me it looked terrible. The eye was still quite red and swollen. I resembled the Hunchback of Notre Dame after a bar fight. I saw the ophthalmologist and she gave me good news. Even though the white membrane covering my eye was distressed and swollen, my cornea looked surprisingly good and I would likely be fine in a few days. She gave me some steroid eye drops and sent me on my way.

The eye has since improved and is pretty much normal again, thank goodness.

What a way to end the year-- with both heroism and ignominy.

It has been a good year for me overall. I had some great climbing trips to Yosemite and the Red River Gorge. In the Gunks I've made incremental progress, working my way just a little further through the 5.10 grade. I've made some new climbing friends and I hope to just continue the same trends right into 2015.

And who knows, maybe there will still be a little more climbing in 2014 yet!