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 Gunks.com 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.