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.