Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New Ice Climbing Website:

It's been pretty frigid in the New York City area these last few weeks, which has got me thinking about ice climbing.  I have very little experience in it and I don't own the gear, but I'm eager to get out a few times this winter.  Given how cold it is all this week, there might be some good lines in this weekend in the the Catskills and the 'Dacks. 

It has just come to my attention that there's a brand new website dedicated to ice climbing in the Catskills:  In addition to regular conditions updates (which you can also find at the Alpine Endeavors website and on's forums), the creator of the site is adding guidebook features including topos to the most popular ice climbing areas.  It looks like a site worth watching, and I'm adding it to my list of links over on the right side of my page.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gunks Routes: Oscar's Variation (5.7), Strictly From Nowhere (5.7), and Shockley's Ceiling (5.6)

Strictly From Nowhere (5.7) and Shockley’s Ceiling (5.6) are both great classics. But both have flaws.

Strictly’s has a fantastic first pitch, highlighted by the final bit of climbing up into an overhanging corner, and then around right to a bolted anchor. The easier pitch two begins with nice juggy climbing to the GT Ledge, but unfortunately this is over quickly, and then the rest of the way to the top is undistinguished and dirty.

On Shockley’s, the third pitch is the real business. The climbing through the namesake ceiling is followed by a fun dihedral and then another, smaller roof crux.  It is a world-class pitch, with great protection at the crux and very exciting moves at the moderate 5.6 grade.  But the two pitches that precede it involve pretty forgettable 5.4 climbing, in my opinion.

As I (and others) have noted before, by combining these two climbs, doing Strictly’s to the chains, then doing a short 5.easy pitch up and right to a belay beneath the ceiling, and then finally doing Shockley’s third pitch, you get one of the best moderate multipitch climbs in the Gunks. But I recently went back and tried Oscar’s Variation (5.7) just to the left of Strictly’s, and I think the addition of this variation to the climb makes it even better.

Oscar’s Variation is easy to find. Only a few feet left of the start of Strictly From Nowhere is a prominent left-facing corner that goes up about 50 feet. Oscar’s variation climbs the corner. The pro is great; There is a crack in the back that will allow you to place gear at will. The climbing is very good, and I thought a bit stiff for 5.7. There are a couple of bulgy moments where the fingers are locked into that crack, but the feet are thin, and a committing step up is required. Remember to make use of both walls. When in doubt, stem!

In Williams’ guidebook, he suggests doing Oscar’s Variation as one pitch, and then doing Strictly’s from that point up to the chains as another pitch. But there’s really no reason to break the climbing here into two pitches. It is only 100 feet from the ground to the chains, and when I led it recently there were no drag issues created by doing Oscar’s and Strictly’s together in one pitch. Putting them together makes for a much more sustained and varied start to the climb, and I recommend it highly. You don’t lose much from Strictly’s if you start on Oscar’s.  You’ll still climb the part of Strictly’s everyone comes for: the overhanging final moves to the anchor. I don’t really have any advice to offer about this part of the climb except that you should just place some gear and then keep on moving. The holds are great, don’t worry.

Now, the other week when we did this climb, I was sending my partner Adrian up from the chains to do the crux pitch of Shockley’s. It occurred to me that there was no reason to stop and build a belay before the crux roof. I was pretty sure you could go from the chains on Strictly's to the top of Shockley’s in one 60 meter pitch—it couldn’t be more than 200 feet from the chains to the top of the cliff, right?  It turned out I was right, but not by much.  My partner Adrian made it to the top and had enough rope left over to build a belay on a tree set back ten or fifteen feet from the cliff edge.  But he used the entire length of the rope to do so.  It is a rope stretcher of a pitch, and of course the actual length of various 60 meter ropes will vary, so your rope might not make it with quite so much room to spare.  With a 70 meter rope you wouldn't have any stress about the rope length at all.  Another caveat:  I wouldn't do the crux pitch of Shockley's this way if I were being followed by a new climber who might have trouble with the crux ceiling.  It might be wiser in that circumstance to build a belay right after the ceiling, as Williams suggests in his book. 

Doing Oscar's to Strictly's to Shockley's as two outstanding pitches is to my mind one of the best moderate climbing experiences the Gunks has to offer.  You get crack and corner climbing, followed by juggy steepness, and then a classic roof problem followed by still more quality rock to the top of the cliff.  It just doesn't get any better than that.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Help a Climber: Rich Romano

I only know Rich Romano by his reputation as the primary developer and caretaker of Millbrook cliff in the Gunks.  Known as "The Manager of the Bank," Romano has essentially single-handedly developed this cliff, putting up countless 5.10 and 5.11 R-rated routes over the decades without placing a single bolt.

Romano had a serious accident recently in Idaho.  Richard Goldstone, another legendary Gunks climber, has started a campaign to raise some cash for Romano's medical bills.  I reprint his appeal in blue below:

Rich Romano, one of the most prolific climbers in the history of the Shawangunks and the primary developer of the Millbrook Cliff as well as other outlying areas, recently had a serious accident at City of Rocks, Idaho. His rope, which was too short for the pitch he was lowering off, ran through the belay, resulting in a serious fall.  Full details about the accident and his recovery are on the thread

Rich's insurance is supposed to cover the enormous helicopter evacuation and hospitalization costs, but it does not cover his ongoing post-ER visits and the various co-pays and deductibles, all at a time of lost income from the inability to work.

A few of us have have started a project to raise some cash for Rich for his ongoing medical expenses and at the same time provide some value to climbers, based on Rich's extensive and in many cases exclusive knowledge of Millbrook. We are producing a series of "harness route cards" for "The Bank," Rich's affectionate name for the cliff. These are 4 X 6 cards, laminated, with a cord loop that can be clipped to a harness. The cards will have two or three classic routes on a high-resolution photo. The photos we are using afford nearly straight-across views that show superb cliff detail, at an angle that is easily interpreted by a climber at the base of the routes. There is no comparison between the photos we are using and the aerial photos in any of the current guidebooks, which are exceptionally hard to interpret and which, because of the time of day they were taken, fail to reveal even massive features of the cliff.

In large part because of Rich's efforts, Millbrook is one of the "traddest" cliffs in the country. There isn't a single bolt anywhere, and perhaps a handful of fixed pitons, just about all of them from the early soft-iron days of climbing in the U.S. Almost every route is in the same condition as it was on the first ascent. It's steepness, functionally remote location, and the seriousness of many (but not all) of the routes makes Millbrook one of the premier destinations for high-level trad climbing in the country.

The route cards are an attempt to make some of the mysteries of Millbrook just a touch more accessible without, we fervently hope, reducing the cliff to the modern paint-in-the numbers beta-fest that now dilutes the trad experience worldwide. In keeping with the adventurous spirit of Millbrook climbing pioneered by Rich, the cards show clearly where the routes go, give their grades, but leave all the other details of the ascent to the climber.

We are planning on producing a combination of classics at various levels of difficulty, some of which do not appear in any of the Shawangunk guidebooks. The first card is now ready. It lists two of the best and most accessible routes at Millbrook, Westward Ha!, among the best 5.7's in the Gunks, and Cruise Control (a Romano Route), a superb line at 5.9-. On the flip side is a schematic map of the best trail approach to Millbrook from the West Trapps parking lot and the location of the standard rappel tree.

We are selling the cards through Rock and Snow for $5. Because of the support and generosity of Rock and Snow, every penny of the $5 price of the card goes to Rich. Please feel free to add an additional donation if the spirit moves you. We can only handle either cash, if you want to send it through the mail, or a personal check made out to Rich Romano. Send a stamped self-addressed envelope big enough to hold a 4x 6 card to

Romano Fund
Rock & Snow
44 Main Street
New Paltz, NY 12561,

Or stop by Rock and Snow if you are up at the Gunks.

Have a safe and happy holiday season, and remember to tie a knot in the end of your rope whenever lowering is involved.

12/13/10 update:  there are some nice photos on the Supertopo thread Goldstone started about Romano.  Also Goldstone has created a paypal account from which you can purchase the route card or make a donation.  Just follow the above link to paypal and make the payment to this address:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gunks Routes: Asphodel (5.5), Credibility Gap (5.6) & Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b)

A few summers ago, when I was just getting into leading, my friend Greg suggested we do a project together in which we would climb every 5.5 in the Gunks.  I had just started leading 5.5s, so it seemed like a good idea to me at the time, but the project barely got under way before we abandoned it.  We did most of the best 5.5s fairly quickly, and after I had several under my belt I'd had enough of 5.5 and wanted to move on to 5.6.  Greg then got very busy at work and he wasn't available to climb much.  I moved on with other partners and the project fell by the wayside. 

One of the climbs we did get to that summer was Asphodel.  I haven't been back since, and there's not too much I remember about the climb.  The large corner it ascends is impressive.  I recall enjoying the first pitch, and even though I was a pretty green leader I found the climb straightforward and well protected.  Really I mention the climb here for one reason:  there is an error in Williams' guidebook.  He puts the first pitch of Asphodel at 90 feet long, which might lead you to believe you can rap from the end of pitch one with a single rope.  But the pitch ends at the belay tree for Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b), which is 160 feet off the ground.  Now, Asphodel starts around the corner a little bit uphill from Welcome to the Gunks, so the first pitch of Asphodel is probably a little shorter than 160 feet, but believe me, it is way more than 100 feet.  I was well beyond the halfway point of our 60 meter single when I finished the pitch.  Whatever the actual length of the pitch, in order to descend from the Welcome to the Gunks tree you need two ropes, unless you want to angle to climber's right as you descend and use the ubersketchoid anchor for Laughing Man (5.11b) as a second rappel station.  Do yourself a favor and use double ropes; then the descent from the tree is easy.  If you only have a single I'd advise you to climb something other than Asphodel.  The Laughing Man anchor does not inspire confidence and your other option, the second pitch of Asphodel, quickly turns into a bushwhack to the top, as Greg and I discovered a few years ago.  I remember not liking that pitch at all. 

Another climb subject to the same issues is Credibility Gap (5.6), which is just to the left of Asphodel.  The first pitch of this climb also ends at the same tree, and thus also requires two ropes to descend after pitch one.  Williams again makes an error and inaccurately lists the pitch as 80 feet, even shorter than Asphodel, even though both climbs start and end at the exact same place!  My speculation is that Williams eliminated some intermediate belays when he updated the descriptions of these routes for his latest guidebook in 2004, but neglected to update the pitch lengths.  It is rare to find this kind of error in his books.  Nobody's perfect.

I led Credibility Gap during the same year in which I led Asphodel, but my memory of Credibility Gap is much sharper.  What I remember most is that I pondered the crux a good long time before I was willing to try it.  The pitch starts out with that Gunks rarity, a vertical finger crack.  Williams rates this part of the pitch as 5.5; it would be a major draw if it were a little longer.  The finger crack is nice, but it is over quickly and then some easy moves up a slab, around a corner, and left up a ramp lead you to a dead end in a right-facing corner capped by a roof.  The crux involves a blind move out around the outside corner and onto the face.  The airy, intimidating position is similar to the crux of the second pitch of Moonlight (5.6), but this crux, unlike Moonlight's, offers you great gear.  The hands are good too.  You just have to commit to that left wall, step to the corner, and it's all good, cruiser climbing to the finish. 

Of course, it helps to know beforehand that it will all work out fine.  I remember the deliberate concentration with which I placed two perfect cams before I made the crux move the first time.  And the way I panted with relief after I made it around that corner.  It was thrilling to me at the time.  But when I returned to Credibility Gap a couple weeks ago, I couldn't find that feeling again.  The crux seemed routine.  Just one little step and then there's a great foothold at the corner, nothing to worry about.  It was good.  It was exciting for the grade, with all the backhandedness and condescension that the qualifier for the grade provides. 

Will I one day feel this way about the harder climbs that have excited me?  About Dry Heaves (5.8), for instance, or Ants' Line (5.9)?  

I'd sure love to feel that way one day about Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b), but I doubt that's in the cards.  We did this on top rope after doing Credibility Gap, and I tip my helmet to anyone who can calmly lead it.  It is difficult, varied, and sustained, and two of the five cruxes are not well protected. 

Before I talk about the climbing, I should address the mechanics of top-roping this climb.  The belay tree is, as mentioned above, about 160 feet off the ground.  This is too far for a slingshot belay with either a 60 or 70 meter single rope.  There are two ways to deal with this issue.  You can just belay from above, lowering each climber in turn to try the route.  Or you can tie two ropes together and belay from the ground, but then you have the troublesome problem of passing the knot while a climber is mid-pitch.  We were a party of three, so we tied two ropes together and passed the knot by having the third person take over the belay as the knot approached the belay device, which may sound complicated but actually works quite well.  Also, the route is to the climber's left of the rappel tree, and it helps to place a directional.  We placed one in the chalked-up horizontal to the left of the final roof on the climb. 

When you look at Welcome to the Gunks from below, it is hard not to be intimidated by all the roofs.  They are large and numerous.  And the kicker is that the roofs are not the only cruxes on the climb!  The diciest parts of the pitch for the leader, in fact, come on the faces below the first and second roofs. 

I had the benefit of watching my two partners try the route before I went at it.  None of us did the route clean in one go, but I thought given my preview of some of the moves I might have the best shot at it.  I made it up crux # 1, the initial slab below the first roof (scary and unprotected for the leader).  Then I made it up crux # 2, the giant first roof, which has some pretty acceptable crimps and good feet at the lip.  Then I was thrilled to get through crux # 3 (the 5.9 R section for the leader), which is the thin face leading up to the second roof.  I was starting to think I had this climb's number.  But then crux # 4, the second roof, shut me down several times.  Once I unlocked it, it seemed doable, more strenuous than technical.  I also fell once at crux # 5, the fourth roof, but then went up to the left the second time instead of to the right and thought it wasn't that big a deal.

Welcome to the Gunks is packed with good, hard climbing, and not just for the grade.  I really enjoyed working on it and hope to return.  I could see coming back and sending it next time, so long as I attack the second roof correctly.  But I remain intimidated by the R section just below that second roof.  The insecure slopers just before the good holds will probably forever keep me from leading this route no matter how much I might rehearse it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Getting With The Program

I used to love to ride my bicycle. 

I came to it late in life, in the spring of 2006, around the same time I started rock climbing. I realized if I was going to get better at climbing I needed to lose some weight and improve my general fitness.  It seemed like a good time to buy a road bike. Once I did, I discovered that I really enjoyed cycling.

I started out just riding for fun, first in the city parks and eventually in New Jersey and Westchester County. I was no speed demon but I loved the feeling of freedom that came with cycling. I was amazed at how with only my legs and two wheels I could escape the city and find myself in beautiful environments with rolling hills and wildlife. It was like I'd stumbled into a whole new world. I found it most enjoyable if I rode hard most of the time, but I didn't use any special tools to keep track of how much effort I was putting forth. I loved riding for its own sake and tried to squeeze in time on the bike whenever I could, both before and after work. And since I was basically starting from nothing I improved constantly. I was always getting faster, riding longer, feeling stronger and thinner. Before I knew it I'd lost a ton of weight. I went to buy some new pants and discovered my waist size had shrunk by two inches. 

Then one day in mid-2007, my friend Greg, who was also a cyclist, told me he was thinking about entering a local bicycle race. This was something I had never considered before. The idea of riding in a pack of cyclists, just inches away from my competitors, was frightening to me. I had seen these groups in the city parks and they had seemed like an elite species far above my level. But ever the joiner, I decided that if Greg was going to do it than I might as well try it out as well.

I couldn't keep up with the pack in my first few races. In cycling the term for it is "getting dropped." I got dropped several times and in the process I learned that nothing motivates you better than getting dropped. I started working harder in my rides and before the year was out I was able to hang on in the races that were held in Prospect Park. Don't get me wrong, I was no great talent. I did not come close to winning any of these races, and the people I was racing against were all beginners like me who'd never won anything in their lives. But I could complete the races and finish with the main group, which was in itself a great thrill. The first time I was in the thick of it at the beginning of the final lap, wooshing by the line with the official's bell ringing in my ears-- I'll never forget that feeling. It was an adrenaline rush unlike anything else I'd ever experienced. 

The next season I continued racing, finishing with the pack most of the time, feeling like I was in pretty good shape. I was still highly motivated. I would regularly get up at absurd hours in the morning to get two-hour rides in before returning home to help get the kids ready for school. But in spite of all the effort, I wasn't really improving much any more. I'd reached the point of diminishing returns. I was using a heart-rate monitor for training now, but crudely. My workouts weren't varied or periodized; I just identified a few zones and tried to work out in different zones on different days of the week. In races, I felt like I could move about the pack at will, but it seemed clear that on my own I was never going to get myself strong enough to outpace the pack or beat several fast guys in a contested sprint. I realized that if I wanted to do better, I had to train smarter, and I needed someone to impose more discipline on my training schedule. 

So when Greg told me at the end of the 2008 racing season that he was considering joining a team, I was already on the same wavelength. With some real coaching and teammates to work with, I figured I could keep improving, and maybe place in a race the next year or at least play a key role in helping a teammate win.  We bot ended up joining a team that was dedicated to introducing cyclists to racing. The team provided intensive coaching with daily instructions and feedback, and regular weekend rides together to work on specific racing skills and strategies. 

Joining this team turned out to be my big mistake.

There was nothing wrong with the team. The coaching was amazing. We each had personal access to the team guru, who gave us assignments every day, and who also set up a team strategy for every race. His approach was totally sound and within the mainstream of current thinking on how to train best for bicycle races. 

The problem was the relentlessness and monotony of the training schedule. We were generally expected to ride six days a week. (The seventh was optional!) Most of the riding, especially early on, was low-intensity endurance riding, designed to build a good base for the season. I found this kind of riding dull. Doing it outside was not a lot of fun. As it got colder and I had to do my endurance riding on a stationary trainer, it became positively mind-numbing. Nevertheless I stuck with it. Through the winter I did more riding on a trainer indoors than I ever had before, and as winter turned into a very rainy spring I did more riding in the rain than I ever would have imagined possible. By the time the racing schedule really got under way in March and April of 2009 I was already feeling burnt out.

As the year wore on, I got more and more tired of the never-ending training, and my results in races were not spectacular enough to make it all seem worthwhile. I was definitely a better racer than ever before. While in prior years I had just been keeping up with the group on good days, now I could actually rest and recover while keeping up, and expend extra effort from time to time but still stay with the pack. My cycling instincts also improved and I felt more comfortable in the field, especially on descents, which had always terrified me in the past. But I was still no threat to win anything. I couldn't sprint to save my life, and I often struggled even to do the jobs I was assigned in races by the coach. I would chase down a break or two and then be spent, just hanging on at the finish instead of helping to set up one of my teammates. In out-of-town races, which always featured much tougher hills than the races in the city parks, I was regularly dropped. 

By the time the season wound down in September and October, I was half-heartedly doing my assigned workouts, cutting it short on many days and feeling guilty and inadequate most of the time. Nevertheless I planned to stay on the team for 2010. I hoped after some time off to recharge my batteries I could build a great base for the next season and maybe have a better year. 

Then I broke my ankle in late October and took a much bigger break from cycling than I'd planned. And after about a month off the bike I realized that somewhere along the way I'd lost touch with everything I loved about cycling. I'd lost all desire to ride. Instead, even after my extended holiday from cycling, I now looked at my bicycle with dread. Whereas in prior years I had enjoyed simply riding around in the park, now, after countless thousands of trips around that stupid park loop, I couldn't conceive of such a feeling. Imagining riding had become like contemplating parking my car, or doing the dishes. There was no fun in it any more. I had to make a change. I decided I had to quit racing and hope that if I just started riding again for fun the love might eventually come back.

I'm sorry to say that even a year later the love hasn't returned. I don't really know how to ride for fun any more. If I don't monitor my heart rate while riding and stick to a zone the whole thing seems pointless. All year I've resolved to get on some sort of regular schedule of riding for fun and fitness but it has been an enormous struggle to motivate myself to get out of bed to ride. So I've gone through the year riding in fits and starts, getting a bit better from time to time but then taking whole weeks off and falling backward again. I am slow and weak and I don't enjoy my time on the bike. It remains a chore.

By now you must be wondering why I am writing at such length about cycling on a climbing blog. If you're still with me I applaud your patience. 

Here is the connection:

For four years I have climbed for fun and I have improved greatly without making any particular effort to get better. I have just climbed routes that seemed fun, and I have improved pretty steadily. But not so much recently. I reached the point of diminishing returns quite some time ago, and I think if I wish to get better I have to change the way I go about it. 

I want to train with more purpose. But I worry. I do not want to ruin myself for climbing the way I inadvertently spoiled myself for cycling. I enjoy climbing at the gym. I dearly love climbing outside. I don't want any of my climbing to become just a chore. It has to stay fun.

I own two well-regarded books on climbing performance, The Self-Coached Climber, by Dan Hague and Douglas Hunter, and How to Climb 5.12, by Eric J. Horst. I would like to say that I've read them, but I've really only skimmed through them several times, considering a few tips and strategies until, inevitably, my eyes have started to glaze over. 

Part of the issue for me, I think, is that I don't really care if I ever climb 5.12. It would be nice but I would be satisfied with much less. Really my goal is to be a solid 5.9-5.10 Gunks climber. I'd like to lead MF (5.9), Le Teton (5.9), Feast of Fools (5.10b) and Directississima (5.10b). I'd like to take trips to climb Epinephrine (5.9), the Regular Route on Fairview Dome (5.9), The Yellow Spur (5.9), or even the Casual Route up Long's Peak (5.10a) and feel like these climbs are straightforward and well within my limits. I think there exist a lifetime of climbs like these out there in the world and that I would be satisfied, given my limited climbing time, with these sorts of climbs as my objective.

The best way to achieve these goals, of course, would be to climb outside every weekend. But that is never going to happen. This year I was very lucky and got outside as much as a family man with a job could possibly get out. And in a good month I got two to four days on real rock.

Given my objectives I don't think I need to do relentless conditioning of my crimping muscles. I don't think I need to do tons of monotonous campus training. I don't think I need a rigid, periodized schedule. But if I want to keep getting better I need to improve my general physical condition and train with a bit more purpose. And I need to lose weight. So I've identified a few goals, along with the methods by which I intend to achieve these goals.

Goal # 1:  improve endurance. There are two things I can do that I hope will make a big difference in this area. The first is that I have to make myself start cycling regularly again. Even if it is just for one hour, three or four days a week, if I do it regularly it will make a big difference in my overall fitness. I have considered other sports and given the time constraints I have, and my antipathy towards running, I think it's cycling or nothing. So I just have to make myself do it. The second thing I intend to do is to take a portion of my gym time and reserve it for endurance work. I don't intend to devote my entire gym session to it for weeks on end-- that would risk misery and burnout. But maybe once every two weeks I will spend a session simply trying to stay on a wall at the gym without pumping out for long periods, traversing on an easy bouldering wall for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. 

Goal #2:  lose weight. Here again I have two ways I intend to make progress. The first is, again, to get back to cycling regularly. When I was at the height of my cycling mania, I was starving all the time. I was constantly burning calories and constantly losing weight even though I ate like a teenager. And I weighed at my best about a dozen pounds less than I do now. I know I will not get back to the same amount of cycling I used to do. But if I ride regularly I will make progress. The second thing I intend to do is to improve what I eat. I won't go on some fad diet or eliminate all bread from my meals or anything crazy like that. I am fortunate in that I currently eat tons of crap that I can easily eliminate from my diet and still be left eating reasonable food. I can stop eating potato chips with lunch, stop snacking on candy that people leave around the office, stop having ice cream in freezer at home, and I think these steps alone will make a huge difference. The main thing, I think, is to get myself motivated to do better on a daily basis. So I have purchased a bathroom scale and I think I will start keeping a log of my exercise, diet and weight, just to try to make myself do some basic, regular things to get fit. And I may start bringing healthy lunches to work from home so I can avoid the temptation to eat some huge deli sandwich or pizza in the middle of the day.

Goal #3: improve pull muscles and core strength. I hate lifting weights and I don't own a hangboard. But I do have a neglected pull-up bar and there are many simple exercises one can do at home. At first I plan to just try to do some of Horst's recommended strength exercises after every cycling session-- pull-ups and crunches three or four times a week. Since I am currently doing no strength exercises, I believe adding these two regularly may make a real difference. If at some point I want to add more, then fine. Additionally in the gym I can make it a point once every couple weeks to devote a session to repeats of very overhanging routes, and maybe even to campusing easy (V0-V1) boulder problems. 

Goal #4:  improve my climbing skill set. This will require a shift in my attitude more than anything else. I believe I am in a bit of a rut at the gym. When I climb roped routes, I gravitate towards the 5.10s. When I boulder, I tend to do V3s. I do these routes because I usually can do them. I try harder routes and sometimes I am surprised and find them easy. Most of the time they are hard for me, but only on rare occasions do I take a route that is hard for me and work at it until I tame it. I see other people take a different approach. I have seen a climber struggle on a V3 bouldering route I have found easy, but then I have seen that same climber move on to a V5 that I have never even considered trying. The difference between that climber and me is that that climber believes anything is possible, while I am held back by an imaginary ceiling. I want to break through the imaginary ceiling and devote at least one of my gym days every week or two to taming routes that are harder than my current level. 

So now you know my plan. I hope it adds things to my program that will improve my climbing, without making my climbing sessions into a never-ending chore. I'm sure you'll be relieved to know that I won't be posting my daily progress here, but as the months go by I will let you know how it's going!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gunks Routes: Snooky's Return (5.8) & Friends and Lovers (5.9)

(Photo:  Working on crux #1 of Friends and Lovers (5.9))

This is a bit of a redemption story.  It also involves a smidgen of humiliation.

Snooky's Return is a 5.8 I've been wanting to do for quite some time.  It has eluded me until recently in part because of the curse of the bolted anchors above the first pitch. Without these bolted anchors Snooky's would surely be quite popular. But with those anchors, oy! The chains make it so easy to do just the first pitch and then throw a rope over the harder Friends and Lovers (5.9) next door. As a result the climb is constantly occupied by parties hogging both lines.

Back in 2009, Snooky's was high on my hit list.  I had burning questions I wanted to resolve.  Many people claim the route takes great gear, but others say it is difficult to protect and requires small wires. Williams says in his guidebook that if you do the entire climb it is "one of the best," but it seems like most people don't bother with pitches two and three. I wanted to find out the truth about these issues for myself. But the climb was always occupied. Weekdays, weekends, it did not matter. I could never find it open. 

Then one day earlier this year, during my backing-off phase, I was climbing with Greg and found Snooky's suddenly available. So I jumped right on pitch one, got off the ground, and promptly confronted the low crux moves at the beginning of the thin vertical crack that defines the pitch. (Why do the crux moves always have to come so low?) I only had one small nut in the wall for protection. As I hung out there, looking up, I couldn't see any obvious placements coming up. So then I looked to the right, because Williams says if you step right, move up, and then come back to the crack it is only 5.7. And the climbing over there didn't look bad; it was just that I couldn't see where I was going to find pro.

After thinking it over for a minute I accepted that I didn't have a good feeling about the climb. I decided to bail without even trying the moves. My head just wasn't in the right place that day for the low crux. I was preoccupied with worries that I would fall on the nut and tweak my bad ankle or end up on my ass.

So then I tried to pull my little nut out of the rock and found it was pretty well stuck in there. This was a good nut! But no matter, I'd already decided to bail, and so after I got the nut out I climbed down and we went to do something else. 

Ever since, I've been meaning to go back and confront the climb again.

Last week I walked up to Snooky's and just sent the stupid thing. I placed a cam horizontally right off the deck in order to protect against a zipper pull, slotted the bomber small nut right below the crux again, and did the old-school trick of attaching two 'biners to the nut instead of a sling, to minimize extension. Then I went ahead and did the crux move. It's all about getting your feet up so you can reach the good holds; it is literally a single move of 5.8 and then the crux is over. The rest of the way up to the anchor is a lovely, consistent 5.7 face-climbing pitch, straight as an arrow to the bolts. There's great pro, and you don't need any specialty gear like micronuts. I know I passed up a placement I shouldn't have, right after the crux move. It was just another step to a better stance so I went ahead and made the move before placing gear, surely moving into ground-fall range in the process. But I felt the step was very secure at the time. Next time I'll place another piece, I promise.

We were a party of three and one of my partners, Adrian, led the second pitch. Also rated 5.8, it too probably has only one 5.8 move on it, a single delicate step to the right just past an angle piton. The pitch has nice face climbing and the pro is good, but the line isn't really natural or obvious and the crux isn't terribly interesting or unique. I believe we followed Williams' instructions exactly, up the corner directly above the chains, heading left at the little overlap for about 10 feet, then up a steepening face with a step to the right at the piton and then straight up to the GT Ledge.

Pitch three is a short roof escape pitch, rated 5.7.  I regret that we did not bring the book up with us, because I forgot whether we were supposed to escape to the left or the right.  From below, it appeared that the escape to the right would involve a couple of awkward, overhanging maneuvers under the roof, while going left would require a committing layback move or two. It looked like there was a path through the lichen in either direction. I decided to just climb up there and see what I found. When I got to the roof both paths seemed feasible, but I couldn't see what the holds would be like once I escaped the roof to the right, while I could tell that the path to the left looked easily climbable. So I took the conservative path and headed left; the left escape also seemed like the more natural line. One awkward laybacking move up (at probably 5.5 or so) and the pitch was over, save for some dirty scrambling to the top. As soon as I got above the roof I knew I'd picked the wrong direction. From above I could see a slightly cleaner path through the lichen on the other side of the roof. Even though I now know I went the wrong way I can tell you that pitch three of Snooky's Return is kind of a throwaway. Assuming there's one great move in the part of the pitch I skipped, that great move is bookended above and below by dirty, uninteresting climbing. If you do pitch two you may as well do pitch three, as it's the easiest way to get off the cliff.  If you wish to skip it there is no easy tree from which to descend in the immediate vicinity on the GT Ledge.

Having done the whole climb, I see why pitch one of Snooky's gets most of the traffic. It is a terrific pitch. It looks hard to protect from below but it isn't. Pitch two is pretty good, and pitch three is kind of a waste. If you go all the way to the top, descending is easy so long as you are familiar enough with the cliff to recognize the Madame G rappel station from above. Walk to climber's right as you top out and a trail will take you to the short scramble down to the bolts. Two single-rope rappels or one double-rope rappel will get you back to the ground. (You also probably can walk to climber's right on the GT Ledge to the bolts after pitch two if you wish to skip pitch three, but I have not tried it.)

As we walked back to our packs I was feeling great about making progress and conquering situations that had intimidated me in the past. Then we reached the base of Snooky's and found a family of four climbing the route. Leading pitch one was an eight-year-old boy. His ten-year-old brother also led it.  These kids were using pre-placed gear put up by their dad, but nevertheless I was pretty amazed and humbled to see these kids climbing at such a level. I mean, these kids weren't just working on a 5.8.  It was absolutely clear that this climb was far below their abilities. It seemed they could climb circles around me today and who knows how good they'll be by age 15 or so.

As impressive as it was, there was something a little disturbing to me about watching such a young kid, sixty feet off the ground, arguing with his father about the sorts of things kids and dads argue about.

Dad: Clip both of those pieces, son.

Son: Why?? They're right next to each other!

Dad: Because I said so! Clip them both or we're not climbing tomorrow!

I want to be clear that I do not disapprove of this family in any way. I thought the boys were both incredible climbers and very well behaved. The parents were extremely nice and the dad really protected the heck out of the pitch, placing much more gear than I did when I led it, so that it was basically sport-bolted for his children. 

But I still couldn't imagine myself in the same situation with my seven-year-old son. Partly this is because I know I couldn't trust my son as much as these parents clearly trust their boys when it comes to safety. My son is just too impulsive; I would constantly worry that, sixty or eighty feet off the ground, he would do something in an instant to jeopardize his life that I would be powerless to prevent.

I also don't trust myself enough. I would be constantly worried about the gear. It is one thing to place trad gear for yourself, but quite another to place it for little kids. When I imagine myself standing below my son, watching him move past a cam, thinking about where a fall would take him if the cam blew...  I just shudder. 

A part of me wants my kids to fall in love with climbing. (I think it is much less likely to happen with my daughter, which is why I'm writing mostly about my son.) I picture us in ten years taking a day every weekend to climb together and it seems like heaven. But another part of me worries about what could happen. And that part of me wants the kids to reject climbing entirely. Let it be dad's crazy obsession. My kids are still young enough that I haven't had to confront what every parent deals with eventually: they will make their own decisions and take risks in their lives. I know that day is coming, but I don't want to feel I put them in a position to take more risks than they should. I can't imagine potentially putting them in that position now, when they are still so young.

After we got back to our packs Adrian said he was looking for a 5.9 to lead. Friends and Lovers seemed like the obvious candidate, since it was sitting there unoccupied right in front of our faces. I knew that most people do it on toprope after leading Snooky's, but Williams calls it a PG lead and I recalled a thread on in which the consensus seemed to be that it was a reasonable lead. I did not know that Swain says it is rated R.

Well, I can tell you I won't be leading it any time soon, even though Adrian did a fine job and I really do think it is a PG lead.

The first crux, working over a small overhang twenty feet up, is very well protected. Adrian had two pieces nearby and worked in a third, a nut over his head, just before pulling this crux.

The second crux, however, cannot be sewn up. There's great gear at your feet, but the move is stiff for 5.9, in my opinion, and involves a very insecure smear-step up, and then at least two more moves before additional gear can be found. My partner Adrian hemmed and hawed at this second crux for a good long time before he made the move on lead and I was the same way following it. It is an intimidating move even with a rope over your head.

You may recall that a few weeks ago I said the 5.9s were feeling easy (on toprope)?  I thought Friends and Lovers was hard, with two different, tricky, thoughtful cruxes. I actually misread the first crux and took a fall, then got it on my second try. The second crux I thought was the more difficult of the two, but I got that one on the first try. I'll wait until I'm more confident before I consider taking the sharp end on this one.  It is a high quality pitch, though, and Adrian said he'd happily lead it again.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gunks Routes: Columbia (5.8)

I've been curious about Columbia.  The route sits right next to my favorite 5.6 in the Gunks, Madame G's.  Columbia ascends the left edge of the same buttress, and I've always wondered if it would provide the same sort of steep, juggy fun. 

It seems that most people only do the first pitch as an alternate 5.8 start to Madame G's.  I led the pitch earlier this year in just such a fashion. It is a short but good pitch. It follows an obvious crack that arches to the right, and then you pass a crux bulge. One committing move with great pro and it's easy sailing up and right to the Madame G belay tree. As the crack begins its move to the right there is an eyebrow-shaped block (coated in chalk) that is loose. Back in June it seemed to me that this block was quite loose, and I neither pulled on it nor placed any gear behind it. This past week when I returned to Columbia I warned my partner Adrian about the block as he led up to it, but he thought it was fine and went ahead and yarded on it. And so I went ahead and used it too, although it isn't difficult to avoid. It's probably not going to pop out, but I still wouldn't place any pro behind it. 

Back in June I looked up at pitch two and it appeared kind of tough to me. The mystique of the pitch for me only grew when I checked the guidebooks. Williams grades it a 5.7 but Swain calls it a 5.9-. It starts up a shallow left-facing corner about ten feet left of the Madame G corner. (People are often fooled into starting up this corner when they mean to do Madame G's.) You'll know you're choosing the correct corner for Columbia because there are two pitons in pretty quick succession not far off of the ledge at the beginning of the pitch.

When I went back to Columbia to lead pitch two the other day I thought the first hundred feet or so were outstanding. The initial delicate moves past the pins are the technical crux moves of the pitch. There is a small slot next to the first pin that will take a microcam or a small nut, but the second pin cannot be backed up. Once past the pins, prepare yourself for steepness! The climb continues up the corner through bulging rock. There are numerous jugs and great horizontals for pro, but it is overhanging and sustained. The climb reminded me of the crux portions of Strictly From Nowhere (5.7) and pitch two of Son of Easy O (5.8), but the steep section of Columbia is far longer than the crux sections of both of those other climbs. 

As I approached the end of the bulging section I shook out the pump and thought to myself that Columbia is a hidden gem, and that the second pitch is one of the best 5.7s in the Gunks. But the top portion of the pitch turned out to be less distinguished. As the angle eases off the last thirty feet or so is up the corner to the right through easy terrain and rather dirty rock. This detracts from the greatness of the climb, but only a bit. Pitch two of Columbia has a ton of quality climbing on it, and I'd encourage you to go and do it. (There's also a 5.9 variation that goes to the right out on the face and through a roof instead of continuing up the corner when the angle eases, but Williams says it is difficult to protect.)

And as for the grading of Columbia's pitch two, I'm with Williams. The pitch is sustained and you have to hang in there, but I thnk 5.7 is fair, and 5.9 is certainly too high. Perhaps my partner Adrian said it best when he arrived at the belay: "That was a 5.7 pitch for the 5.9 leader!"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

End-of-Season Blues

You can feel it coming, can't you?

Every day I feel the end of the climbing season is closer. So much left undone.

It's been a pretty crummy fall in the Gunks, or maybe I just haven't had the best luck in picking my climbing days. It seems like it's rained an awful lot. A couple weeks ago I got out on a Friday with Vass and it was cold and damp. Twice it briefly hailed, and although I entertained thoughts of bailing we stuck it out and managed to get 8 great pitches in on uncrowded classics. Pretty good for a short fall day. We definitely made the most of it. 

Then it warmed up and it was glorious for most of the next week, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately there was no way I could go climb on any of these beautiful days!

Finally last Friday I had the chance to take another vacation day, but the weather turned for the worse again in the days preceding our planned day out. It was cold and rainy Wednesday and Thursday. Vass and I talked it over and decided not to go on Friday.  But then the forecast changed and it appeared the rain would stop Friday morning.  I pictured myself sitting, furious, in my office in Manhattan looking at blue skies and decided we should go for it. It would possibly be a waste of a vacation day, but how many more climbing days would I get this year? Might as well try.

So we drove up that morning in the rain. We ate breakfast in New Paltz and browsed at Rock & Snow as it continued to rain. Finally, as promised, the rain stopped. It was not quite10 a.m., and we headed up to the cliffs. But as we reached the hairpin turn we entered a thick, wet fog. The cliffs remained in the center of this wet cloud until after noon. We hiked around the Trapps for a while, waiting for it to lift, feeling like we were in the middle of a cold rainforest. Wetness was everywhere. After lunch we returned but didn't feel anything was really climbable until 2 p.m., and even then it was a bit slick. We stuck to very easy climbs like Betty (5.3) and Bunny (5.4), and called it a day. I have to say it felt good to be out on the rock under any circumstances, and I took a certain pride in being one of the only knuckleheads obsessed enough to try to climb on such a miserable day.   

I know I shouldn't complain. Everyone's been rained out one time or another. 

But I'm starting to feel a bit cursed. This week I'm planning on another climbing vacation-day Friday, and it should be beautiful out, sunny and in the 50s.  It could be the last hurrah of the season. Accordingly, I have plans. Nothing huge, mind you, just some world-class 5.8s that have somehow eluded me over the last couple years. Birdland, Snooky's Return, perhaps even Modern Times. But I can't help feeling the gods are angry with me, that they're taunting me with another problem: I have come down with a head cold. I woke up yesterday with a sore throat and a thick-headed, congested feeling. Today I can't really say I feel much better. 

But screw it all, I'm not even considering bailing. I'm going to feel better by tomorrow morning and if I don't, so what? There's no crying in rock climbing. Climb on, goddammit.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Gunks Routes: Drunkard's Delight (5.8-) & Morning After (5.8-)

(Photo: My partner Vass just after the cruxy start of Drunkard's Delight.)

I recently changed my opinion regarding Drunkard's Delight (5.8-).

My first experience on the route, this past April, was kind of a debacle. I was still pretty fresh off my broken ankle and I was trying to take it easy. So I didn't have any 5.8's in my plans. But we did Bloody Mary (5.7) and I really enjoyed it. For the first time since I broke the ankle I was feeling pretty good on the rock. And when we got back to our packs after topping out I saw both Drunkard's and Morning After (5.8-) were sitting open, and I couldn't resist. 

I looked them both over, and while I knew Drunkard's was famously cruxy right at the start, it looked to me like the pro wasn't bad. Morning After, on the other hand, looked very difficult to protect. I read in the guidebook about a piton somewhere up there, but I couldn't see it from the ground, and the pitch looked like it had few if any other placements in the first 25 or 30 feet.

So I decided to give Drunkard's a try. I moved up two steps and placed two pieces right away, a red C3 in the vertical crack system to the left of the greasy, chalk-covered holds, and then a little purple TCU in the thin horizontal that runs just above those greasy holds. (One puny cam for each of my half ropes.) Then I edged gently to the right, put my hands on those greasy holds, put my feet on the dime edges beneath, and attempted an awkward high-step up.

Predictably, I fell. Both little cams held. I was safely off the ground with two feet of clearance. But in the little fall I'd hit my bad ankle on the wall and it didn't feel good. I feared I'd sprained it. 

I was pissed off-- I thought I'd just about made the move. And I also felt the move was really much too hard for a 5.8-.

So I started to try again, but then realized I was being an idiot. Falling from ten feet off the deck on microcams was not in my post-surgery recovery plan. I was supposed to be taking it easy. "Why am I doing this?" I asked myself aloud.

Just then another pair came up, hoping to do the route. I gave them my blessing and we retreated.

And then I watched their leader sketch through the move in pretty much the same way I had attempted it.

I limped away from Drunkard's Delight feeling defeated, and hating bouldery starts. 

Later, I learned that I was doing it wrong. Those greasy, chalked up holds right in front of your face when you start the route? Those are sucker holds. Don't use them for your hands. The route starts just to the left, and you can step up one more time before moving right and never touch the sucker holds with your hands. Use those holds for your feet. But not your hands. It's much easier.

A week ago I was up in the Gunks with Vass and he mentioned that he'd been wanting to get on Drunkard's. I was thrilled to let him lead it and see how it went this time. I gave him my gear beta for the first two gear placements and advised him to skip the sucker holds. And he cruised through it, placing gear where I did and a ton more following the low crux as well (as you can see in the photo above). I believe after the red C3 (out of the frame to the left) and a purple C3 (first piece on the pink rope), he's placed two nuts and he's working on a third. 

When it was my turn to follow the pitch, I found it so much easier than I did in April. I employed the additional step up before heading right. It's still a balancy couple moves, but not bad. The rest of the pitch features good face climbing, pretty thoughtful most of the way, easing a bit as the route trends slightly left to the ledge beneath the break in the large roof. I now recognize that this is a great pitch. I would gladly lead it tomorrow. 

There's a pathetic, possibly dying tree with some slings at the end of the first pitch; I'd recommend building a gear anchor.

(Photo: Just past the roof on pitch two of Drunkard's Delight.)

Pitch two features the biggest 5.6 roof in the Gunks. It's nearly a body length in size. But no worries, this is a super-juggy fun time. This roof is much easier than the roofs on Maria and Shockley's Ceiling. There's a great placement for a threaded sling right in the middle of the business (see photo above), and then it's just an ocean of jugs until you're past the roof. There are many, many more holds than you need. After the roof, the pitch trends a little left and up to the GT Ledge on cruiser climbing. 

Once you reach the GT Ledge, there's a good tree from which a two-rope rappel will get you down.  If you have only one rope, you have several options: a short walk climber's left on the GT Ledge will get you to the bolts above Kama Sutra, from which you can get down in two single-rope rappels. Or if you walk to the right, there is a rap tree above Rusty Trifle from which you can get down in two single rope raps, using another slung tree halfway down. Finally, you can do the final pitch of Drunkard's Delight, which ascends the obvious 5.4 corner above the belay tree on the GT Ledge. (I haven't tried it.)

(Photo: Pitch one of Morning After.)

After we had such a positive experience on Drunkard's, I thought I should give Morning After another look. And this time it looked to me like a reasonable lead. I still couldn't see the piton, but I thought I could tell where it was supposed to be, and it seemed like there was gear nearby. The rest of the way seemed protectable.

Pitch one of Morning After features nice face climbing. The crux moves, which are right after the piton, are not as hard as the low moves on Drunkard's Delight. It's a few moves up from the ground before any pro appears, in a thin vertical slot formed by the little right-facing corner just before the piton. I placed a great little nut in this slot, and then after moving up again a good cam. Then, after stepping up so your feet are even with the piton, you should be able to place another piece in an awkward, flaring pod that opens downward. I worked a gray Alien into this slot, and while I thought it would hold, this was the one piece of gear about which I had my doubts. In order to work it into the slot, I had to place it at a rather strange angle. I should have tried a tricam. 

After one more thin step up, you're through the crux. The pitch then angles left through easier territory to some right-facing flakes, then back right to the multi-forked tree that also marks the end of pitch one of Bloody Mary. You can belay at the tree, but you'll have a much more comfortable belay stance if you build a gear anchor using the great cracks in the wall behind the tree.

Pitch two is rated 5.7. It looks like it's going to be a roof problem pitch but it's really another face-climbing pitch. From the belay the pitch climbs up into a corner to the right, then around the corner and up onto the face. From the belay stance you can see a piton at the lip of the overhang, telling you exactly where to go. The climbing here is a little steep and exposed but the holds are great. The crux of the  pitch comes later, in a thin section right after a perfect horizontal slot with an angle piton. Put in a cam to back it up and you're set.

I regret that we didn't have time for pitch three, as it was getting dark. I hear it's a high quality 5.8 pitch.  but based on the first two pitches alone I'd say Morning After is a great climb. It doesn't have any world-class moments but it features consistent thoughtful moves.

From the GT Ledge you can descend with a single two-rope rappel from the Drunkard's Delight tree, or use any of the single-rope options listed above. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Life Goes On

(Photo:  X-Ray showing my broken ankle.  Diagnosis:  fracture- ankle, medial malleolus, closed.)

One year ago today, I broke my ankle rock climbing. 

In part, I started this little blog in order to force myself to write about it. But I've been struggling with what to say about it for a year now, and I'm afraid that struggle isn't over.

My accident happened on a Gunks climb called Insuhlation (5.9). I fell just after the final crux roof. I pulled over the roof with no problems, but there was a wet hold above the roof that I suppose I failed to use well. Or maybe my foot popped, I'm not sure. Truthfully, I don't know exactly why I fell. I had my right hand on the semi-jug above the wet hold. I was looking around for pro; my last piece was a green Alien a few feet below the roof. And then I was off. 

I recall with vivid clarity the sensation of falling. Time slowed to a crawl, and I saw my half ropes in a parabolic arc above me as I flew back outward from the rock. It seemed as if I had a good long time in midair to consider that this might not end well. I remember thinking "this is it!"  ...but I'm not sure what I had "it" in mind to be. I yelled out "falling," and then things sped up considerably. I flipped upside-down and then the rope came tight on the green Alien, which held, and I came to a stop, hanging in the air with my head where my feet should have been. 

As I righted myself, I realized I was injured. I couldn't understand why I'd flipped over. The rope wasn't behind my leg. And I hadn't felt a thing. There was no impact at all that I had sensed. So why was my ankle tender and starting to swell? I asked my partner Nani to lower me to the ledge. The climbers next to us on Obstacle Delusion retrieved my gear on rappel and filled us in on what had happened. "You flipped over when your ankle hit the rock," one of them said. So it seemed there was an impact, but in the adrenaline-pumped moment I hadn't felt it. At least it all made sense now, even if the explanation didn't jibe with what my mind had allowed me to experience. 

Thinking it was just a sprain, I hobbled the whole way from the High Exposure access trail back to the steel bridge, refusing numerous offers of assistance from concerned strangers. The best and the worst of the Trapps in autumn were on display. People were kind and supportive, but there were far too many of them. At one point I stopped to rest in the Uberfall area and counted over thirty climbers in my immediate field of vision, all of them looking at me in a pitying way that made me very uncomfortable. Nani thought we should summon the rangers, but I insisted that if I could evacuate myself we shouldn't initiate a rescue. I now recognize that this was a stupid mistake. I really don't think it made my ankle any worse, but if I'd listened to Nani, we would have had the benefit of the advice of first responders, and I would likely have been taken to a hospital for an x-ray right away instead of waiting 24 hours and only then finding out the ankle was broken and required surgery. It also would have put much less pressure on Nani, who ended up having the sole responsibility of babying me all the way back to Brooklyn. 

In the aftermath of the accident I was overwhelmed with guilty feelings. The source of these feelings was hard to pin down. I felt guilty about inconveniencing my wife. She'd have to pick up the kids every day and do all the cooking for months to come. I also felt guilty that I'd made whatever climbing mistake I must have made to get into this mess. I blamed myself for the accident, although I had a hard time deciding what it was I'd done wrong. I also felt a lot of guilt about imposing my injury on Nani. I entertained totally unfounded fears that she'd never climb with me again, and that all my other climbing partners might desert me as well. 

Amidst all this I wondered if I really was feeling most guilty about climbing in the first place. Was I taking pains to find fault with my climbing on that fateful day because I needed to avoid confronting something harder to deal with? Was my accident really a reminder that even if you do everything right when you climb, even if you place gear liberally and it holds, you can still get hurt? Was it a sign that I should quit, that climbing is unacceptably dangerous? Certainly a number of people, from my doctor to my mother to my wife's colleagues, assumed that my broken ankle would be the wake-up call I needed to make me come to my senses and stop this climbing nonsense, as any responsible husband and father would. 

I did not want to quit. Although I didn't know how I'd feel getting out there on the rock again, I was sure, as I sat around recovering and gaining twenty pounds, that I would miss climbing terribly if I stopped doing it. But I didn't want to be a bad husband and father. I had to ask myself if climbing could be done reasonably, or whether the dangers were such that no amount of rock climbing could be considered sane.   

I read numerous classics of mountaineering literature searching for the answer, to no avail. Many great mountaineers have wrestled with the question of why we are drawn to climbing, and whether the dangers are worth it. Some embrace the risk, declaring danger to be at the very core of the climbing experience. Others focus instead on the many other wonderful aspects of the sport-- the scenery, the adventure, the physical and mental challenge, the connection with nature-- but throw up their hands at the death toll and ultimately leave the question of whether it is all worthwhile to a higher power. 

Of course, these writers are considering a different sport than the one in which I participate. They are writing about climbing real mountains and pushing the very limits of the possible. They choose to face objective hazards that cannot be managed, such as altitude sickness, avalanches, and sudden deadly changes in the weather. And in order to expand the boundaries of what can be climbed, they deliberately go without reasonable protection on climbs that are incredibly risky, forging ahead on blank, smooth rock faces and through rotten bands of ice. These writers would think nothing of the climbing I do in the Gunks-- a two hundred foot cliff that has been fully explored, with every route to the top exhaustively indexed by its difficulty and protection rating. To them the risks taken by a weekend warrior like me would hardly qualify as risks at all. 

And yet there are real risks in any climbing environment, no matter how tame that environment is. In the Gunks, for instance, there have been very few fatalities over the years, but less-than-fatal accidents occur with appalling frequency. Lapses in judgment lead climbers to forget crucial steps in the climbing process. They rappel off the ends of their ropes or drop their partners. Objective hazards exist: rocks fall down. And no matter how much difficulty and protection grades may sanitize a climb, it is still easy to wander off route, to miss a crucial gear placement, or otherwise to find oneself in territory where a fall could be disastrous. Gear that seems solid may pull out; it is hard even for experienced climbers to dependably judge placements of climbing gear. And finally, as my accident demonstrates, even if the gear is solid you can get hurt in any fall.

It is often pointed out by climbers that many sports carry dangers, and that climbing is actually less dangerous than common daily activities like driving a car. This may be true, but we are not forced to choose a dangerous sport in which to participate. We don't have to choose climbing just because it isn't as crazy as BASE jumping. We can shun all sports involving danger if it is the right thing to do. And while driving a car may well be more dangerous than climbing, we live in a world in which we can't escape the car. We have no choice about it. Climbing is different. It is a luxury we can well afford to drop.

But I couldn't bear to drop it. After my accident I was desperate to find a rationale for continuing to climb, a way to go forward but to feel I was being reasonable and safe about it. 

I wish I could tell you that I figured out the answer to this problem. I wish I could say that I developed a calculus to determine how much danger is acceptable. I wish I could offer you a climbing plan that is 100 percent risk-free, or tell you that I located the perfect spot on the climbing-danger continuum at which adventure is maximized but life-threatening hazards are minimized. But obviously I did none of these things.

Instead I decided to wade back into climbing slowly and to take it easy, minimizing risk by minimizing difficulty. Even this simple plan was a difficult one for me to execute, because I like to challenge myself. But aside from a few lapses I mostly stuck with it, avoiding leading harder climbs all year, being willing to follow other folks' desires and ambitions more than my own, and repeating a bunch of favorite climbs instead of always seeking out new ones. 

At first, I found that my accident had wreaked havoc with my lead head. I was tentative on the lead, becoming paralyzed at crux moments I never would have worried about in the past. On more than one occasion this year I fell or took a hang because I simply couldn't commit to the move at the crucial moment of a climb. The irony of this situation wasn't lost on me-- before the accident I pretty much never fell while climbing, but afterward, while trying to go easy and safe, I found myself falling or hanging on gear with some frequency. This seemed like madness, and made me wonder what the hell I was doing out there at all.

But I'm happy to report that over time my head improved (although not completely). I lost a good bit of the weight I gained and I also tried through the year to become a better technical climber with a better awareness of balance and footwork than I had in the past. I see increased proficiency as a path towards feeling confident enough to progress back up the grades in the future. At some point this year I gave up on having any big climbing achievements in 2010. It has been a rebuilding year. I haven't led a single pitch of trad 5.9 all year, and I'm fine with that. I recently followed a few, and they felt laughably easy. I take that as a good sign, and I plan to put that good feeling in my pocket for the winter, work really hard in the gym through the cold months, and emerge in the spring with confidence that I can soon begin leading harder climbs again, breaking back into 5.9 and maybe even 5.10. And I hope that when I do so the climbs will feel secure, and not beyond my limits. 

So I have continued to climb, and life goes on. I can't assure anyone that I have made the right decision. But I can promise I'm more careful than I used to be, with the unfortunate side effect that I'm also more tentative. I am more willing to back off, and I will be much slower about working up the grades, more conscious of my limits. On the whole I believe I'm moving in the right direction. And that's the best balance I think I can achieve. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gunks Routes: Sleepwalk (5.7)

Looking for a warm-up route near Bonnie's Roof and Ants' Line?  Look no further, Sleepwalk's got you covered.

Williams rates Sleepwalk a 5.7 in his latest guidebook.  Swain calls it a 5.7 minus, and I think I'm with Swain on this one.  In my opinion it is a great introductory 5.7 route, with easy routefinding, solid protection, and a convenient no-worries finish at a bolted anchor.  It's a fun little climb. 

The route starts near the obvious Ants' Line dihedral, just to the left of the tree that emerges from the base of the cliff.  Little right-facing flakes provide the holds with which to move upward for just a few moves.  Then the route traverses left about 10 feet off the ground to the outside corner and around onto the main face.  This early climbing is on a dead vertical wall, and to my mind it is the crux of the route.  The holds are quite positive, though, and there's good gear to be had.  I think I placed three pieces before I turned the corner when I led the route last week.

Once you turn the corner, the angle lessens and it's a straight line upward to the bolts.  Head up the face, keeping within a few feet of the arete.  Every now and again you may be tempted to use the arete for a hold, and I encourage you to go ahead, there's no rule against it.  A good horizontal for pro appears every time you'll want one.  Along the way there are a couple interesting moves; you may find yourself smearing or high-stepping just a bit, but no big deal.  Before you know it, you'll be at the bolts. 

Once you've finished the pitch, you have several options. 

You can use the bolted anchor to toprope Ants' Line (stellar 5.9) or Ent Line (5.10d), provided no one is leading either one.

Or you can head up for a second pitch.  Williams recommends continuing up Lichen 40 Winks, a 5.7- pitch to the left, if you want to keep the grade at 5.7.  I haven't tried that pitch so I can't recommend it.  Another alternative is a pitch called Cool Hand Dukes (5.8).  This pitch ascends the vertical crack that runs straight up the overhanging, white, 10 foot wide buttress just to the right of the bolts.  The pitch begins with lower-angled easier climbing, and then it's a pumpy jug haul up the white buttress.  When I led it last year, I remember a good placement at the bottom of the steep bit, followed by good, juggy climbing.  I felt the holds were secure but I recall not finding another pro placement until I was almost to the top, whereupon I got a great #2 Camalot and sailed to the finish.  It's helpful to have doubles if you are considering this pitch because it finishes at the rappel tree for Bonnie's Roof, and this rappel is through the air all the way down, well beyond 100 feet.  If you only have a single rope, you can scramble up and to the right to the rappel tree for Ursula, from which two single-rope raps will get you down.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gunks Routes: Alley Oop (5.7) & Dry Heaves (5.8)

(Photo: Liz following me up Alley Oop, pitch one. She's about to exit the roof. The Dry Heaves finish is at the next little alcove down to the left.)

Alley Oop (5.7) and Dry Heaves (5.8) sit right next to each other in the Trapps, starting from atop the same boulder pile, to the right of Balrog/Bullfrog and to the left of Cakewalk.

I have only climbed the first pitch of each. All the climbs in this area of the cliff feature easy, lackluster second pitches. Alley Oop and Dry Heaves both share a bolted anchor atop the first pitch, making it easy to quickly run up the first pitch of both climbs. You could also easily toprope Dry Heaves after leading Alley Oop.

Each climb features a low crux, then some mellower climbing to an exciting roof escape.

Alley Oop has a reputation as a climb with a difficult, problematic start. Maybe I was just feeling good when I climbed it the other day, but I thought the start featured simple, good face climbing. Usually, when I hear that a Gunks climb has a bouldery start, it means to me that the moves down low will be two grades harder than the rating suggests they should be, and that there will be inadequate pro until the early challenge is over and done with. Think of climbs like Laurel or Drunkard's Delight and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. But Alley Oop? Not so! The moves are all there, and there's seemingly good pro. Dick Williams says "yellow Alien helpful" to protect the starting move, and when I got to the first horizontal, I thought he must be crazy. The crack seemed too shallow to accept a cam. But then lo and behold, right in front of my face, there was a spot where the yellow Alien fit like a glove. I yanked on the sucker pretty hard, and of course there's a limit to what that kind of testing will tell you, but it appeared to me that it would hold a fall.

Once you place the yellow Alien (a yellow TCU or a #2 C3 might also work), it's another couple of thin moves up and right to a stance with bomber gear. From there the pitch follows an obvious corner up and then left to an orange face. Climb past a couple of hollow flakes straight up to the corner under the roof. It is not necessary to place gear behind these hollow flakes; look elsewhere for pro, there's plenty. Exit left out the roof, and you're at the bolts. The roof is awkward but not too difficult. It feels pretty airy when you're in the thick of it.

Dry Heaves is a definite step up in difficulty and commitment. The route starts up a nice right-facing corner just to the left of Alley Oop. the corner leads to an overhang about 15 feet off the ground. This overhang goes out right for about eight or nine feet and then turns upward, forming a big flake against the main wall. The strenuous crux involves the underclinging traverse out this overhang to the outside corner of the flake.

There's great gear and a good stance in the corner before the crux sequence. I spent a lot of time standing and fretting in that corner. Again Williams advises that the yellow Alien will be "helpful." For some reason I never even tried to place it on this pitch. I think I know where Dick wants you to put it. About halfway out the traverse the crack under the overhang (which to that point is too small even for fingertips) suddenly widens enough to fit the cam. But there is a much wider opening a few feet further right, almost at the end of the traverse, and I thought I could reach over there instead and slam in my big #4 Camalot. When I climbed it, I tip-toed out two or three times before I decided to go for it and place my #4. I grabbed the undercling hold, had my feet in place, and edged to the right as I reeeeeached over with the big cam in my hand... but then I dropped the freakin' thing.

I'm lucky I didn't bean my partner Liz in the head with it.

So then I quickly retreated to the stance, shook it all out again, and recommitted to the sequence. I had to go right away or I was never going to do it. This time I forgot all about the yellow Alien and motored through the strenuous, underclinging crux until I turned the corner of the flake. Then I slammed in a red #1 Camalot and exhaled.

My recommendation to you, dear reader, is that you don't do as I did. If I'd blown it at the crux I would have had a long swing into the corner. You should place the yellow Alien or its equivalent halfway out the traverse. You can probably get it in before you commit to the undercling and step off the good footholds. It will greatly lessen the pendulum swing backward if you blow the next move.

At the end of the traverse you can fit anything from a #1 through a #4 Camalot. Then it's another couple of thin moves up the flake to easier climbing into the final roof problem, which is just as entertaining as the final problem on Alley Oop.

It's a really nice pitch and in my opinion kind of stout for 5.8. I imagine it's good preparation for Inverted Layback (5.9) in the Nears, a climb I've really been wanting to try. Now that I've done Dry Heaves I think I might be ready.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Gunks Routes: No Glow (5.9)

(Photo: My partner Adrian just above the crux on the 5.9 pitch two of No Glow.)

Not far past the Arrow wall, just before CCK, No Glow occupies a part of the Trapps that is crowded with classics. Dick Williams gives the route two stars in his latest guidebook, but it seems to me it is a bit less popular than it ought to be. I reckon this is for two reasons: (1) the first pitch is only 5.4, and (2) the second, crux pitch begins with some R-rated climbing. But these issues shouldn't deter you; No Glow is a really fun climb. Pitch one involves good, typical 5.4-5.5 Gunks face climbing. Pitch two is outstanding. I recommend the route highly, but as you will see, I think it will be better for you if you climb with double/half ropes.

The main challenge with pitch one is finding the correct start. If you walk down the carriage road to the distinctive Andrew boulder, the next blazed trail up the talus will take you directly to the base of CCK. Walk climber's left around the large right-facing corner and continue past another prominent left-facing corner system that ascends all the way to the GT ledge (this is the Moonlight corner). It is another thirty or forty feet to the base of No Glow. Look above, at least halfway to the GT Ledge, for an obvious, jutting right-facing flake that forms an overhang. Then look down beneath this flake for blocks stacked against the wall about 30 or 40 feet off the ground. Below these stacked blocks is the start of No Glow, up a ramp-like set of features to the blocks.

The start has no pro for 15 or 20 feet. You can see from the ground where your first pro will be; there are good cam placements there. The climbing to this point is quite easy, but it might unnerve a new leader to go so far before the first gear placement. Once you reach the stacked blocks my recommendation is to leave them alone. You may be tempted to place gear in the cracks amongst these blocks but there is no reason to do so; there is a good crack for pro on the wall to the right. It is also just as easy to climb the route without touching them. From the blocks you should aim for the flake, following your nose up the wall past numerous horizontals. There is a horizontal pretty much wherever you might want one, and numerous ways to climb; I tend to meander a little, following the opportunities for placing gear. Getting past the flake is not difficult, but in my opinion it is the steep crux of the pitch. Once over the flake head pretty much straight up to the big oak tree/rappel station on the GT ledge.

Pitch two begins just to the left, in the prominent left-facing corner. Climb into the corner and then traverse out right beneath the overhang around the outside corner and onto the main face, with your feet just above the first lip. This is the part of the pitch that Williams describes as rated 5.5 R, but I don't think it is really R-rated if you use double ropes. There is a bomber vertical crack at the back of the corner for pro. If you place gear here with a long runner you won't create a ton of drag and you'll be protected just fine for the first insecure step of the traverse. After this first step the traverse is much easier, with no worries around the outside corner to the face. Once on the main face I would immediately place pro using my OTHER rope so as not to create an ocean of drag.

After the fun traverse, the climbing steepens up a shallow dihedral to the roof crux. There's a pin and a good crack for pro here. Then pull the overhang (think undercling and a long reach), clip the second pin, and make a smeary step up to a good stance. Pretty easy for 5.9. The rest of the way you'll find good, thoughtful but easier climbing to the top on marble-like rock similar to what you experience on the nearby Arrow wall.

Your double ropes will also be helpful with No Glow's descent. There are rap rings at the top on steel cables around trees. I believe you can make it to the GT ledge with a single 60 meter rope rap from here, but from the GT Ledge to the ground requires two ropes. If you only have a single, walk climber's right on the GT Ledge around the corner to the tree above the first pitch of CCK. From this tree one a single 60 meter rope will get you to the ground. Or from the top of the cliff walk climber's left to the Arrow bolts (two raps with a single) or climber's right to the bolts at Ken's Blind Hole (three raps with a single).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Climbing Moby Grape (5.8), Cannon Cliff, NH

(Photo: A portion of Cannon Cliff, with some wetness clearly visible.)

A few weeks ago I got to bring to life a little dream of mine.

 I've been wanting for a couple of years to do a long route on what passes for a big wall here in the Northeast, either the Diagonal route (5.8) on Wallface Mountain in the Adirondacks, or the Whitney-Gilman Ridge (5.7) or Moby Grape (5.8) on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire. Until recently this dream has remained unrealized because I didn't want to take a whole weekend away from my family in order to do the climbs, and I didn't have a partner for whom it seemed to be a priority.

But then this summer I met Adrian, who recently moved to NYC from Vancouver. He's been climbing at Squamish for two decades. Big walls are his bread and butter. It wasn't long into our first climbing conversation that I confessed to him my burning desire to go up North to hit one of these big faces.

Later, when Adrian and I started talking about heading up to the Gunks for a weekend day, Adrian asked me if I wanted to head up to Cannon Cliff instead. It was like I'd rubbed a lamp and a genie had suddenly emerged. There was no way I was saying no. The only problem was that I couldn't take both Saturday and Sunday to climb. I quickly hatched a viable, if kind of brutal, alternative plan: we would head out Friday night and drive 5 or 6 hours to the vicinity, crash in a hotel, get up early, hit Moby Grape (and maybe the Whitney-Gilman too if we were really moving fast!), and then drive the 5 to 6 hours back home Saturday night. This way we'd be done in a day. A marathon day, but just a day nonetheless.

For some reason Adrian agreed.

We drove out on Friday night, heading up Route 91 through Vermont until we reached the junction with Route 93, which goes down through New Hampshire to Franconia Notch State Park, the home of Cannon Cliff. I had printed from Google a list of nearby hotels but I didn't think we would need it. I assumed there'd be room at the local Comfort Inn since it wasn't yet leaf season.

I was mistaken.

We pulled into the Comfort Inn parking lot at about 12:45 a.m. When we went inside, a very smug young woman seemed thrilled to tell us that they didn't have a single room available. I asked her if she knew of any other hotels in the area and she replied, with certainty, that no one else could take us. I never found out why the local hotels were so packed. I couldn't wait to get away from this unpleasant person, so I neglected to ask her.

Back in the parking lot we were debating whether to drive around to look for another hotel, or to simply try to sleep in my Subaru, when I remembered my printed-out list of hotels. Several surreal phone calls then ensued, in which I called numerous different hotels only to reach the same late-night hotel desk man over and over again. It turned out that in the St. Johnsbury, VT area (where Route 91 meets Route 93), most of the hotels have no one at the desk at night, and a few different hotels have their late-night incoming calls routed to this one person who mans the phone for the Fairbanks Inn. I had a few conversations in a row with this same gentleman, and in each case he was equally incapable of determining whether any rooms were available at whatever hotel was in question. (He actually left me a message later offering me a room after we'd made other arrangements.) Finally we lucked out when I awoke the proprietress of an amazing little slice of history called Injun Joe Court. I'm not kidding. This place really exists. The lady told us to come on over, and she waited up for us, so I decided against asking her about the name of her establishment. We finally got to sleep about 1:30, vowing to get up at 6:00 so we could find breakfast and still get to Cannon pretty early.

(Photo: the sign for Injun Joe's. Crazy, right?)

We got up pretty much on time and had an indifferent breakfast at the nearby Joe's Pond Country Store, making it to the Cannon Cliff parking lot by 8:00 a.m. Upon our arrival, we learned some potentially upsetting news from some other climbers who were sporting a pair of binoculars. They'd been scanning the cliff, and they'd found that there were multiple parties already on both the Whitney-Gilman Ridge and Moby Grape. Also, the cliff was looking pretty wet. I wasn't really surprised to find other climbers at Cannon on the weekend, but I didn't think it would be so crowded so early. It was supposed to be a nice day, in the sixties, but the whole park was still shrouded in fog. And as for the wetness, that really did catch me by surprise. It had rained pretty heavily two days before down in the NYC area (this was the time of the Brooklyn "tornado"), but after a full dry day I didn't expect it to be so wet on the rock.

What could we do but make the best of it? We'd come all this way. We weren't turning around. We geared up and hiked through the big talus field to the base of Moby Grape, and it immediately became apparent that we would not be doing more than one route on the cliff. We were already the fourth party of the day on Moby Grape. And the second party was not yet finished with the first pitch.

When we finally got started, the route turned out to be excellent, even though it got wetter and wetter as we progressed towards the top. Many climbers know of the famous features on the route, such as the Triangle Roof on the third pitch, and the Finger of Fate on the fifth. But the route has so much more than that to offer. Nearly every pitch has at least one unique feature offering a specific challenge to the climber. And despite what you may have read, nearly the whole route features good climbing on solid granite.

Generally good rock notwithstanding, as an alpine route on an exfoliating cliff Moby Grape certainly requires more commitment than your average Gunks 5.8. And with numerous sections featuring vertical jam cracks and granite slabs, the climbing was largely alien to a Gunks climber like me. Once the wetness variable was added to the equation I was thrilled to have an experienced granite climber like Adrian along. I knew he'd be happy to lead all the crux pitches and in the end he led some of the ones designated for me as well.

We had with us the Jon Sykes guidebook to the area, Secrets of the Notch. Since there was a conga line of climbers ahead of us on the route, we barely used the book. Looking at the description in retrospect, it seems adequate to me, but no more than that. The description on is really quite poor, leaving out a lot of crucial directions and inaccurately dismissing the climbing that follows the "finger of fate" to the top of the cliff. Probably the best route description can be found on the website for Chauvin Guides.

Pitch 1 (5.8)

(Photo: Climbing Reppy's Crack, close on the heels of another party.)

We started, as I imagine most people do these days, with the Reppy's Crack variation. This pitch features a perfect jam crack for about 120 feet, which is then followed by fun moves around a corner and up to a bolted anchor. I actually considered leading this pitch, despite my complete lack of experience with jamming. I figured I knew intellectually what to do, and that by the end of the pitch I'd get used to it and have it down. But jam cracks are Adrian's specialty, so I deferred to his desire to lead the pitch, and I am so happy I did. After Adrian flew up the thing, obviously enjoying himself and declaring the crack to be the equal of anything in Squamish, I slowly suffered to the top. I found the hand jams awkward, the foot jams painful. My progress was too slow, increasing the pain. And it never let up. No particular move was too hard, but the whole experience was just exhausting for me. Before the crux pod I felt one of my hands start to slip and I just let the fall happen. I needed a rest. Then I did the crux step up out of the pod without any trouble, and just willed my way to the end of the pitch, constantly wishing it could be over. I arrived at the belay a little demoralized. I vowed to get some practice jamming, but without a multi-day trip to Yosemite or Squamish I'm not sure how I'm going to get enough practice to improve! The rest of the climb went much more smoothly for me, without a moment's fear that I would actually fall, and the ratings on the whole seemed fair.

Pitch 2 (4th Class)

This is the route's lone throwaway pitch. It is about 90 feet of easy scrambling, starting left up some blocks and then up a corner to a good ledge at the base of steeper rock.

Pitch 3 (5.8)

(Photo: Adrian climbing up to the triangle roof, again not far behind another group.)

This is the physical crux pitch, featuring the triangular roof. The roof is a fun 5.8 challenge, one that any Gunks climber should have no trouble with. Something the guidebooks don't tell you is that the moves to get to the stance below the roof, up a right-leaning seam with slabby feet, are also tricky, contributing to the sustained fun of the pitch. After pulling the roof it is another friction step up to a good ledge, which can be followed to the right for a belay at some suspect blocks.

Pitch 4 (5.7 or 5.8)

(Photo: Working up the pitch 4 corner.)

This was one of my leads, and perhaps because Adrian told me it was a 5.6 I thought it was easy. I later learned that Sykes calls it a 5.7 in his book and the Chauvin Guides' site describes it as 5.8. I thought this pitch was different from all the others and lots of fun, with somewhat committing moves up a layback crack for about 15-20 feet up to the right and around a corner, then up easier rock slightly to the left to a ledge, pretty much directly below the shark's fin-shaped feature known as the Finger of Fate. While Adrian thought the layback was insecure, it didn't worry me much because there are good (if small) edges for feet wherever you need them.

Pitch 5 (5.8)

(Photo: Adrian getting into the Finger of Fate.)

The challenges of this pitch are more mental than physical. The Finger of Fate is actually the second challenge of the pitch. The first is a feature known as the Sickle. This curved, crescent-shaped rock starts almost horizontal and then curves up sharply to the right. There is a fun slabby step with crimpy fingers over to the Sickle, then a hand traverse to the right until your hands are high enough for you to pull your feet up so that you are standing on top of it. In my opinion this is the best part of the pitch. While the Finger of Fate looks intimidating from below, it is actually very easy to climb. People tunnel behind it from either side; when Adrian got to it he chose the right. I made things more difficult for myself while following by stubbornly trying to climb it with my pack on. I had seen an earlier party climb it with packs, but theirs were much smaller than mine. I couldn't fit through with mine on, and I found myself basically stuck while straddling the Finger, unable to fit my body through so I could sit on top of it. I ended up slowly taking a sling from around my shoulder, attaching the pack to my harness with the sling, and then struggling free of the pack, all the while balancing my torso atop the Finger and staring straight down about 400 feet to the bottom of the cliff. I'm sure it made quite a sight; I wish I had pictures! Once you are atop the finger, this great pitch isn't quite over. There's still a low-angled slab move or two to some good holds and then a big grass ledge. These slab moves are not hard, but they are impossible to protect well and a fall here on lead would send you tumbling past the Finger. When we did it, the slab was wet, and I didn't envy Adrian having to lead the pitch. It was a sign of what was to come for the rest of the climb.

Pitch 6 (5.7 or 5.8)

This pitch begins with a couple of bouldery moves up a little polished channel. When we got there, we found out why it is polished: it was running with water, soaking wet. Adrian kept telling me that my toes would still stick on wet granite, and it turned out he was right. The pitch isn't bad, even soaking wet. Past the start the climbing eases past some more slab moves on lower-angled granite to a belay below a chimney.

Pitch 7 (5.7)

When you look up at the awkward move out of the chimney and around onto the face of the cliff, it is hard to believe it is rated 5.7. It turns out to be just as awkward as it appears, and the committing move out from the chimney, if blown, might lead to a pretty nasty swing backwards. Nevertheless I think this pitch is really fun and different from all the others, and it is totally unheralded. There is a great handhold to latch onto before you make the move, and the challenge of the pitch is figuring out how to squirm your body around to grab the hold effectively. Once you've got it (and I'm not telling you which hand to use!), it's just a couple of moves up and around onto the face of the wall, then easier climbing straight up to a good stance.

Pitch 8 (5.6)

There is a popular alternate finish to Moby Grape, a 5.7+ left-facing dihedral called Curt's Corner. We'd hoped to try it out, but it was really wet, just running with water. The guidebook described another 5.6 finish to the right, but looking up neither of us had much of a clue where we were expected to go. I tried to find the line, but failed, and then Adrian came up and picked out a line I wasn't even considering, getting us off the route in no time. I have no idea whether we found the correct finish.

(Photo: a view from the top.)

The descent from the top of Cannon reminds you how far you've come up. It took us more than an hour to get down, but this may have been partly because the descent path was damp and slippery. For us it was borderline unpleasant, but I bet in drier conditions it would be no problem at all.

As we left and I steeled myself for the 6 hour drive back to NYC, I tried to look on the bright side: this would make the commute to the Gunks seem short!