Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Is Oblique Twique a Gunks 5.8?

One recent day in the Gunks I decided to lead the first pitch of Oblique Twique. I chose it because it is a 5.8, and I hadn't previously tried it. I like 5.8's. I hoped Oblique Twique would go easily and then I'd either make an attempt lead the Spring (5.9), which I'd never been on, or we'd just top-rope the Spring from the chains along with the harder stuff like the Winter (5.10d) and the Fall (5.11a).

My plans were foiled when Oblique Twique kicked my butt. It really only has one hard move on it, and it comes late in the pitch, after an easy little chimney and a step to the left. You find yourself just below a short open book. There are some cracks in the center of the open book, but only one of them is useful as a hold. This one hold is a really good sidepull, however. I placed a little C3 in the crack just below the good hold, and figured if I stepped up strong I'd find some good finishing holds somewhere above and the climb would reach the ledge and be over.

So I stepped up and to my dismay I found no holds at all after the good sidepull. I pawed at the sloping upper part of the left side of the open book, finding nothing useful, and then fell. I went back up several times, trying this and that, and every time I ended up steppping back down with nothing to show for the effort. I gathered you were supposed to find a way to get your feet up and then grab the top of the shelf on the right side of the open book, which looked flat and positive. But I couldn't find a way to do it. Finally I had my partner Liz lower me to the ground and I offered her the lead.

Liz went up to take a look, but decided she didn't want to try the move on lead, even though my tiny purple C3 was obviously (obviously!) totally bomber. So I lowered her. I then led up Shit Creek (5.6) and traversed over to the chains above the Spring (creating oceans of ridiculous drag). I set up a directional over Oblique Twique and Liz tried it on top-rope. And she found after several tries that she couldn't do it either.

I wondered: what kind of 5.8 is this??

I went back up on top-rope and finally got it. I pawed around a bit again, and found that with opposition you could use the upper left portion of the open book as a sort of sloper hold long enough to take a step up and grab the top of the open book with your right hand.

After this confidence-destroying episode there was no way I was leading the Spring, so we did it on top-rope as well and it just raised more questions. There was no one move on this 5.9 climb that seemed as hard as the crux move on Oblique Twique.

Later on I looked up the climb on Gunks.com, and found a thread that made me feel like I wasn't alone. Several climbers complained about Oblique Twique and expressed the view that the move was undergraded. After I posted my own experience to the thread, a minority suggested I'd ultimately found the right way to do it and that this was a 5.8 move once you find it.

I've thought about it and I still believe it is undergraded.

Ratings are subjective, of course, and several different styles of climbing are put together under the umbrella of a single rating, so comparing one 5.8 to another can often seem like comparing apples to oranges. But when I think about other Gunks 5.8's, there is a pattern I can identify, and Oblique Twique in my opinion doesn't fit.

When I think of 5.8's in the Gunks, I see several types of climbs.

There are those climbs that work their way up more-or-less vertical crack systems. Usually the holds are quite good but there may be moves that are strenuous and require a committing step. I'm thinking here of routes like Airy Aria, Columbia, pitch 1 of Directissima, Bold-ville, and Groovy.

Then there are the thin face climbs, in which the moves are delicate and the holds are small, sometimes requiring a balancey high step, but the holds are all there and if you look and think the moves themselves aren't terribly difficult. I'm thinking here of routes like Absurdland, the lower part of Son of Easy O, and the beginning of Hyjeck's Horror. And the crux face moves at the end of pitch 1 of Three Doves.

And finally there are the steep climbs, which have overhanging sections but which generally have positive, juggy holds through those sections. The moves can be strenuous but they are generally obvious. In this category I would place routes like Double Crack, pitch 1 of Erect Direction, the upper portion of Son of Easy O, and the short crux of Alphonse.

Oblique Twique would seem to fit in the thin face climb category, but I think the face move in question is harder than the usual Gunks 5.8 move. It is less obvious than the usual 5.8 face move. It is also more difficult to execute once discovered, requiring the use of a sloping surface that isn't really much of a hold, and the use of balance and body tension not usually required in 5.8 territory.

Really I think there shouldn't be much debate about this. Oblique Twique isn't a 5.8. This climb belongs in a different category of Gunks climbs in which the usual rating rules do not apply: the one-move wonder. As I am learning, climbers should beware the one-move wonder, because it seems a climb with only one hard move on it will often be graded at a level below the true difficulty of that one move. Arrow is another climb rated 5.8 in which a similar game has been played. It has one super-hard move, which luckily is protected by a bolt. This move should not be rated 5.8 but it is significantly harder than the rest of climb, so an irrational discount is applied.

So that's the final verdict. Oblique Twique should be a 5.9. Or a 5.9+, maybe. Is it even worth bothering to do it?

I would say probably not. Bold-ville, a stellar pitch of consistent 5.8, is a much better way to get up to the anchor above the Seasons, if that is your goal. And if you want to continue with the adventurous, traversing upper pitches of Oblique Twique (which I have not done), then Shit Creek is a nicer way to start the route.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Top-Roping Guide to the Trapps

Until very recently, I looked down upon top-ropers.

I was a trad climber. I was working my way up the grades, doing every climb as an "on-sight." I worked through Gunks 5.6 this way, then 5.7, then 5.8, and into 5.9. Along the way, I had some very exciting moments on the lead working through moves that were totally new to me. This was purely accidental; my partners were no more experienced than I was and I liked pushing things, challenging myself. I had no one to take me up harder climbs so I had no alternative but to get after it myself. Even though I had no choice about it, I still regarded my path as morally superior to rehearsing climbs on top-rope before leading them. Certainly it seemed more exciting.

And then I broke my ankle while climbing last fall, gained 15 pounds, came back this spring and found myself struggling on some of those 5.8's. I started fretting about my frame of mind on lead. One day I'd feel fine, another I'd place five pieces of pro in fifteen feet and have to hang because I didn't want to commit to the totally protected crux.

And I started to ask myself: why not forget these worries and work some harder routes on top-rope? Is there really anything wrong with it? If I top-rope, I might lose some excitement in my life. I have thus far made it a point to avoid top-roping Retribution (5.10b), for example, because it has always been my plan that one day I will feel the urge to walk up and lead it on-sight. If I throw a top-rope on it and work out the moves before I lead it, I will lose forever that experience of discovery on lead.

On the other hand, will I ever get to the point where I feel comfortable walking up to Retribution and leading it without working on some real live Gunks 5.10's on top-rope first? At this point I'd have to say the answer is probably no.

After thinking it over I came to the conclusion that my climbing will progress much faster if I'm not so doctrinaire about the top-roping thing. And so I put it into practice recently, top-roping Phoebe after leading Ken's Crack. And the heavens did not fall. It was actually quite fun and instructive.

But while top-roping may no longer be on my "don't" list, I do think a few rules are in order. Most of these are well-known rules designed to minimize conflict at the crag. One I have created out of my own desire to preserve as much excitement in climbing as I can.


1. At the Gunks, top-roping is best practiced on a weekday, especially if you plan to occupy a popular climb or the chains above a popular climb. Getting in the way of people who wish to lead is a no-no. Don't do it.

2. If you are using fixed chains for an anchor, do not run your rope through the fixed gear. Use your own equipment to save wear and tear on the fixed chains.

3. Set up super-safe anchors for your top-roping pleasure. Please, be careful. When you top-rope, by necessity you test the anchor. It must be solid, and should be redundant. Don't fall into the mentality that it doesn't need to be bombproof because it is "only top-roping." That is a recipe for disaster.

4. Think about which routes you want to top-rope and save some for the on-sight! There are some routes that are easy to set up for top-roping, but which I really want to save to lead, and so I don't intend to top-rope them. Two examples: MF (5.9) and Retribution (5.10b). In fact, for me I think top-roping will be mostly reserved for routes with poor protection, which I'll never want to lead. Routes like Coronary (5.10b) or even easier R-rated routes like Fitschen's Folly (5.8).

Finally, I offer a resource, a chart I created of many easy top-rope setups in the Trapps. It focuses on 5.10's, but there are harder climbs too and some easier climbs, most of which were chosen because of their reputations for poor protection. You should know that I have personally tested very few of these and that some of them are set-ups I believe should work but which may be hard to put into practice without creating a damaging situation for your rope, or which may require directionals that are difficult to place. But most of them should work just fine. As always when climbing, your own judgment must be your guide. Don't blindly trust in my judgement, or in anyone else's, for that matter.

I intend to update this chart every time I test one of the set-ups and get more useful information. If you'd like to get a copy of it as a Word document, contact me here and I'll email it to you.

2015 Update:

This post has been one of my most popular. It gets hits all the time and I feel a little bit uneasy about it because I haven't revised this document in over four years and I have no intention of doing so. I also occasionally shudder at the thought of some climbing newbies taking this document and getting themselves in over their heads somewhere. So I'm going to reiterate and highlight the caveats that I already stated above:

I haven't tested many of the setups contained in this document! I can't guarantee that they are all practical or safe!

If you do not know what you are doing, hire a guide! Don't create an unsafe situation for yourself or others just because a piece of paper says you ought to be able to set up a top rope somewhere.

That is all.
Trapps Toprope List

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My First Major Motion Picture

It is entitled "Clash of NYC Climbing Civilizations," and in it two NYC climbers discuss the vibrant NYC gym climbing scene. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Best 5.6 Climbing in the Gunks

(Photo: climber reaching the optional hanging belay point at the end of pitch two of Madame Grunnebaum's Wulst)

You don't see too many blog posts about 5.6 climbs.

What kind of climbing blogger admits to being excited about 5.6?

Well, 5.6 is the first GREAT grade at the Gunks. There are many 5.6 climbs to get excited about. I would argue that 5.6 is one of the premier grades at the Gunks. There are more world-class Gunks 5.6's than 5.7's. And although 5.8 is also a great grade at the Gunks you could easily make the case that 5.6 is even better.

So here are some of my favorites, and these are not just climbs that top out at 5.6, but also a few 5.6 pitches that you'll find on some harder climbs. I am not writing guidebook entries here, so I do not intend to help you find the climbs or describe every single detail. Rather, I hope to explain to you why you should like them as much as I do.


Any discussion of 5.6 at the Gunks has to contend with the three consensus bests. People travel long distances to the Gunks just to tackle these classics. They are so well-known, I probably don't even have to name them. They are (without further ado): High Exposure, Shockley's Ceiling, and Madame Grunnebaum's Wulst (popularly known as Madame G's). I'm not about to tell you that these beloved classics stink. But I do have some opinions about them that may buck the conventional wisdom just a bit.

High Exposure

High E is extremely popular. Every time I am nearby I find it occupied. I frequently see newcomers fumbling about trying to locate the start of the climb, clearly on a mission that depends wholly on climbing this one route. A couple of weeks ago, when we had a brief spell of perfect June weather, I took a day off from work and visited the Gunks on a weekday. My partner and I had our pick of routes. Very few climbers were out and no one was waiting for anything. But High E? When we walked by it had two parties at the base lined up to climb it.

In order to climb High E you have to be prepared to wait for it. Is it worth waiting for?

I would say it is, but I also think it can't possibly live up to the hype. It is overrated. The first 5.4 pitch from the ground to the GT ledge is perfectly pleasant but totally unremarkable. The second pitch has the big move out onto the face, which is not physically challenging. There is a great vertical crack for a sidepull and bombproof gear; you just have to lean out (this is the mental crux) so you can look up and locate the jugs above. This mental crux is the moment that makes the climb's reputation, and it is very good. The rest of the pitch consists of about 40 feet of moderately overhanging jug pulling. It is a nice pitch, and it is in my opinion a great early 5.6 lead despite the "+" in the official rating, since the juggy climbing resembles gym climbing, and the pro is abundant. There's a good horizontal for a cam wherever you want one. But it isn't my choice for best 5.6 in the Gunks.

Shockley's Ceiling

In contrast, Shockley's does live up to the hype. At least the third crux pitch does. The first two pitches are easy throwaways. But the last pitch, which ascends through the improbable ceiling, then moves up a left facing corner to another crux at a small overhang, is worth all the accolades. This is another 5.6 that, despite appearances, is a great climb for newish 5.6 leaders, since there are three pins right below the crux crack, and you can put a perfect #2 Camalot into that crack and feel completely secure that if you blow the ceiling you won't be falling far. Once you're past the ceiling, you can bask in the glow of your accomplishment while you cruise up to the second crux, and then you have to focus again (think layback) to finish it off. This final pitch alone makes Shockley's Ceiling a worthwhile adventure but you can make it even better. If you do Strictly From Nowhere (5.7) up to the chains for your first pitch, then diagonal up right for an easy, short second pitch to the belay below the ceiling, and then finish on Shockley's, you've done one of the very best moderate climbs at the Gunks, regardless of grade.

Madame G's

Madame G's is, in my opinion, the best overall 5.6 at the Gunks. The first pitch is easy (5.4) and short; it really isn't the attraction, and if you're up to leading 5.8, the first pitch of Columbia just to the left is a wonderful way to get up to the ledge where the real business of Madame G's starts. Once the business starts, you'll find you're in for a real treat. Pitches two and three are both relentlessly steep, with great holds. I like to combine these two pitches and ignore the hanging belay in the middle, but beware of drag on this wandering route. The pumpiness increases as you get towards the top and you do not want to have to struggle to pull up your rope as you get close to the anchors. So long as you watch the drag, this route is a joy the whole way; I call it the best because it offers such consistent, high-quality steep climbing. This kind of juggy fun is what the Gunks is all about.



Beyond the three "bests" are many other highly rated 5.6 routes, and some that should be more highly rated than they are. Maria is a route that gets three stars in Dick Williams' latest guidebook, but I think the initial traverse pitch is underrated, and the third pitch is often ignored by climbers unaware of its true location or even of its existence. (The most recent guidebook to the Gunks places this third pitch in the wrong location, on a "mud slope" to the left of the real route.) If you do the whole route I think Maria rivals Madame G's for the title of best overall 5.6. It certainly outshines Madame G's in its variety.

The first pitch climbs the best part of Frog's Head (5.6-), going up a thin vertical crack that takes nuts like a dream. Pull the crux move past a bulge (great fun), then take the no-worries traverse to the right with great gear to the corner. Pitch two heads straight up the corner to the GT ledge. This pitch is rated 5.6+ and it is also consistent fun. There is no cruxy moment, but you may at times have to think a little and use opposition to move upward. Finally, from the top of pitch two, move right until you are below a right-facing corner capped by a roof about 20 feet up. This roof problem, also rated 5.6+, is a wonderful sandbag. I don't think this is a pitch for the new 5.6 leader; it is short but not easy. There is a good crack for gear in the roof but it is thin and in my experience makes the small cams placed there hard to evaluate. You also move left out the roof and a fall might be a little ugly even if the gear is good. There is no denying, however, that the climbing here is excellent.

Put it all together and you get crack, bulge, traverse, corner, and roof climbing, all in one route, and all at 5.6. Pretty amazing.


Baby is another of my favorite 5.6's. it gets two stars from Williams but I would argue for three. It has two excellent pitches, the first with a short off-width that seems to freak people out, and the second ascending a nice corner to a cool 5.6 roof. With regard to the off-width: I don't intend to help you climb it. There are several different ways to solve it. But I will give you one bit of advice. Bring a big cam. A purple # 5 Camalot is good; I know this from experience. A green # 6 would probably be even better. With a big cam you can protect the off-width a few crucial feet higher than you could with a blue # 3. And then you'll be set.


Moonlight gets only one star from Williams. I would argue for at least two. It is another great climb, with a mental crux that in my opinion requires a much bigger gut check than the move on High E. Pitch one is a pleasant, long climb up a prominent corner to the GT Ledge. Pitch two climbs an easy ramp-like feature until you find yourself in a corner with a roof over your head. To escape from the corner, you must commit to the overhanging left wall, on tiny feet, and pull yourself around to the left, all the while hoping you'll find some holds over there once you escape the roof around the outside corner and onto the main wall. Oh, and you have to make this move with just a piton for pro. When I did it, I also managed to work a shallow nut into a seam, but I wasn't fooling myself; the nut was junk.

Once you commit to heading around the corner and you get a good stance, the pitch isn't over. There's still good climbing up a crack to the finish. A very exciting pitch for the grade.


Bloody Mary

This route has a great face-climbing first pitch that used to be rated 5.6. (Williams now rates it 5.7.) But the second pitch is still considered 5.6 and there is no other 5.6 like it. It involves climbing up to the left end of an overhang and traversing about 10 feet in a VERY overhanging position to the right, until it is possible to head upward on good holds. Then it's an easy romp to the GT Ledge. This pitch is one of the few that is easier for short people. It is strenuous, but the holds and pro are great. Skip pitch 3, it stinks.


I would guess that most people do the excellent 5.8 first pitch of Bold-ville and then set up the chain anchor above all the harder Seasons climbs, skipping the fun second pitch of Bold-ville. This is a shame. Not unlike Bloody Mary, the 5.6 second pitch of Bold-ville involves a steep hand traverse around a corner, this time in the opposite direction, to the left. The horizontal crack/shelf you follow provides good hands and pro the whole way.


Another way to get to the GT ledge on the High E Buttress, Directissima is a climb of great variety and another good candidate for best moderate climb in the Gunks. Partially this is because of the fun 5.8 crack on pitch one and the scary, pumpy 5.9 traverse on pitch two, but mostly it is because of the unique beauty of the 5.6 third pitch, which follows the point of the arete all the way to the GT Ledge. The pitch starts out steep, but as you climb the angle eases off and soon you are free to just take in the surroundings from your perch at the tip of a triangle sticking out from the main cliff of the Trapps, with terrific views in both directions. Once you reach the GT Ledge you get to finish it off with the crux pitch of High E.

Basking Ridge

This climb is listed in the most recent Williams guide to the Nears as a link-up of two old classic climbs, Baskerville Terrace and Yellow Ridge. The first pitch, which is the first pitch of Baskerville Terrace, is a great, pretty stiff 5.7. The 5.6 second pitch goes to the right on a ledge about 10 feet below a pair of pitons that make up an optional belay station on Baskerville Terrace. Follow this ledge to the right into a left-facing corner, and then a perfect, rising hand- and foot-rail will take you to the right to the outside corner and around to a stance. This rising traverse takes good gear and features great exposure, and when you're at the stance around the outside corner you just head straight up through the awesome 5.6 roofs on the final pitch of Yellow Ridge. A great and unique 5.6 pitch in the Nears, and one of my favorite pitches in the Gunks.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Gunks Routes: Phoebe (5.10b)

(Image taken by Anthony Baraff; I swiped it from mountainproject.com.)

I tried Phoebe the other day on top-rope and I have to say it is a nice little climb. It made Gunks 5.10b seem like a realistic possibility for the future, although I can't say I got the thing clean. My partner Liz was able to do it clean on top-rope on her second try. I could do all the moves but I wasn't able to put it together without a hang. Maybe next time. Probably. Definitely.

The climb has two cruxes, one low, one high. The low one requires a right foot high-step while your left hand is pulling down on a mediocre crimp and your right is on a mediocre sidepull. The kid climber in the photo above is above the low crux; her body is hiding the bolt in the middle of the face.

The high crux comes after you move past the bolt to the tiny overhang above. You have to gently move right on poor, smeary feet and then step up to grab the undercling hold in the next small overhang. Then it's all pretty straightforward to the top.

I would like to say that I'd consider leading Phoebe one day after working the moves a bit more... but I don't think it'll ever happen as I don't see how you protect the upper crux. You could definitely get a cam in the undercling just AFTER the crux, but if you blew it on the smeary feet with only the bolt clipped beneath you, you'd almost certainly hit the block at the base.

So I think it will always remain a top-rope climb for me but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. It is certainly worth doing after a warm-up on the wonderful Ken's Crack (5.7). The setup only takes a few minutes; there is a wedged block at the top around which you can thread a cordalette; I also placed two cams in nearby cracks for a three-piece anchor. Next time I'd like to go back and try Charie (5.10a) and Fitschen's Folly (5.8R), both of which are easily set up using a couple of trees at the top of Charie, just a few feet to the right of Phoebe.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Post Numero Uno

Why "Climb and Punishment?"

It is the name of a climb, a 5.11 in the Gunks that I've never done, and given its difficulty, who knows, I probably never will.

The name has a certain ring to it that I like. It resonates with my professional life as a criminal defense attorney, although I have no intention of engaging in any law talk here.

It also seems appropriate to my rock climbing life:

I climb, and this blog is about climbing.

And climbing involves punishment, by its nature. It takes a physical toll, of course. I've discovered it also takes a mental toll. You climb, and sometimes it is all about sending and high-fiving. Other times you question your choices. You wonder about your limits. You take known risks, and some unknown. Later, if you think about it (and feel a responsibility to be around for your loved ones), you feel guilty about the risks you've taken that in hindsight seem unwise. You resolve to learn from your mistakes.

And then you go out and do it all over again.

I hope in this blog to think and write about some of these issues about which we climbers are always punishing ourselves.

Sounds awfully serious, doesn't it?

I also plan to do those fun things people typically do in climbing blogs. I will talk about climbs I do and trips I take. I will post pictures, talk about gear, and put up links to stuff I think is cool. And I will make general observations about the larger climbing scene.

I am a trad climber. I climb almost exclusively in the Gunks, where the moderates are numerous and the moderates are good. I am in my early forties and I began climbing in 2006. I am married, with two kids, and consequently I do not get out to climb nearly so much as I would like. Despite the fact that climbing often takes a back seat to the other events of my life, my climbing has progressed quite a bit, though I am still firmly mired in sub-5.10 trad leading. I have had fantastic days climbing, like the day I led both CCK and Bonnie's Roof, on-sight. I have had bad days, like the day I fell near the top of Insuhlation and broke my ankle. (I'm sure I'll write more on that subject.) Along the way, through good experiences and bad, I like to think I have accumulated a little knowledge, which we all know is a dangerous thing. So caveat emptor, reader.

I love climbing, and I love the Gunks. I live in NYC, but over the last few years I've come to feel like those cliffs in Gardiner are a spiritual home to me. Above all else, I hope in this blog to communicate why I love climbing so and why the Gunks are so special to me.