Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gunks Routes: The Last Will Be First (5.6)

(Photo: A view of climbers on the High Exposure buttress from high on the first pitch of The Last Will Be First (5.6).)

So you had your heart set on climbing High Exposure (5.6+)... but you arrived at the base of the climb to find it stacked three-deep with parties waiting to get started?

Well, don't waste your whole day waiting below the cliff.

Go hit The Last Will Be First (5.6) instead. It features high-quality moves all the way from the bottom of the cliff to the very top. It is in my opinion harder than High E and more sustained in its difficulty and its quality. I climbed it for the second time in early December with Liz and I was struck by how great it is, from start to finish. I think it is a contender for three stars, though I understand why Dick Williams gives it only two. It has no single standout moment, like the swing out onto the face on pitch two of High E, or the move over the big roof on Shockley's.

But it has something different: consistent fun. I think only Madame G's rivals The Last Will Be First when it comes to great continuous 5.6 climbing.

The first pitch is outstanding. After the initial easy moves up a slab to an obvious crack, you'll find never-ending steep climbing on good rock with good pro. Nice move follows nice move and then you hit the crux, where you'll bust it over a rooflet and up to the top of a shallow left-facing corner. Then you escape right from the corner and past a dead tree to the final good moves up to the GT Ledge. 160 feet of goodness. I can't think of another pitch of 5.6 in the Gunks that is so long and sustained at the grade.

(Photo: Liz almost finished with pitch one.)

When you arrive on the GT Ledge, you'll see a set of rap bolts off a ways to climber's left. I'd recommend against belaying from these bolts, as they do not put you in the best position from which to start pitch two. Instead you should build a gear belay in the cliff behind the ledge, just a step or two left from where you top out after pitch one.

Dick describes pitch two as beginning at the first left-facing corner, about 20 feet to the left of where you emerge from pitch one. I think it is actually less than 20 feet, and there are two corners right next to each other. You want the closer, shallower one. I was confused by Dick's instructions the first time I did The Last Will Be First and ended up going a little too far to the left, coming closer to the second pitch of Unholy Wick by mistake. What I actually did was an unnamed variation between the two climbs. Perhaps this was a first ascent? I can call it The Last Will Be Unholy (5.6). I thought my new variation was fun and well-protected.

I realized I was off-route afterwards, when I looked at the topo photo in the back of the guidebook. In this instance the photo is more helpful than the description. I also have a photo of my own that should help you make sure you don't suffer from the same confusion I had the first time around.

(Photo: Going the wrong way on pitch two of The Last Will Be First (5.6). The actual route is the yellow line on the far right. Click on the photo to enlarge and see the captions for the lines approximating the correct positions of the routes in this part of the cliff.)

In early December when I did the route for the second time I did the correct pitch two. Don't go as far left as I am in the above photo. Instead go up at the first, shallower left-facing corner, heading straight up about ten or fifteen feet then heading diagonally up left to the break in the little overhang.

(Photo: Looking down the correct pitch two of The Last Will Be First, from just above the crux overhang.)

The second pitch is not as sustained as pitch one.  It features face climbing up and left to a small crux overhang that is cleared at the notch. The pro is good but it's a little spaced as you head left from the corner to the overhang. Great pro is available at the crux.

Once above the overhang the climb joins Ken's Blind Hole (5.6) to the finish. Straight up a shallow dihedral to a fun, easy traverse beneath overhangs to the right along a big horizontal. This leads to an exit at the top at a set of belay/rappel bolts.

(Photo: Liz at the finishing traverse on pitch two.)

While it isn't as sustained as the first pitch, pitch two offers good variety: face climbing, then a small overhang, then an entertaining traverse. Definitely well worth doing, and a fitting finish to a really nice climb.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gunks Routes: MF (5.9)

(Photo: Approaching crux # 1 of MF (5.9) in the fog. Is there a climber up there?)

The weather gods have been joking around with me.

Thanksgiving weekend was stunning. We had record highs, in the sixties and seventies, and abundant sunshine. I had a full agenda of stuff going on. This was joyous, important, family stuff. Stuff that I wouldn't dream of missing, it goes without saying.

So there was no way I could go climbing over this beautiful weekend. But I had to take advantage of the warm-weather window somehow. It was killing me to let it just roll by; this could be our last good climbing weather until next Spring. Surely, I thought, there must be something I could do?

I decided to take a vacation day on Tuesday to go to the Gunks.

The only problem was that it was expected to rain. After reviewing the forecast, I decided to go for it anyway. It was going to be warm, and the rain wasn't supposed to come until the late afternoon. A pretty full day was possible, even likely, I told myself. And the weather report for the following days called for deteriorating conditions: more rain and then colder temperatures. My obsessed mind saw Tuesday as my final chance of the year.

Parker agreed to meet me. We'd climbed together once before, in early summer. Back then we were both leading similar climbs but since that time Parker had been climbing a lot, and it sounded like he'd been ripping it up. I was eager to see what he could do. I told him I wanted to climb MF, one of my big goals for 2011. He wanted to do Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a), which I was really excited about climbing (as a second) as well.

When I got up on Tuesday morning it was pretty gloomy out. During the drive up from the city I grew concerned about how foggy it was. The air felt damp. I worried that the cliffs would be coated in a slick, wet mist. It was an unpleasant experience I'd had before.

Then at the Sloatsburg rest stop, as I stood there pumping gas, I detected rain. Not just wet fog, but actual rain.

I paused to search the sky. Were these really drops of rain, falling from the heavens to the earth?

Yes, it was definitely raining.

It grew heavier as I stood there.

This wasn't supposed to happen! Not until later.

I was furious. I started yelling into the air. "Stop it! Stop raining!"

I'm sure I resembled a crazy person.

I got back in my car and started driving faster than before. I'm not sure why-- was I trying to outrun the rain? I kept hoping it wouldn't be like this in New Paltz.

The rain stopped, thankfully, before I got to Exit 18. I couldn't tell whether the cliffs had seen any precipitation. Actually, I couldn't tell whether the cliffs were even there. They were invisible, hidden by dense fog. This was not a good sign.

As I drove to the stairmaster parking lot I saw that the roads were wet. Also not a good sign. If the roads were wet, the rock was likely wet too.

Upon his arrival at the empty parking lot, Parker remarked that we seemed to be the only idiots intent on climbing. But since we were already at the cliffs, we decided we might as well go see if the rock was, by some miracle, dry.

We went straight up to the Mac Wall to look at MF. Described by Dick Williams as "THE standard for 5.9 in the Gunks," MF has a reputation as a tough climb. (As you might have guessed, the letters in the name stand for "Mother F**ker.") The first pitch has two cruxes, the first coming at an awkward, scary move around a corner, and the second involving some thin moves over a bulge. Pitch two has just one crux: a big roof.

I've been working up to MF all year-- all my climbing life, really. I knew on Tuesday as I stood before the route that this could be my last chance to climb it before the end of the season. But I was scared to try it if the rock was damp. Hell, I was scared to try it, period. Even in perfect conditions. Maybe in this iffy weather it was beyond scary. Maybe it was a stupid idea.

But Parker touched the rock and said he thought we were okay. It seemed dry to him. "Feel it," he said. "There's plenty of friction!"

I wanted this climb. Badly. I put my hand on the rock, and it appeared Parker was right. Even though we were surrounded by mist, the rock felt fine. I decided to do the climb. I could always bail if it started really raining. It's only gear, I figured. Who cares if I leave a piece or two behind? Don't I have a catchphrase that covers this situation?

Yes I do: Carpe Diem, bitches.

I tied in and headed upward.

The early going on pitch one is tricky. There is a steep bit right off the ground, and you have to make a few moves before you get any pro in. Maybe this part of the climb just seemed hard to me because I was a bundle of nerves. The conditions were making me jittery. I stepped off the route, back to the ground, just after I started because the fog suddenly turned to rain. But then in a minute it turned back to fog again.

I went back at it, placing two pieces at the first opportunity.

After the initial moves the pitch jogs left, then back right to the big overhang. I moved slowly, checking each foothold, fearful I'd pop off. I placed a ton of pro. As I approached crux one, it seemed much more intimidating and difficult than it did from the ground. It is steep there. It is pumpy to hold on. You can see the horn thingy that you need to grab as well as the foothold that will bring you around the corner, but it seems kind of improbable that this move will work out well.

On the bright side, the pro is great. There's a pin just where you want it and another piece can be put there to back it up. The fall is clean. The holds are good. You can stand there for a good long while, shaking out each hand in turn as you reflect on the life you've lived, and the leap you're about to take.

I hemmed and hawed there a long time, but in the end I found no real trick to the move. You just have to commit. Grab the horn, get your right foot on that hold, and go. And then it's about balance. Shift slowly to the right foot and keep inching to the right. The holds are further around the corner than you want them to be, but they exist, trust me!

(Photo: Having placed pro, I'm getting ready to move through the bulging crux # 2 on pitch one of MF (5.9).)

I spent even longer hemming and hawing over the second crux. I didn't want to blow it. My flash of MF was within reach, yet still so far away. Luckily there's a good stance below the bulge from which you can think over the moves as much as you like. Again the pro is good. There is a horizontal right below the bulge (quite slimy on Tuesday, but it took a cam), and an irregular pod/handhold up in the bulge in which I managed to seat a solid green Alien. This last placement made me feel really good. I clipped the piece direct and knew if I fell I wouldn't go far.

When I finally went for it the moves were not bad. The holds were small but positive, and before I knew it I had the jugs.

As I hit the chains I was thrilled. It had been a slow lead, a methodical lead, but it had been a successful onsight lead of MF. I was no longer breaking into 5.9. I felt solid in the grade. I couldn't ask for anything more.

Parker started following me up pitch one. I heard him say something about a nut.

"Did I place a crummy nut?" I asked.

"No!" he replied. "I said YOU'RE nuts! I can't believe you did this pitch. The rock feels so slimy!"

So much for Mr. "Go For It, There's Plenty of Friction!"

I tried to remind Parker that his enthusiasm is what got me to climb the route in the first place, but he wasn't accepting the blame. For some reason, he was convinced that I was the crazy one.

I have to say it didn't feel so slimy to me. By the time the pitch was over I'd forgotten all about the weather. I thought the rock was okay, and I really wanted to continue and do pitch two. Parker said if we kept going I'd be leading. He'd led the pitch before and he had no ambition to lead any longer, given the conditions.

(Photo: Examining the roof on pitch two of MF (5.9).)

Pitch two begins with easy moves directly to the right from the bolted anchor, around a small corner. Then it's straight up to the roof. Just beneath the roof is a pin. After clipping the pin I spent a lot of time experimenting and feeling around, trying to find some holds, any holds, that I could use to get up to the obvious horizontal that was out of reach a few feet above the roof.

It's tricky because you can't really see what's just over the roof, and there are no footholds right under the pin. So you paw around over your head, finding nothing. Then you paw around to your left, finding nothing. Then you retreat to the stance to the right of the pin, shake out, and get ready to do it all over again.

I found some really poor crimps around the pin, and kept trying to contrive a way to use them to reach the horizontal over the roof. But it wasn't working out.

After a while I looked at Parker, who was standing just a few feet to my left. I said "I'm about to have you take so I can hang on this stupid pin."

"Dude, your feet are, like, on a ledge," he replied.

"Yeah, but I'm getting frustrated."

I was tired of going back and forth. I wanted to rest and look it over. But just in time I finally found the crucial hold. I'm not going to spoil the details. It makes reaching the horizontal a breeze! And it's hiding right there, in front of your face.

As soon as I had that hold, I stepped right up to the horizontal and clipped the second pin. Then I placed a cam to back it up, even though I was already feeling the pump clock ticking away. Above me I could see the creaky little flake mentioned by Dick in his guidebook. It was the next hold. The path was obvious. It was time to go. A couple quick, pumpy moves and I was through the crux, standing at the big horizontal that heads left. Pitch two was basically in the bag.

Although I really enjoyed the crux, I didn't think the rest of the pitch was nearly as nice. The difficulty level decreases greatly and there's some questionable rock. After traversing left, the pitch follows an obvious corner to the GT Ledge, but it seems numerous other paths can be taken to the finish. It all goes through similar, moderate territory.

(Photo: Parker coming up the final bits of pitch two of MF (5.9).)

Parker reached me on the GT Ledge just as a real storm started to roll in. We could see the rain falling over New Paltz as we set up to rappel and by the time we got to the ground it had reached the cliff. Our climbing day was over after just two pitches.

Ah, but what a pair of pitches.

I realize this particular trip to the Gunks was a waste of a vacation day. I know I've been clinging to summer, to the climbing season. It's been good and I don't want it to end. I probably should have gotten out of bed on Tuesday, looked out the window, and called it off. That would have been the sensible thing to do.

But then I would have missed MF.

And MF I will cherish. It's so nice to have my last climbs of the season confirm that I've made progress. Maybe I'll still be able to squeeze one more milestone into the year. And maybe not. It doesn't matter. It's been a great year either way.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Gunks Routes: Falled on Account of Strain (Pitch 1 5.9), Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Pitch 2 5.8)

(Photo: Pointing where I think the route goes on Falled on Account of Strain, pitch two (5.10b).)

Another late-season climbing day, another chance to push the limits.

I had big ideas as Adrian and I headed to the Gunks. I knew Adrian wanted to lead WASP (5.9), which I led earlier this year. WASP sits down at the Slime Wall, near the far end of the Trapps. I've spent very little time down there, so there were a bunch of climbs I was interested in checking out. One of the top climbs on my list was Falled on Account of Strain. The first pitch, which ends at a set of bolts, is rated 5.9. The second pitch goes at 5.10b through an incredible set of gigantic, tiered roofs.

As insane as it might sound, I was thinking I would lead the second pitch. I'd seen pictures of the route; the roofs pulled at me like a magnet. The thought of climbing them had me slobbering with Pavlovian anticipation.

But first we did WASP, and I have to say I wasn't exactly feeling super strong. Following pitch one I found the early moves surprisingly difficult. I caught myself thinking I wasn't sure how I'd feel leading the route, and then remembered that I'd led it a few months ago! I had thought I might try to lead the 5.9 variation climb Stubai to You as our second pitch, but when we got up to the GT Ledge I decided, given that I felt a little tentative, to check out Sticky Gate Direct (5.7) instead. (It was good! A very nice pitch, better than pitch two of WASP.)

Back on the ground, we walked over to Falled on Account of Strain and had a look. I thought we should go for it. Adrian was totally up for the first pitch, and since it ends at bolts we could easily bail from there. I figured I could venture out to look at the roofs and come back if it seemed too hairy. Also Dick Williams suggests as an alternative the second pitch of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which goes through the roofs at an easier 5.8 grade. Dick gives Tomorrow x 3 no stars, but I guessed it would still be an interesting alternative, and maybe from the shared rap station we could lower ourselves over Falled and try the crux if it was too scary on lead.

(Photo: Early in the 5.9 pitch one of Falled on Account of Strain.)

We got set up beneath Falled and before getting started I wandered into the woods to take a quick leak. As I stood there amongst the trees I jokingly called over to Adrian "you're on belay, climb when ready!"

"Are you going to belay me," he replied, "or are you just going to stand there with your dick in your hand?"

Maybe you just had to be there, but this became a source of much hilarity for us. "Or are you just going to stand there with your dick in your hand" can be usefully adapted to fit into just about any climbing conversation.

For example:

"So go ahead and give me the rack, whenever you're done standing there with your dick in your hand."


"I just took this amazing photo of you, while I was holding the rope AND standing here with my dick in my hand."

And so on.

I guess you had to be there.

Anyway, pitch one of Falled on Acoount of Strain turned out to be a very worthwhile climb in its own right. Dick rates it at 5.9 but Swain calls it a 5.9+ and I think Swain has it right. The first moves are 5.6-ish but unprotected, up the face to the left of a thin seam. Once you get some pro in, about 15 feet up, you move to the right and into the crux, thin moves between spaced horizontals. The first of these moves puts your feet even with your last protective gear. Your next pro comes in a blind placement over your head at the next horizontal. Adrian is much taller than me and he had to do a pull up to examine the gear and fix it before making the next moves. Following him, I found that I had to step up fully into the move to examine the gear and get it out. I had to struggle a bit with the piece and I almost popped off while trying to remove it.

Dealing with this one difficult placement is my only real concern about eventually leading this pitch. Afterwards the climbing and the gear get easier to handle.

(Photo: Almost done with pitch one of Falled on Account of Strain. The tiered roofs await, overhead. The pitch one crux comes between the two horizontals visible in the lower right corner of the photograph.)

When I joined Adrian at the belay he asked me if I was really up for leading pitch two. Looking out at the roofs I thought it seemed simple enough to wander over and check them out. I was sure I could get gear in the first tier of the roof system. So long as I could get pro at each tier, I figured, I could keep moving up. There would be no shame in taking a hang, as long as the gear was good and the falls were clean.

And so I ventured forth, promising not to make any moves I couldn't reverse until I was sure about continuing.

(Photo: The point of no return. To continue, or not?)

I traversed easily to the first overhang. There was good gear. I believed I was at the right spot at which to pull up and over to the next tier. There was a lot of chalk even further right, but it seemed to me this was errant chalk, sucker chalk.

I pulled up enough to see if I could get gear at the next tier. I couldn't see any potential placements. This was a major bummer.

What about further right? I ventured over to the sucker chalk and looked up there. But I didn't see any gear over there either.

I wandered back to where I thought the route really went and kept looking it over. I felt a rush of emotions and excitement. I had a decision to make.

Option A: I could commit to the next tier, knowing I would have to move up AGAIN to the final tier before finding any pro. There had to be gear up there, or this thing wouldn't be rated PG, right? But if I committed to this course I doubted I could climb back down and if I popped off it would be a real fall.

Option B: I could give up and traverse back to the anchor.

I hope this doesn't sound too grandiose, but I felt I stood at a sort of crossroads.

I was straddling a line dividing my climbing past and my hoped-for climbing future. A past mired in moderates, and a future involving the real deal. A past of mucking about on ledges, and a future filled with improbable environments and thrilling situations. A past of standing around with my dick in my hand, and a future of bold action.

The atmosphere beneath the overhang was incredible. I wanted to go for it, but I wasn't quite sure I was ready. It had been a great year. Maybe this climb was meant for next year?

Adrian called over to give his opinion.

"You want me to support you, right?"

"No, dude, tell me what you really think."

"It looks crazy to me."

That was all I needed to hear. I decided to traverse back to the anchor and climb Tomorrow x 3 instead.

(Photo: Getting into the 5.8 roof on Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.)

I'm glad we went ahead and did Tomorrow x 3, because the roof was fun. It is not a cakewalk by any means. The holds are very good, but once you are in the roof you traverse out to the left (with good pro) and it is very strenuous, a little burly, I think, for 5.8.

I later learned that Swain calls this a 5.10 roof, so I could claim this as my second 5.10 Gunks lead... but let's get real. There's no way this is a 5.10. Maybe 5.8+ or 5.9-.

Once you get above the roof, the remaining climbing up and right to the Falled anchor is very dirty/bushy, and not very pleasant. And the fixed station for Falled as of this writing is crap. There is a big old angle piton (rusty but probably fine), three nested rusty pitons (impossible to evaluate), and two equalized nuts in a horizontal, at least one of which has a cable that is almost rusted out. All of it is tied together with ancient, faded, stiff cord and webbing.

I refused to use this anchor. If you go up there, bring some cord/webbing and maybe some nuts to shore up the station. We ended up bushwhacking through filthy territory to the GT Ledge and then we rapped off the Sticky Gate tree, which will get you down with a single 70 meter or with 60 meter doubles.

Adrian later asked me why I am so attracted to these roof problems. I gave him the cold, logical reason: I'm looking for good holds and clean falls. Face climbs of the same grade tend to involve more difficult sequences and more fiddly gear. He responded quite reasonably that he prefers the face climbs because you can stop and think before the crux, whereas with the roofs you know the clock is always ticking. He felt more secure on the 5.9+ face of Falled, for example, than he did in the 5.8 roof on Tomorrow x 3, because on Falled he knew he could chew over the moves as long as he liked before making the commitment.

This is of course a matter of personal preference, with no right answer. What I failed to add to my side of the argument, but what still tips the balance for me, is that the roofs are awesome. To me there's no thrill like getting over a big roof. I guess that's just what makes me a Gunks guy. Looking at the roof photos above, I find it hard to imagine feeling any other way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Still Fighting With 5.9+: Jean (again)

(Photo: Trying to get psyched beneath the crux roof on Jean (5.9+), back in August.)

In my last post I wrote about my unexpected triumph over my first trad 5.10 lead, Beatle Brow Bulge. This was a great milestone for me. My onsight success climbing this soft 5.10 also made me wonder if the old rumor might actually be true:

Is 5.9+ in the Gunks harder than 5.10-?

Earlier that same day I found a reason to believe the rumor. The lesson came courtesy of my second attempt at Jean.

Back in August I'd attempted to lead Jean, but I hadn't liked the pro for the crux roof and I'd bailed without attempting to lead over the ceiling. I'd wanted a piece at the lip or above the roof but the best pro I'd been able to get was under the roof and to the right. I felt like a fall from just over the roof would result in a sideways landing onto the slab below the overhang, which would quite likely result in injury.

After giving up on the lead I'd tried the crux on toprope and found it to be not that difficult. Above the roof are a couple bad crimpers but then you get a great jug. I started to think that blowing it might not be so bad after all, because if you fell it would happen at those first couple of poor holds, before pulling over the roof and not too far from your gear.

I resolved to go back before the season ended to get redemption and conquer Jean.

Fast forward to November. With the end of the season coming quickly I figured if I was going to exorcise my Jean demons I had better get around to it soon.

But my memories from August were fading and I wondered if I'd really be any happier with the gear this time around. I decided to start a thread on asking about the appropriate gear for Jean. I'd read that there used to be a ball nut fixed right at the spot where you pull over the roof. I know nothing of ball nuts, but I thought maybe I could place one there myself, so I asked the wise climbers of which ball nut I should buy.

The consensus seemed to be that the cam off to the right is good enough, and that I should forget about the ball nut placement.

Armed with this information I felt somewhat reassured, but only somewhat. When our climbing day arrived I knew that I had to attack Jean right away or I was going to lose my nerve, so when we got to the Trapps parking lot I told Adrian that I wanted it to be our first climb of the day. We found it open and I went right at it.

(Photo: Here we go again. I'm hanging instead of trying the crux on Jean, this time in November.)

I felt strong as I got started. There is a cruxy little 5.8-ish move about halfway up that gets you established in the shallow corner system that leads to the roof. The pro for this move is totally solid, and while the move has pretty good hands, the feet are smeary. In August this move caused me much hesitation but this time, in November, I committed right away.

So far so good.

Then I got up to the pocket right under the roof and placed the key cam out right without too much strain. With this bomber pro in place, I should have been ready for the crux.

Determined to send, I reached up to the shitty crimper with my left hand...

and I couldn't make myself go for it.


The crimper felt so lousy. And I still didn't like the thought of that fall.

So I downclimbed a step and rested for a minute without weighting the rope. I still wanted this redpoint, in the worst way. I gathered my courage and tried again.

Such a bad hold! Was it this bad in August?

I chickened out for the second time and took a hang.

So much for that redpoint.

I must have repeated this routine once or twice more, going up, testing the hold, not liking it, retreating, and hanging.

Finally I decided to shorten the draw on my top piece of protection. I figured drag be damned, I need to reduce the potential fall. This decision gave me a certain amount of additional (and perhaps irrational) confidence. With the fall distance shortened by a foot or two I could commit to the moves and found them easier than I remembered. The bad crimper feels from below as though you'll pop right off it but once you crimp hard and commit, it isn't so bad. Shitty crimper left, shitty crimper right, then shelf, then jug and you're done. The crux is over in a few seconds.

I left Jean frustrated that I didn't get it clean. But I told myself I'd made progress. At least I finished it on lead this time. And my failure to redpoint had nothing to do with any inability to do the moves. It came down to a lack of faith caused by a combination of that crummy crimper hold and sub-optimal pro. Maybe my lack of faith was actually, in retrospect, completely justified. I wonder if that ball nut placement is necessary after all; the roof move might be an ankle-breaker without it. 

Even though I haven't conquered Jean, I don't think I need to go back to lead it again. I don't know what I would be trying to prove. And I might be risking a needless injury, unless I buy that ball nut...

Is Jean a sandbag at 5.9+? I am torn. The climbing isn't easy. It isn't nearly as sustained as Beatle Brow Bulge. But those two crimps over the roof on Jean are less positive than any of the holds on Beatle Brow Bulge.  Jean may require a little more technique, and a cooler head. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Gunks Routes: Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a)

(Photo: Approaching the huge roof on Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a).)

This past weekend was just beautiful. It was autumn at its best in the Hudson Valley, with crisp mornings, followed by moderate temperatures and abundant sunshine.

In other words: perfect climbing weather!

I was psyched to get out for a day with Adrian, especially since this was quite likely going to be my last Gunks day of 2011. Two of the remaining three weekends in November are already booked up with family activities, and who knows what the weather will be like on my few remaining potential climbing days this month. Climbing in December is always a possibility, but a remote one. So this really could be it for the year.

As is the case every year, there is so much left undone.

But this has been a year of real accomplishment for me as a climber.

I got in better shape last winter and once the climbing season got under way I finally got my mojo back. I began to feel more like the climber I'd been in 2009, before I broke my ankle in a climbing accident. This new/old me felt solid, confident, and hungry for harder climbs.

As I've chronicled here on my blog, I started leading 5.9 climbs in the Gunks again. I led a whole bunch of them this year, for the most part with great success. My goal was to become solid in 5.9, with the idea that I could go anywhere in the world and jump on a 5.9 and be sure that it would be well within my comfort zone.

I can't say I've quite reached that goal. The kind of climbing the Gunks offers is just too limited for that. Certainly my four days of climbing in the Adirondacks this year demonstrated to me that I'm not a solid 5.9 leader if the climbing involves vertical cracks and jamming. I'm sure that if I went to Yosemite, to cite another example, and tried to lead a typical Tuolumne 5.9-- featuring long runout slabs and oceans of fragile knobs-- I'd have my ass handed to me there as well.

But I feel good about the progress I've made in the Gunks on its brutish overhangs and thin face climbs. I've tried to keep stepping forward while at the same time being reasonable. I am convinced that you can make progress, climb hard, and still be careful. So far it all seems like it's making sense, most of the time.

I had another goal this year that I have not talked about so much.

I wanted to lead at least one Gunks 5.10 before the year was over.

I didn't necessarily care if I sent it onsight. It didn't have to go perfectly. I could take a fall, I figured, so long as I protected the hard moves well and kept things in control. Even if the climbing proved too difficult for me, if in the end I felt I'd done things right and protected myself well, then I'd regard the climb as a success and something I could build upon.

All year I had certain candidates in mind, climbs that had a reputation for being soft for 5.10 and for having good pro at the crux, like The Dangler or Wegetables, to name just two possibilities.

But as the year wore on I started to think I'd never really do it. And why push? This year's goal was 5.9. Why not make 5.10 the goal for next year?

Then a few weeks ago I went out climbing with my eight-year-old son Nate. We were climbing with another dad/son duo I met through my kids' school. The dad used to be a regular Gunks hardman and his son, who is Nate's age, is also into climbing. I thought if we all went out together it might inspire my son to get a little more interested in climbing. (Alas, it didn't work out that way. Nate gamely tried a few climbs, mostly just to humor me, but he was not converted.)

We were climbing at Lost City. I'd never been there before. After all these years it was nice to finally go out there and check the place out! I didn't get to try any of the legendary climbs there, because I was too busy setting up 5.4's for my son. But I saw something that really inspired me: a fourteen-year-old boy attempting to lead Stannard's Roof.

The young man actually lives in my apartment building, though we'd never met before. (Small world!) He'd spent a few weeks this summer at a rock climbing camp in Maine and had recently led his first 5.9's in the Gunks. But today he'd elected to try Stannard's Roof, which upped the ante significantly. The route is reputed to go at "easy" 5.10, and though the roof is very large-- it requires getting truly horizontal for a couple body lengths-- the holds are quite positive, or so I am told.

The boy couldn't do it. He made several efforts, getting up into the roof, placing good pro, then climbing down and resting. He repeatedly got up to his high point, decided he couldn't hang on, and came back down. Eventually he downclimbed to a fixed anchor and retreated.

Watching him, I was impressed with his good sense. He didn't just run it out and go for it. He wanted to do it right and in control. And when he knew he wasn't going to make it, he backed down.

His effort on Stannard's Roof reawakened my desire to hop on a 5.10 of my own. This kid was doing EXACTLY what I should be doing. I resolved to find a 5.10 like this, with good pro and clean falls, and get up into it. Whether I succeeded or failed, I knew it would be good for me.

So when Adrian and I got out last weekend I was determined to find the right 5.10. Ultimately I decided on Beatle Brow Bulge. It seemed like one of the easier 5.10 climbs. It was historically rated 5.9+ until Dick Williams boosted its rating to 5.10a in his 2004 guidebook. It seemed to me like strenuous climbing, but juggy and unmysterious. I'd just have to hang in there and keep moving. And it looked like I'd find good pro out the roof, so that any fall would be into the air.

Most of all the route just looked awesome. The roof is HUGE.

(Photo: Grabbing the holds under the roof on Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a). The real business starts with the next step up.)

Dick Williams lists the climb as having a first pitch consisting of 50 feet of 5.3 climbing up to a stance beneath the roof. I didn't see any point in stopping half-way and decided in advance to just do the whole thing in one pitch.

As I approached the roof it seemed to get bigger and bigger. My main concern was where I would place pro. I wanted something in the roof, not below it. And I wanted the piece to be out several feet from the wall, so if I fell I wouldn't slam right into the cliff.

There is a big block that sticks out like a thumb below the roof level. This block has chalk all over it, although it is not a necessary handhold. (It is a very useful foothold once you're in the business.) It appears a # 2 Camalot would go nicely in the space between this block and the roof, but I decided against using this placement. I was worried about the rock quality. It appeared to me that this block may not be well attached to the cliff. The last thing I wanted was to send a death block the size of a microwave down on Adrian.

Instead I found a great spot for a yellow Alien. (A yellow Metolius or yellow C3 may also work.) The cam goes in just above the two crucial first handholds in the roof; the spot is right above where my right hand is in the above photo. I was able to place this cam before committing to the roof, and it gave me great peace of mind as I started the moves.

(Photo: Getting into the roof! My right foot is on the thumb/death block that I avoided placing pro behind.)

One step up and I was really into it, fully horizontal beneath the big ceiling. The hands and feet were great, but it was strenuous. Immediately I reached over my head and placed a perfect red Camalot at the lip of the roof. I wanted to extend it with a runner but I knew the clock was ticking and I had to get moving. So I just clipped it direct, hoping it was close enough to the lip that it wouldn't create too much drag. (It worked out fine.)

Once I made that clip, everything was going to be okay. It was a piece off of which you could hang a truck, and below me was a totally clean fall into air. I could hear Adrian yelling his approval. "Yeah! Now go!"

And so I went, for once totally in the flow of the moves and not even thinking about the consequences of blowing it. The holds are great; there are no devious sequences. It's strictly a matter of hanging in there and continuing to move upward.

(Photo: getting over the big roof.)

Once I was over the roof, the pumpiness of the route really set in. It was still quite steep and after I moved up and placed more pro I started to worry that I might pop off. I stepped up again and placed another cam, then tried to shake out a little.

I decided maybe I should take a hang, just to be safe.

"Adrian, can you take?" I shouted.

But Adrian wasn't having it. He didn't pull in the ropes.

"Really??" he yelled. "It looks like you're almost there! Don't you want to keep going?"

"I'm just so pumped!" I shouted back.

(Photo: In the final pumpy territory on Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a).)

But then I looked up and I realized he was right. The angle eased in another two moves. I could do this.

I got back to moving and in another couple steps got to a real rest stance. I was so grateful that Adrian hadn't let me take a hang. Instead of noble failure, I had sweet, sweet success. I had done it. I had led my first (alleged) 5.10 trad route in the Gunks, onsight. It was an amazing feeling.

I finished the climb as Dick Williams suggests, heading to the right as soon as I was level with a tree ledge with an anchor. We were using doubles, but it appeared to us that you could reach the ground from this first station with a single 60 meter rope. There is another station at the next ledge, up another 30 feet or so through dirty, low-angled territory. This higher station is attached to a much bigger tree, but you'd need double ropes or maybe a single 70 meter to use it.

As I stood at the station waiting for Adrian to join me, I felt a great satisfaction with not just this one climb, but the whole year. I am so lucky to have gotten out to climb as much as I have, and to have made real progress over the course of the season. I may get another day or two on the rock before 2011 is over, but if the weather sucks for the rest of November I'll still be happy. I hope I can keep improving and make this climb not just a peak climb for one climbing year, but a preview of numerous 5.10's to come. This winter I'll have strong motivation to work to make this 5.10 just the first of many.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gunks Routes: Minty (5.3) & Mr. P's Wurst (5.8)

(Photo: Coming up the 5.8 pitch one of Mr. P's Wurst.)

So nice to be back home in the Gunks.

After nearly two months away, I longed for the old familiar climbing surroundings.

The overhangs.

The pitons.

The long reaches.

The horizontals.

I was climbing with Margaret on an October Sunday. She wanted some easy leading and our first target was Three Pines. Unfortunately Three Pines at 9 a.m. already had a party of three on the first pitch and another pair at the base waiting to start. This was hardly a surprise on a Sunday during peak season.

My general policy is not to wait for climbs in the Trapps. In my experience, you always find something else open if you keep looking. Sure enough, we went a little further down the cliff and found Minty (5.3) available so we were in business.

Margaret led pitch one. I think this pitch is a great introductory Gunks lead because it has an early move that seems several grades harder than the rest of the climb. This might not seem like an ideal situation for a new leader to deal with, but it happens all the time on climbs of every grade in the Gunks. You have to confront it eventually, so you might as well start to get used to it when you're leading 5.3!

On Minty, the move can catch you by surprise. You start up this little corner. A big shelf is right there for you to grab, just one step up. But the feet are these tiny, polished little half-pebbles. You have to trust your feet just long enough to step up to grab that ledge.

The move should be no big deal.

But it seems totally possible you could fall here.

So you stand there thinking "This is supposed to be 5.3! How can I be such a failure that I am worried about this little move on a 5.3??"

And you psyche yourself out.

And you try this, and you try that, desperate to avoid this tenuous little step.

Finally you just do the stupid move and feel like an idiot.

Welcome to the Gunks.

(Photo: Past the crux on pitch one of Minty (5.3).)

The other hazard on Minty is that you might go up the wrong corner. The climb keeps moving left, and all the corner systems look alike. The first time I did the route, with Liz, she went up too soon, when she should have continued moving left. But if you make this mistake, you'll likely end up on Tipsy Trees, which is another nice 5.3. So no worries.

To stay on track you should look up for the distinctive Minty tree. It is a pine tree over 100 feet up that sticks out sideways from the cliff. This tree is where pitch one ends. If you keep in mind that you are heading for this tree, you should find the correct route.

(Photo: The 5.2 pitch three of Minty.)

Minty has lots to offer. The steep, juggy climbing you'll find in the second half of pitch one and all of pitch two is especially nice. Pitch three goes at a very casual 5.2 and it isn't terribly long, but it too has good moves out from a corner system and then up jugs to the top.

My personal preference for descending from climbs in the Minty/Snooky's area is to walk a short distance to the bolted rap route at the top of the Madame G buttress. Using the bolted rap route guarantees a safe descent and avoids throwing ropes over nervous leaders on very popular climbs. The problem with this method is that the Madame G rap starts from the GT Ledge and you have to follow your nose and downclimb from the top to find the bolts. If you aren't already familiar with the location it will be hard for you to find it. In the past I have spotted the distinctive tree which grows out at an angle from the cliff right next to the rap bolts, but I must have done this at a time of year in which the trees have no leaves. Last weekend with Margaret I couldn't spot the correct tree from the top and I had some trouble finding the bolts, overshooting the right path and having to work my way back. Still, I prefer these few minutes of hunting to rapping off of the manky anchors which come and go atop the cliff.

Coming down, I could see it wasn't going to be easy to get on another three-star classic. The cliff was looking very crowded. There were parties on Madame G's, on Finger Locks or Cedar Box, on Hyjek's Horror, on almost every climb in sight. Was this a nature preserve? It bore a greater resemblance to Occupy Wall Street.

I suggested to Margaret that we do an empty climb right in front of us: Mr. P's Wurst. The climb, which ascends the right side of the Madame G buttress, is almost always open, even though it sits amidst some of the most popular routes in the Trapps.

I've been wanting to get on Mr. P's for some time, in part because I like the name, which Ivan Rezucha and Rich Perch bestowed on the route in the best Hans Kraus tradition.

Hans put up Madame G's (full name: Madame Grunnebaum's Wulst) in 1943. How many climbers understand the bawdy humor in this classic route's name? I'd wager that very few get the joke. As Susan E.B. Schwartz explains in her biography Into the Unknown: the Remarkable Life of Hans Kraus, the name was not inspired by a real person. Instead, Hans looked up at the buttress and saw two bulges up high that-- to his one-track mind-- resembled a woman's bosom. The route he created begins at a pine tree and weaves between the two breast-like features. Grunnebaum is German for green tree and wulst means bulge. Thus the route's name can be translated in full as "Mrs. Greentree's Boobs."

Once you understand the humor in Madame G's name, the meaning of Mr. P's Wurst becomes obvious. The latter route snakes up right next to Ms. Greentree's bulges, and what could be better nestled in those bulges than Mr. Perch's sausage?

Apart from the name, what interested me about Mr. P's was that no one ever seems to do it. It is always open, despite the fact that Dick Williams decided to anoint it with two stars in his 2004 guidebook. Dick also did his part to make the route more accessible, describing a new start from 50 feet up the gully to the right of the buttress instead of the 5.6 R climbing previously needed to get established on the route.

I think this new start is actually one of the reasons the crowds stay away. The gully looks unappealing and from the ground it is hard to see exactly where you're supposed to jump onto the wall.

It looked to me as though the right spot was about five or ten feet below the rap bolts that are on the other side of the gully. We decided to do pitch one of Northern Pillar (5.1) instead of climbing the gully, with Margaret leading up and cutting left near the top of the pitch to set up a belay either at or near the bolts, from which point I'd decide exactly how to get over the gully and onto the wall for Mr. P's.

Margaret ended up building a belay to the right of the bolts, in order to avoid having parties constantly rapping through as she stood there waiting for me. This worked out fine, although I think it would have been okay to use the bolts so long as she set up on the left side of them. It seems to me that when people rap and pull the ropes from above they usually fall just to the right of the bolts. So if Margaret had anchored into the bolts but stood to the left she would probably have been unaffected by the rapping parties. In the final analysis, it would have been simpler just to go up the gully.

(Photo: Approaching the crux of the 5.8 pitch one of Mr. P's Wurst. From the photo you can get some idea how overhanging the final bits of the pitch are. The other climber in the photo is on Madame G's.)

From our belay at bolt level, I traversed to the gully, downclimbed a few moves, and then made the step across to the other side. These moves are easy, but if you do it this way you need to place pro as you step down, and then again at the other side of the gully, if you want to protect your second. Again, probably it would have been better just to go up the gully.

Now I was finally on Mr. P's. The pitch wasn't difficult to follow. Good holds lead up and around the corner until you find yourself on the right side of the face of the Madame G buttress. The climbing is juggy throughout the first pitch, and the rock quality is generally good. The angle gradually steepens until it becomes overhanging for the last ten to fifteen feet of the pitch. The crux move comes at three ancient pitons. I equalized the lower two and then clipped the third one as well, hoping at least one of them would hold in the event of a fall.

A big move up to a bomber horizontal, a good cam, and another move up to a tenuous stance finished the pitch beneath a roof.

(Photo: Looking down from the hanging belay at the end of pitch one of Mr. P's Wurst (5.8). My belayer Margaret is in blue. The climber in red is descending by the bolted rappel route.)

I found the hanging belay suggested by Dick to be rather unpleasant. There are two ancient pins, plus enough horizontals to place a few cams. It isn't unsafe, but it is truly a hanging stance; I couldn't let go with both hands in order to set up my anchor. Equalizing the cordalette and tying it in a knot with one hand wasn't easy.

(Photo: Approaching the hanging belay at the end of pitch one of Mr. P's Wurst (5.8).)

Pitch two is rated 5.7+. I followed Dick's instructions exactly, moving through the roof at the break and then stepping left. The move was fun and well-protected (you can get a good cam in the break in the roof), but I thought it was a big, reachy move, definitely harder than 5.7. It reminded me of the crux moves on Maria Direct and No Glow, both 5.9.

The rest of the pitch was easier, but still good. Getting past another roof on its right side requires a couple more interesting moves, and then the route joins Madame G's to the finish.

(Photo:  Just over the roof on the supposedly 5.7+ pitch two of Mr. P's Wurst.)

After I pulled up the rope and put Margaret on belay, she immediately took a fall. Then she seemed to have no trouble climbing the pitch. She told me when she arrived at the top that she'd tried the roof my way, found it ridiculously hard, and then had moved four feet or so to the left, where she found 5.7 climbing up past the roof.

So maybe Margaret's way is the right way to do it, since it is 5.7. But it isn't how Dick describes the route. Personally, I enjoyed pulling the roof, and I did exactly what Dick instructed me to do, but if you do it this way the roof move is the hardest move on the whole route, and the 5.7+ pitch becomes more like a 5.9-. So you make your own call.

I would gladly climb Mr. P's again, but I would do it differently. I would just go straight up the gully rather than deal with the bolted rappel freeway and the downclimb/traverse. And I think I would bring a few extra cams and runners and do it in one pitch all the way from the ground to the finish on the GT Ledge. This would avoid the unpleasant hanging belay. And then you'd get one super long pitch of juggy steep climbing, wholly in keeping with other great climbs on the same buttress, like Columbia (5.8) and Madame G's (5.6).

If you do it this way I'm sure you too will end up a friend to Mr. P.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Even More Adirondack Acktion: Pitchoff Chimney Cliff & Barkeater

(Photo: Getting ready to commit to the crack on the 5.6 pitch two of Pete's Farewell.)

It seems I can't get enough of climbing in the Adirondacks.

Columbus Day weekend seemed like a good opportunity to go hiking with the kids. The weather was forecasted to be outstanding, with highs upwards of 70 degrees. My wife and I made last-minute arrangements to rent a house in Keene Valley. We were set for three days of hiking. Then my wife suggested that on one of the days maybe I could go climbing, if I got a partner.

It sounded like a great deal to me. Done! Show me where to sign.

Adrian was willing to come up and crash on our couch so I was in business.

We got a reasonably early start on Saturday and arrived at our first destination, Pitchoff Chimney Cliff, by 8:00 a.m. This cliff sits in a pretty location, right above Cascade Lakes. It is just seconds from the road and has a couple very good moderate climbs on it. So it is no surprise that it has a reputation for being crowded. We were lucky enough to be the first party to arrive on our chosen day so we headed straight for the most popular line on the cliff, Pete's Farewell (5.7).

Nominally Pete's Farewell is a three pitch climb, but pitch one is only about 40 feet of 5.2. And in reality most of the 40 feet is fourth class. There is probably just one move that qualifies as fifth class on the whole pitch. As we racked up to get started we talked about how we would divide up the pitches. I said I was attracted to the traverse and corner climbing of pitch two and less attracted to the pure handcrack of pitch three. It seemed like I'd hardly gotten the words out when Adrian was already at the belay point for pitch two, having run up the first pitch while placing exactly one piece of pro.

(Photo: Most of the way through pitch two of Pete's Farewell.)

Pitch two is rated 5.6. It begins with a traverse of 20 feet or so to the obvious corner with a crack at the back. There is a pretty good ledge for the feet all the way over to the corner, although there is a little gap that must be stepped across right at the same time the handholds suddenly seem to disappear. It took a little looking around but I found good hands for the step across, then the foot rail became wider and I walked more than climbed the rest of the way over to the corner.

Once at the corner I had to step up into the crack. This to me was the crux. There is fantastic gear available, but still the move is committing. You have to get into the stem/layback with feet that aren't really great. Once I went ahead and made the move, it was no problem, but I was once again confronted with the same old Adirondack feeling of being sandbagged. I couldn't remember the last time I felt so insecure on a 5.6. Once established in the corner, the next few moves don't require quite the same gut check, and before you know it you're out of the corner and at the belay.

(Photo: A few moves up the 5.7 pitch three of Pete's Farewell.)

The final 5.7 pitch was Adrian's lead, and this pitch yet again felt challenging for the grade to me. The pitch follows a slanting handcrack and it is hard to make the first move up into the crack. Once you're in it you've got another good move to a horizontal before the angle eases to the finish.

I thought the two main pitches of Pete's Farewell were both great, and very different from each other. We descended by rapping down the chimney behind the cliff. There is a fixed line that gets you to a ledge inside the chimney and then a walk over to a set of bolts will put you in a position to get to the ground, at the base of Pete's Farewell, in a single-rope rap.

We wanted to do the other most popular line at Pitchoff, The El (5.8). But unfortunately we were no longer alone at the cliff. Pete's Farewell and The El start at the exact same place, and as we rapped down we could see a party coming up the approach pitch for both climbs, as well as another pair on the ground waiting to start up. We were happy to learn that the first of these parties was planning on Pete's, not The El. I decided to just rap at an angle over to the stance for the start of pitch two of both climbs and get in line to begin leading the El as soon as they were out of the way. We were sort of jumping in front of the party on the ground. Was this wrong of us? I don't know. They didn't complain. Carpe Diem, bitches.

(Photo: At the most exposed moment on the 5.7 pitch two of The El.)

It was my turn to lead again so I took on the big traverse that makes up the second pitch of The El. This pitch heads towards the same corner as Pete's Farewell, but instead of going up at the corner, the traverse continues to the outside arete beneath a little overhang, and then around this outside corner/arete onto the face. The traverse then goes on another 20 or 30 feet until you are beneath a crack system that leads up to a big left-facing corner.

Lawyer & Haas call this a 5.7 pitch. I had a fun time leading it and thought it was totally mellow, perhaps because I'm used to traverses from my Gunks experience. The pitch becomes a touch more steep and thin once you come around the arete and onto the main face, out of your belayer's sight. But there is great pro throughout. I never felt like I was at any risk of taking a swing. And the crux is short; the climbing mellows again after a couple moves.

(Photo: Looking up at the 5.8 pitch three of The El.)

The final, 5.8 pitch of The El is another fun, high-quality pitch, with good face moves up to the big corner and then an awkward escape up and right to the top. I felt pretty good about my escape from the corner. Adrian on lead employed an ass-jam onto the shelf above, but I needed just a brief elbow to get through it. A nice pitch, and sustained too. I wouldn't call it a sandbag but it has several 5.8 moves on it.

We liked The El even more than Pete's Farewell, though both climbs are very worthwhile.

By the time we got down from The El the small cliff had become quite crowded. Since pretty much everyone was there for the two climbs we'd already done, we had our pick of other routes we could still do. But with plenty of time left in our day, we decided to head out from Pitchoff and give Barkeater Cliff a try.

When we arrived at the parking lot (at the scenic headquarters of Rock and River guides) we set off immediately on the Jackrabbit trail. There was an obvious, wide path into the woods that matched the description in the guidebook. After about fifteen minutes on the trail we came to a wooden bridge, as the guidebook said we would, and then we started to look for the cairn to our left that the guidebook said would lead us to Barkeater.

But there was no cairn to be found.

So after a bit we started up left, hoping to cross the correct climbers' trail or stumble upon the cliff. The going was steep. We kept going up, trending right, trending left, looking for rock. But no dice. Occasionally we stopped to listen for the sound of clanking carabiners, or belay commands. We heard nothing.

After who knows how long, I tried to use my smart phone to figure out our gps coordinates. But I guess I don't have the app for that; it was fruitless.

Then I looked again at the map in the book, and I realized something was off. There were two little creeks on the map, coming to a "T" at the wooden bridge. But at the bridge we'd crossed we had only seen one little creek.

I started to think we were in the wrong place entirely, but for some reason we kept bushwhacking around. Finally I suggested to Adrian that we head down and retrace our steps. Maybe we'd missed a turn on the Jackrabbit trail; it hadn't been that easy to follow with all the fallen leaves.

As we started to head back, we ran into another pair of climbers.

I have never been happier to see other climbers! I figured they could tell us if we were in the right place.

But no. They were new to the area as well, and were also looking for Barkeater. They were just as lost as we were. In fact, they'd come out to Barkeater after bushwhacking for two hours looking unsuccessfully for Hurricane Crag! Now, I have never been to Hurricane Crag. I don't know if it is really that hard to find. But I had to pity these two. Having just spent an hour and a half searching vainly for Barkeater I wasn't about to criticize them.

I suggested to Adrian that we give up. We could go back to the car and drive to the Beer Walls, near Chapel Pond. They'd be easy to find, and we'd still have time for a couple of pitches.

Back at the parking lot, I was about to put my stuff in the car when I saw an obvious, clear sign pointing to the Jackrabbit trail. It was on the opposite side of the lot. Somehow we'd missed this sign when we pulled up. We'd headed down the wrong trail from the very beginning!

We felt like morons for sure.

If you're moronic like us, please take note. There is a sign at the lot that points to the correct Jackrabbit Trail. Do not go on the other obvious (but unmarked) trail that leaves the parking lot. It will not take you to Barkeater Cliff. Once you're on the correct Jackrabbit trail, the bridge and the cairn could not be easier to locate.

Once we found the cliff, I was impressed. Most of the climbs are just one pitch, but the cliff is still imposing, and beautiful too. The remote setting was refreshing after our morning at the roadside Pitchoff Chimney Cliff.

We didn't have time to do much at Barkeater. I wanted to lead either the face climb Eat Yourself a Pie (5.8+) or the crack climb Mr. Clean (5.9). I expected that given my skill set (and the fact that I love to bake and eat pie) I would choose the face climb, but as we examined Eat Yourself a Pie some guys working on a 5.12 told us they thought it was pretty "in your face" for a 5.8+.

I figured if the guys who climb 5.12 think Eat Yourself a Pie is hard, then maybe I should pick the other climb.

And so I gamely went at Mr. Clean (5.9), a wonderful 60-foot handcrack pitch. I do believe I've made some crack-climbing progress in these visits to the Adirondacks, but since jamming still is not my strong suit I felt insecure the whole way up, and wore myself out constantly placing and replacing gear. I brought up doubles of all the bigger cams and I kept leapfrogging the yellow and red Camalots. If I could have relaxed more and placed about half as much gear, I think I would have led it cleanly, but as it happened I did pop out while stemming at the crux, taking a short fall on a perfect cam placement. Then I finished the pitch.

It was an educational pitch for me. Adrian led it after I did, jamming with his left hand and foot the entire way up, at times ignoring very good face holds in the process. After watching Adrian do it, I tried it again on toprope and cruised to the top, no problem. I tried to do it his way but it just seemed silly to avoid the good holds outside the crack and so sometimes I used them. Then after I toproped it Adrian gave it another go on toprope as well, laybacking and stemming the whole way instead of jamming. He still made it to the top but found it far less secure than when he jammed it.

I wish we had just a few cracks like this at the Gunks so I could get this kind of practice there.

Adrian led Eat Yourself a Pie after we were through with Mr. Clean and I have to say that "in your face" is an apt description for it. The pitch starts with thin face climbing left and up to an arete, with pretty shaky pro for the opening move and a bad landing on pointy boulders if you blow it. Then the crux comes as you move into an alcove and make a very awkward escape from the alcove (with good pro). Finally, lower-angled face/slab climbing takes you past two bolts (it might be nice if there were three) to a steeper corner, which leads to a fixed anchor.

A full quality pitch, with tons of good moves, and yet another testament to how serious the grades are in the Adirondacks.

These two climbs were a great introduction to Barkeater. I'd go back in a heartbeat to repeat them and explore the rest of the cliff.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Adirondack Crack Attack, Day Two: Upper Washbowl Cliff

(Photo: a portion of Upper Washbowl Cliff, with a climber visible back in the corner, in the middle of the second pitch of Partition (5.9-).)

I know that I have no special talent for rock climbing.

I enjoy it and do it as much as I can. But since other things in my life (like marriage, children, and work) also take up lots of time, I don't really get out to climb that often. It's been an awesome year, and I've been lucky enough to take a few multi-day trips to Vegas and the 'Dacks, but even including these trips I don't think I'll get more than two dozen days on real rock in 2011. I know that I am extremely fortunate to get this many days to play outside; two dozen probably sounds like an awful lot to some climbing dads out there. But when you're talking about making athletic progress, let's be honest: it's a joke.

It just isn't that easy to get better when you don't get out that much.

But I also have a firm belief that an ordinary guy like me, an occasional weekend warrior, can be a 5.10 climber. I don't think superhuman fitness or even perfect technique is required. A certain basic proficiency plus just enough experience should, in my opinion, get me there eventually. This year my goal was to take a big step in the right direction by getting solid at 5.9. Over the summer I started to feel like it might be happening. I seemed to be doing well on 5.9 climbs in the Gunks. And aren't Gunks ratings steeper than everywhere else? I started to entertain the notion that maybe I could walk up to a 5.9 anywhere and feel confident that it would be no problem.

But then I did some climbing in the Adirondacks. And I guess I got my ass kicked a little bit. The vertical crack climbing felt unfamiliar. I realized how narrow my Gunks-focused skill set really is. And I discovered that maybe the ratings in the 'Dacks are even stiffer than in the Gunks.

On day one of my recent two-day trip to the Adirondacks with Adrian, I was extremely grateful not to be leading the Poke-O Moonshine 5.9+ Bloody Mary. And I struggled to lead the 5.8+ P.T. Pillar, taking a hang and then a short fall.

On day two, Adrian and I decided to visit Upper Washbowl Cliff. I really wanted to hit the two John Turner classics on the cliff, Hesitation (5.8) and Partition (5.9-). I was also interested in the 5.8 link-up of Prelude and Overture, and the 5.6 Weissner Route. So there were plenty of possibilities available to us.

As we trooped up the hill to the cliff, we passed the single-pitch Creature Wall and found it quite wet. Nevertheless there was a party at the base and a guide setting up numerous topropes for a group.

This was a bad sign. I didn't expect crowds. Where were we, the Trapps?

But we were relieved to find no one at Upper Washbowl. The cliff seemed empty and the trail deposited us right at the base of Hesitation, John Turner's four-pitch route up the center of the cliff.

(Photo: working up pitch one of Hesitation (5.8).)

The crux pitch of Hesitation is the first. It ascends a corner with a crack at the back. Its appearance should have reminded me of my struggles on P.T. Pillar. I was also feeling a bit less than 100 percent after imbibing several of Lake Placid's fine Ubu Ales the previous evening. But for some reason no warning bells went off in my mind and I volunteered for the lead. I didn't intend to wuss out just because the previous day had been hard. I felt I needed to go right back at it. And this pitch used to be considered a 5.7! The new guidebook had upgraded it to 5.8, but note that there is no plus after the 8 on that grade. I figured I'd be fine.

In the end, I did get through it okay. I took no falls or hangs. But I found it hard and committing. The crack was too wide for jamming, I thought, so I mostly laid back off of it, feeling insecure. I had to work up the courage to trust my feet over and over again. All the moves worked out fine, but I took forever, worrying my way to the end.

When Adrian joined me at the top of pitch one he said he thought the pitch was pretty straightforward.

I asked him if he been able to jam the crack, as I'd found it too wide.

"Sideways," he said. "You have to turn your fist sideways."

Jesus, I thought, I really don't know how to crack climb.

No wonder I thought the pitch was hard. I had no idea how properly to climb it! I am such a maroon.

Even taking my incompetence into account, I find it kind of amazing that this pitch was long considered a 5.7. It seemed harder than that to me. It was much harder than pitch four of Gamesmanship on Poke-O. I still don't get it.

(Photo: a sun-bleached shot of Adrian at the end of the pitch two traverse on Hesitation.)

Pitch two, rated 5.7, was Adrian's lead. This pitch is where Turner felt the need to hesitate on the first ascent, and it's easy to see why. An exposed traverse with so-so feet takes you out to the end of an overhang. The climbing above is easy but there's no way to tell from below.

The traverse really isn't bad. The feet are thin at first but they get better as you move across and the pro is also solid until you reach the end of the roof. Still, it is exciting, and once you clear the overhang the easier climbing up and left to the belay point has precious little pro. I have to give Adrian credit, he managed to place two micro-nuts that I thought were good in the runout part of the pitch.

(Photo: The start of the 5.6 pitch four of Hesitation.)

The last two pitches are nice, but in my opinion less memorable than the first two. A long 5.5 pitch three leads to the final corner that is ascended by pitch four. After an awkward move or two to get established on the wall (see photo above), good positive edges on the right face take you to the top. It seemed to me to be fairly graded at 5.6, a fun end to an outstanding multipitch climb.

(Photo: Starting up the Weissner Route (5.6). First ascent 1935!)

By the time we found the right-side rap recommended by Lawyer & Haas and had a little lunch, it seemed like the day was already slipping away. I wanted to make sure we got to do the second pitch of Partition (5.9-), which the guidebook lists as the best pitch on the cliff. And truthfully I wasn't feeling like challenging myself all that much on lead any more. So I proposed to Adrian that we do the first two pitches of the Weissner Route (5.6), which would place us in a good position from which to climb the final pitch on Partition.

Adrian led pitch one, which is now graded 5.6 but historically was considered a 5.5. The crux comes at an obvious, square block that forms an overhang with a fixed piton underneath. Adrian puzzled over the move for a minute before powering up the crack on the left side. When it was my turn, I thought I actually found a more elegant solution, using the right edge of the block as well as the crack on the left. But I had to marvel at Fritz getting up this in mountain boots in 1935. And 5.5?? I've never been on a 5.5 with moves like this.

(Photo: Adrian almost to the top of Partition (5.9-), in the final off-width section.)

As I emerged from the easy, quite enjoyable 5.4 second pitch of the Weissner Route, I had no trouble finding Partition. It is a another Turner route so, no surprise, it follows a vertical crack in a corner. This corner is very imposing and it widens at the end to an off-width. The kicker on the day of our ascent was that it was also wet right before point where the crack widens. Once again we were looking at a route that had been upgraded by Lawyer and Haas in their recent guidebook, to 5.9- from 5.8+. It sure looked hard to me, steep and sustained, and there was no telling what that off-width at the end would be like.

I wondered if we could even climb it with the wetness but there was a party just rapping off and they said it wasn't too bad. Adrian was psyched to get on it so I graciously allowed him to lead it.

He didn't exactly make it look easy, but he got up it without any real trouble. All the way up he was very pleased with the hand jams.

When the rope came tight on me, I knew it was now or never. I was going to jam my way up this crack or I wasn't going to get up it. And for the most part it was a success. Hand jam after hand jam, the crack was very secure. It seemed to go on forever. I hadn't taped up, and the back of my right hand got ripped up a bit, but not too badly. As I finally neared the off-width I thought I might be on my way to a send, but then the crack became very wet. I tried to jam it and my hand slipped right out, causing me to take a fall oh so close to the finish.

Trying again, I slipped out once more.

As I paused to rest I looked around and realized I was failing because I was missing a diagonal, ramp-like series of dry holds on the right face of the corner. I had gotten tunnel vision, and had become for the first time in my life TOO focused on the vertical crack, ignoring the other holds.

Once I woke up and saw the holds to the right, I got easily up into the off-width, which ended up requiring no off-width technique. There are good holds at the top of the slot and the final move out of it plays out like a Gunks climb, with a couple horizontal jugs providing the means of escape.

Partition was the pitch of the weekend, we both agreed. So awesome. I want to go back and lead it clean. And even though I fell in the wetness while seconding it, I view my time on Partition as a success. Maybe I'll look back on it as the pitch that finally made me into some kind of crack climber.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Adirondack Crack Attack, Day One: Poke-O Moonshine Cliff

Back to the 'Dacks.

Rogers Rock in July whetted my appetite for more climbing in the huge Adirondack park. Adrian too was eager to get out there. We thought about doing an ultra-long one day strike on the region in August, but the prospect of so much driving to and from NYC in one day ultimately turned off the both of us. Instead we resolved to find a weekend in the autumn in which we could get in two days of climbing up there.

Somehow when I mentioned the plan to my wife her head did not explode. I told her that I might try to disappear for two days of climbing and she calmly responded that early September would probably be my best chance to go, given her busy work schedule later in the fall.

And so we found ourselves on a climbing road trip. As we left the city I almost couldn't believe this was happening. At times it had seemed events would conspire to derail our plans, but in the end neither tropical storm damage nor my cat's visit to the animal emergency room (she swallowed a sewing needle) got in the way. This was too easy. I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop; there's no way I get to be this lucky. I'm going to pay for this trip at a later date, of that I am certain!

As the magical weekend approached I became more and more excited at the various possibilities. I sent annotated PDF's of various sections of the Lawyer/Haas guidebook to Adrian. I considered Poke-O Moonshine Cliff, the Spider's Web, Upper Washbowl, Pitchoff Chimney Cliff, Chapel Pond Slab, the King Wall... the options were seemingly endless.

Ultimately we decided to hit Poke-O on day one and Upper Washbowl on day two. I knew we'd get just a taste of Poke-O (an enormous cliff) in one day, but I wanted to experience more than one place. I figured we'd do a few long classics there and then maybe if we were speedy the next day we could do most of the good lines on the Upper Washbowl. I didn't realize until later that by choosing these two destinations we had set ourselves up for a tour of the routes of John Turner, a visionary climber who was active in the late fifties and early sixties and who is famous for his sandbagged moderate vertical crack climbs all over the Northeast.

When we arrived at Poke-O there were two other cars in the lot at the defunct state campground. As we should have expected, we found both of these groups of climbers at the base of our first route (and first Turner climb of the weekend). This was, of course, Gamesmanship (5.8+), the most popular climb at Poke-O. Fortunately, the first party was already moving fast up pitch one and the second party had decided to do the neighboring single-pitch climb The Sting (5.8) while they waited. So, technically, Gamesmanship was actually open, or at least we deemed it so. The leader of the second party seemed to think he had the right to reserve his spot in line for Gamesmanship while he was climbing a different route! Adrian and I both thought that was utter nonsense, but I wondered aloud to Adrian whether we'd create a scene if we went ahead of them and hopped on Gamesmanship. Adrian solved this by loudly announcing our intention to start climbing. No one dared try to stop us so we were in business. It turned out we were much faster than the party we leapfrogged, anyway, so it was all for the best. I have no regrets.

(Photo: Pitch one of Gamesmanship (5.8+). The pink rope heading left is on The Sting (5.8).)

Gamesmanship is a five-pitch climb that goes all the way to the top of the cliff, but many parties skip pitch five, which is an undistinguished, poorly-protected 5.2 slab. The big attractions of the climb are the sustained 5.8+ handcrack of pitch one and the twin vertical "ski track" cracks of the 5.7 pitch four. The guidebook describes pitches two and three as being of lesser quality.

Supposedly the crux of the route comes in the first ten feet, at a pod just off the ground. I knew as soon as I looked up, however, that for me the rest of the pitch would be harder than the pod because I don't have much experience climbing vertical cracks. I remembered what a crappy climber I became on Reppy's Crack (5.8) at Cannon last year. Immediately I chickened out and offered Adrian the lead. Crack specialist that he is, he flew right up, expressing joy at the quality of the jams.

As I expected, I didn't fly right up. The pod at the bottom was definitely a little tricky, but this was a type of climbing I could deal with; little edges and a couple long reaches get it done. What I mostly remember about the rest of the pitch is that I thought it was great, and that I felt insecure and challenged the whole way up. I made it through without any falls or hangs, but I repeatedly expressed thanks not to be on the lead, and I tried not to be depressed at how hard I found the climbing. This was the learning experience I needed, I told myself. I'd be a better crack climber for it.

(Photo: looking down the 5.8 pitch two of Gamesmanship.)

Pitch two was my lead, and I enjoyed it. While neither as sustained nor as aesthetically pleasing as pitch one, it is still a quality pitch, with a little bit of face climbing and a little bit of vertical crack. I thought it was easy for the grade. I'm not sure where the 5.8 crux is supposed to be.

(Photo: The throwaway pitch three of Gamesmanship. Adrian is almost to the ledge where he'll head right to a tree.)

Adrian dispatched the easy 5.4 pitch three in no time. The pitch exists only to get you through the broken dike rock and right to the base of the obvious cracks ascended by the 5.7+ pitch four. This fourth pitch was my lead, and it looked gorgeous from below. I found it fun to lead, but in my opinion the great cracks don't go on quite long enough. Soon you reach lower-angled rock where you have to climb past a couple dirty bushes up a corner to the belay.

(Photo: A butt shot of me leading the 5.7+ pitch four of Gamesmanship.)

Actually I realize in retrospect that this pitch was a lost opportunity. It follows a pair of cracks, the left one a perfect vertical handcrack, the right one more featured. I found it easy enough to climb it by mostly holding the right edge of the left handcrack and using features in the crack on the right. In other words, I didn't do much jamming. I should have forced myself to do more. It would have been good for me, and more secure besides.

After we rapped to the ground we found The Sting (5.8) open, and since it was Adrian's turn to lead he jumped right on it. The first few moves follow the crux of Gamesmanship through the pod, then a thin traverse left leads to another long vertical handcrack. This is another great pitch, certainly the equal of its neighbor to the right. It is also quite a bit easier. Or at least, I thought so. The pod and thin face climbing left are just the sort of climbing I like, so I didn't worry there. And the jamming is much less continuous than on Gamesmanship. I got to the top of this pitch wishing I'd led it.

After The Sting we wanted another multi-pitch climb so we took a look at Bloody Mary (5.9+). And once we looked at it we had to climb it. It is truly impressive, heading up an imposing, steep corner. The second pitch looked strenuous but, to me, it seemed not that bad. I liked the looks of the steep layback flake and the section above, which stemmed between two corners, seemed doable. It wasn't a jamcrack so I thought "why not?" Still, I was intimidated by the climb's reputation as a Turner testpiece, which stood as the hardest climb in the 'Dacks for more than a decade. Eventually I decided to be content with leading the 5.6 pitch one, which turned out to be a nothing pitch to get you to the base of the crux corner.

(Photo: Adrian about to attack pitch two of Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

As Adrian set off on pitch two I was kicking myself for not taking the lead. But then it started looking pretty hard as Adrian came around the first layback crack and then entered the stemming portion between the two cracks. As Adrian got to the part of the pitch where the left crack ends and the guidebook mysteriously suggests an "unlikely" move onto the face, he was suddenly airborne. Unsure if he was to step left or continue just a bit further upward, he'd chosen to head up and slipped out of the crack.

Adrian was unharmed in the fall but he wasn't sure how to continue. I read him the entry in the guidebook, which seemed to suggest going further up the face to the left, but it also mentioned an anchor on this left wall that neither of us could see. The topo seemed to indicate that the pitch went up right, not left, into the tiered overhang above, but the description said nothing about this.

(Photo: Pitch two of Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

Suddenly Adrian spotted a bolted anchor to the left and headed for it. By the time he got there I realized this was a mistake. The bolted anchor was for the neighboring line to the left. But Adrian was already there, so he put me on belay and up I went.

I found the climbing strenuous but not mysterious, at least at first. I made it up the layback crack through an overhang, thinking it resembled Roseland in the Gunks. Then the stemming began, and this was heady. I wasn't sure how I'd feel leading this. It was mostly opposition keeping me on; there were few real footholds on either side. As I approached the point where Adrian popped out I tried to suss out the next part of the pitch. I was sure now that we were supposed to have headed up into the weakness in the overhang. I thought I could now spot some fixed crappy anchor up in there on the left. I wondered if the climbing up the face to the overhang would be easier, or harder, than what I'd been doing?

(Photo: Throwing in a chicken wing in order to get a rest on Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

Then, unexpectedly, I popped out, just below the point where Adrian had popped out. Screw it, I thought, I'm not leading the rest of this. We'll come back some other time and do it right. I headed left to the bolts and we rapped off.

It wasn't time to end the day, and I felt I still hadn't challenged myself, so I decided to try a slightly harder lead. P.T. Pillar (5.8+) seemed like a nice choice. It is a single-pitch climb up a corner. The guidebook contends it is often unfairly overlooked. The "P.T." stands for Positive Thinking, which is a popular ice climb in the winter, just to the left.

The climb ascends the left side of the pillar, at a crack in the back, against the main wall of the cliff. I resolved to jam, jam, and jam to the top. But it didn't really work out. If I faced to the right it seemed impossibly overhanging. If I faced the smooth back wall there were few holds. The crack seemed too wide most of the time for jams. I ended up worrying my way up the route, making frequent layback moves with insecure feet. Strenuous roof climbing got me past a big death block wedged in the crack about one third of the the way up. Continuing, I jammed my feet in the vertical corner crack whenever I could, but it was very awkward. A little more than halfway up I stopped and took a hang on a cam. Then I fell trying to get back in the crack. Then I finally powered through the rest of the pitch.

(Photo: Adrian cruising up P.T. Pillar (5.8+), just below the wedged death block.)

I had Adrian lower me from the fixed anchor so I could belay him from the ground. He proceeded to cruise up the freaking thing. He turned to the right and put his back on the smooth wall, often pinning a bent left leg with dropped knee behind him.

He made it look so easy I wanted to kill him.

Near the top, where I had been pumped and feeling like shit on the lead, grunting through the last few moves, Adrian found a no-hands rest and chilled there a while, sorting gear. Grrrrr.

When Adrian came down he said "I climbed it like a chimney. When you have a smooth wall like that it's usually a good idea to put your back on it."

Okay, noted. Why didn't he tell me that before? I know I say I don't want beta, but any idiot can tell I don't really mean it...

I couldn't wait to get out of there and get a drink. After fighting with vertical cracks all day I was worn out.

I loved Poke-O. It's a big cliff with tons of great stuff we didn't even see. My day there mainly demonstrated to me that I have so much to learn. And that if I'm going to get the schooling I need I have to get out of the Gunks more often.

Coming soon! More Turner classics at Upper Washbowl Cliff: Hesitation (5.8) & Partition (5.9-), plus the Weissner Route (5.6).