A few summers ago, when I was just getting into leading, my friend Greg suggested we do a project together in which we would climb every 5.5 in the Gunks. I had just started leading 5.5s, so it seemed like a good idea to me at the time, but the project barely got under way before we abandoned it. We did most of the best 5.5s fairly quickly, and after I had several under my belt I'd had enough of 5.5 and wanted to move on to 5.6. Greg then got very busy at work and he wasn't available to climb much. I moved on with other partners and the project fell by the wayside.
One of the climbs we did get to that summer was Asphodel. I haven't been back since, and there's not too much I remember about the climb. The large corner it ascends is impressive. I recall enjoying the first pitch, and even though I was a pretty green leader I found the climb straightforward and well protected. Really I mention the climb here for one reason: there is an error in Williams' guidebook. He puts the first pitch of Asphodel at 90 feet long, which might lead you to believe you can rap from the end of pitch one with a single rope. But the pitch ends at the belay tree for Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b), which is 160 feet off the ground. Now, Asphodel starts around the corner a little bit uphill from Welcome to the Gunks, so the first pitch of Asphodel is probably a little shorter than 160 feet, but believe me, it is way more than 100 feet. I was well beyond the halfway point of our 60 meter single when I finished the pitch. Whatever the actual length of the pitch, in order to descend from the Welcome to the Gunks tree you need two ropes, unless you want to angle to climber's right as you descend and use the ubersketchoid anchor for Laughing Man (5.11b) as a second rappel station. Do yourself a favor and use double ropes; then the descent from the tree is easy. If you only have a single I'd advise you to climb something other than Asphodel. The Laughing Man anchor does not inspire confidence and your other option, the second pitch of Asphodel, quickly turns into a bushwhack to the top, as Greg and I discovered a few years ago. I remember not liking that pitch at all.
Another climb subject to the same issues is Credibility Gap (5.6), which is just to the left of Asphodel. The first pitch of this climb also ends at the same tree, and thus also requires two ropes to descend after pitch one. Williams again makes an error and inaccurately lists the pitch as 80 feet, even shorter than Asphodel, even though both climbs start and end at the exact same place! My speculation is that Williams eliminated some intermediate belays when he updated the descriptions of these routes for his latest guidebook in 2004, but neglected to update the pitch lengths. It is rare to find this kind of error in his books. Nobody's perfect.
I led Credibility Gap during the same year in which I led Asphodel, but my memory of Credibility Gap is much sharper. What I remember most is that I pondered the crux a good long time before I was willing to try it. The pitch starts out with that Gunks rarity, a vertical finger crack. Williams rates this part of the pitch as 5.5; it would be a major draw if it were a little longer. The finger crack is nice, but it is over quickly and then some easy moves up a slab, around a corner, and left up a ramp lead you to a dead end in a right-facing corner capped by a roof. The crux involves a blind move out around the outside corner and onto the face. The airy, intimidating position is similar to the crux of the second pitch of Moonlight (5.6), but this crux, unlike Moonlight's, offers you great gear. The hands are good too. You just have to commit to that left wall, step to the corner, and it's all good, cruiser climbing to the finish.
Of course, it helps to know beforehand that it will all work out fine. I remember the deliberate concentration with which I placed two perfect cams before I made the crux move the first time. And the way I panted with relief after I made it around that corner. It was thrilling to me at the time. But when I returned to Credibility Gap a couple weeks ago, I couldn't find that feeling again. The crux seemed routine. Just one little step and then there's a great foothold at the corner, nothing to worry about. It was good. It was exciting for the grade, with all the backhandedness and condescension that the qualifier for the grade provides.
Will I one day feel this way about the harder climbs that have excited me? About Dry Heaves (5.8), for instance, or Ants' Line (5.9)?
I'd sure love to feel that way one day about Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b), but I doubt that's in the cards. We did this on top rope after doing Credibility Gap, and I tip my helmet to anyone who can calmly lead it. It is difficult, varied, and sustained, and two of the five cruxes are not well protected.
Before I talk about the climbing, I should address the mechanics of top-roping this climb. The belay tree is, as mentioned above, about 160 feet off the ground. This is too far for a slingshot belay with either a 60 or 70 meter single rope. There are two ways to deal with this issue. You can just belay from above, lowering each climber in turn to try the route. Or you can tie two ropes together and belay from the ground, but then you have the troublesome problem of passing the knot while a climber is mid-pitch. We were a party of three, so we tied two ropes together and passed the knot by having the third person take over the belay as the knot approached the belay device, which may sound complicated but actually works quite well. Also, the route is to the climber's left of the rappel tree, and it helps to place a directional. We placed one in the chalked-up horizontal to the left of the final roof on the climb.
When you look at Welcome to the Gunks from below, it is hard not to be intimidated by all the roofs. They are large and numerous. And the kicker is that the roofs are not the only cruxes on the climb! The diciest parts of the pitch for the leader, in fact, come on the faces below the first and second roofs.
I had the benefit of watching my two partners try the route before I went at it. None of us did the route clean in one go, but I thought given my preview of some of the moves I might have the best shot at it. I made it up crux # 1, the initial slab below the first roof (scary and unprotected for the leader). Then I made it up crux # 2, the giant first roof, which has some pretty acceptable crimps and good feet at the lip. Then I was thrilled to get through crux # 3 (the 5.9 R section for the leader), which is the thin face leading up to the second roof. I was starting to think I had this climb's number. But then crux # 4, the second roof, shut me down several times. Once I unlocked it, it seemed doable, more strenuous than technical. I also fell once at crux # 5, the fourth roof, but then went up to the left the second time instead of to the right and thought it wasn't that big a deal.
Welcome to the Gunks is packed with good, hard climbing, and not just for the grade. I really enjoyed working on it and hope to return. I could see coming back and sending it next time, so long as I attack the second roof correctly. But I remain intimidated by the R section just below that second roof. The insecure slopers just before the good holds will probably forever keep me from leading this route no matter how much I might rehearse it.