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!"

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