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!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Little Taste of Eldo

(Photo: View of the 300-foot Bastille taken from the descent path down from the top of the Wind Tower. In the foreground you can see climbers atop the first pitch of the Wind Ridge, a point from which we traversed off the Wind Tower early in the day.)

I recently fell in love with Eldorado Canyon. I barely got to experience it, but I loved it nonetheless.

I was in Colorado for a week in August with my wife and kids along with two other families. It was my first time in the state. We were vacationing in Summit County, at least an hour and a half from Denver, but I made my friend Greg promise that for at least one day we'd make it to one of the world-class climbing areas near Boulder. Greg introduced me to rock climbing in 2006, and for this I will be forever grateful, but climbing hasn't really been his thing lately. The lucky bastard moved to Denver in July, yet by the time of our visit in late August he had yet to set foot in Boulder Canyon, Eldorado Canyon, the Flatirons.... or any other Colorado climbing area. I saw it as my duty to drag him back from our vacation house to the suburbs of his new home city so we could both be introduced to the glories of at least one of the local climbing meccas.

Out of the wealth of Colorado choices I picked Eldorado Canyon because I wanted multi-pitch trad routes. A friend let me borrow his copy of the old Falcon guide written by Richard Rossiter, and I'm sure it would have served me well enough if I'd used it. But because I'm a sucker for guidebooks I went ahead and purchased Steve Levin's glossy new Eldo guide, and boy is it a beautiful book, an obvious labor of love filled with helpful, comprehensive information along with many entertaining historical pieces written by the great climbers of Eldo's past.

After poring over Levin's masterpiece, I had my heart set on doing either one of two classic moderates I felt I could lead comfortably: The Bastille Crack (5.7) or Rewritten (5.7, but via the 5.8 first pitch of The Great Zot). I was confident I'd be fine on either one of these routes. But as our Eldo day approached I started to feel I shouldn't push too hard to do them. I wanted Greg to enjoy the day, and I knew he wouldn't want to lead anything as hard as 5.7; he might not even be comfortable following climbs at that grade. I also worried that even if he was enthusiastic he'd struggle with the cruxes and we'd end up bailing.

And let's face it, I had doubts about myself as well. A climber on The Bastille Crack had decked off the low crux the week before, falling from 20 feet up at the extremely polished leftward step to the namesake crack. His protective gear, in the flexy flake to the right, had popped right out. I didn't want that to be me. And as for Rewritten, while I wasn't worried about decking, I knew the approach would take a while, the route would be long, the crux difficult to bail from, the traverse nerve-wracking for Greg, and the descent complicated. Having never been in the canyon before, I didn't want to wind up in an epic.

So at some point before we actually drove over to the canyon, I decided to shelve these ambitions, and just do something easy. I proposed to Greg that we do The Wind Ridge, a three-pitch 5.6 that goes to the top of the Wind Tower, one of the smaller formations in the canyon.

But nature had other plans.

We arrived in good time. As we drove in I was immediately enthralled with the canyon. The rock was gorgeous. The possibilities seemed endless. It was a weekday and we were only the third car in the lot. I couldn't resist looking at The Bastille Crack-- it is just a few steps from the parking lot-- and I thought to myself that we might get on it later if things went really fast and well. Then I forced myself to walk away from it, cross the bridge, and head to the Wind Tower.

We found our route quickly, sorted the gear, and started up. I loved the texture of the rock. The sandstone was so easy to grip; chalk seemed totally superfluous. I had been worrying about how comfortable I'd feel climbing in Eldo, about whether I'd need to adjust to the rock or the ratings, but this first pitch put my mind at ease. The climbing felt just like a 5.6 in the Gunks, and just as fun. As I finished the first pitch, I thought things were going quite well.

Then Greg came up and spoiled my reverie by pointing out that it was about to rain. I hadn't even noticed, but it had become cloudy in every direction. Then I felt the drops begin to fall, and I became infuriated. This wasn't supposed to happen. The forecast was for temperatures in the seventies with a zero percent chance of rain. ZERO. I looked around the canyon. Just over yonder a party had started up the Bastille Crack, but we could see they were now bailing. I looked to our left and could see what seemed like an easy traverse off the Wind Tower. This seemed like a better option than continuing upward into a storm. So, reluctantly, I agreed to abandon the climb.

Once we were back on the ground we decided to sit a while and see how the weather developed. The storm never actually got started. After those first few drops it stopped again and never really got to raining. The rock was still dry and other parties were going at it, climbing all around. Still, the sky was completely overcast and it appeared it could pour at any moment. So after sitting for a bit I proposed that if we could find an easy climb that we could be certain would be uncomplicated to escape from at the end of the first few pitches, we should just start climbing again. I opened the guidebook to check and immediately found a route called The Bomb, which is only 5.4 but which Levin gives three stars. It appeared easy to rap off after pitches one and two. And it was the original route up the Wind Tower, going all the way to the top. I was sold.

The route turned out to be very good. I'd recommend it to anyone, but as Levin warns, you should be very careful of the rotten rock near the top of the Wind Tower. It is an unavoidable band of rock, really more of a pile of sandstone shingles, that is quite easy to climb but 100% loose. There is no acceptable pro through this section, and every piece of rock that you grab could be easily pulled out.

And while the rock was totally solid lower down the tower, I did begin to have some doubts about Steve Levin's guidebook and his notion of a "PG" protection rating. One pitch ascended a trench-like feature up the wall for 90 feet. I kept searching and searching for pro, but eventually found only two chockstones to sling and two cam placements for the entire pitch. I found the climbing extremely easy, and I tried to position myself such that a fall would take me into the trench rather than down the wall, but nevertheless four placements in 90 feet was not my idea of "PG." I think this pitch would make a new leader piss his or her pants. But since the climbing felt so secure it didn't worry me very much; in fact it led me to a tiny epiphany about what it means to be "solid" in a grade.

There have come moments in the last couple years in which I've decided that I was solid in trad 5.6, then 5.7, then 5.8, and for a month or so I thought I might actually be a 5.9 trad climber. Most of these moments came when I did a climb of whatever grade and things went well. Even if I found the climb difficult, I made the moves, I placed good gear, I didn't freak out, and it seemed like the best day ever at the cliff. Then I broke my ankle last October on a 5.9+ and after recovering and gaining a little weight I found myself uncertain of everything. This whole year turned into a one step forward/two steps back sort of situation, playing out over and over again. Nothing at 5.8 or above seemed to come without complications, and I could never decide if my physical or mental condition was the handicap.

Climbing The Bomb on the Wind Tower, I realized that I might have discovered a way to measure my own solid-ness in a grade, at least when it comes to my mental state. I decided I can say I'm solid in the grade if I can calmly go about my business, even when no pro appears, and not be falling apart inside. This is pretty easy to accomplish on a 5.4. But what's the highest grade at which I can perform like this?

I certainly wouldn't set out to purposely test my performance with no pro at higher grades, but I do recall one pitch earlier this year where I stumbled into the same sort of situation at a higher grade than 5.4. I was with Vass in the Gunks, climbing Airy Aria. Vass led the 5.8 first pitch. It was one of my first 5.8 leads last year, but we hadn't gone beyond pitch one and we were both excited to come back this year and finish the climb. Vass led pitch one well and I followed it with no issues, feeling good. I then took off from the bolts atop pitch one, planning to go all the way to the GT ledge in one pitch. I made the traverse out from the anchor with no problems, and may have deliberately passed up a gear placement just above the end of the traverse, thinking I'd soon find another placement and that I should conserve gear. I then entered the steep 5.7 crux portion of the pitch, and I couldn't find any pro until it was over. I kept stepping up, looking for pro, and finding none. At one point I looked back to my last piece and I was extremely unhappy; a fall would have been ugly, a long swing. But as I couldn't see any gear options I had no choice but to carry on, telling myself not to worry, I am totally solid in this grade. Eventually I made it to the little belay stance above the crux, slammed in two cams, and could exhale.

At the time this experience reminded me of the maxim that you shouldn't pass up gear placement opportunities if you don't know where your next piece will be. But looking back on it now, I think it gives me some clarity as to where I stand with regards to 5.7. I've led a ton of 5.7s this year, refused to lead one or two, and backed off a couple that I didn't like the looks of after a couple moves. But when push comes to shove, when there's no pro and no choice but to carry on, I think I'm fine at the grade. 5.8? 5.9? I have no idea. So as much as I hate to admit it I don't think I can say today that I'm solid in either grade. I haven't yet passed the test.

Back to Eldo: as we topped out on the Wind Tower, the clouds finally disappeared and we enjoyed brilliant sunshine for the rest of the afternoon. After we descended we did a couple of more easy pitches, then walked around the canyon a bit before heading back to Summit County. I got a look at the Whale's Tail and the giant Redgarden Wall, and felt hungry to return. Some day soon I have to make it happen. I trust the sandstone will wait for me.