Friday, February 18, 2011
Ah, the mysteries of 5.8. In the Gunks, a grade of 5.8 can be very serious. Hell, in an old-school climbing area like the Gunks, 5.4 can be serious. But in other, more recently-developed climbing areas, 5.8 often denotes a beginner's climb. In the case of Mars Attacks!, a stellar four-pitch 5.8 climb in the cliffs of Sedona, I found both sides of the 5.8 experience. Or maybe I'm just a dreadful slab climber.
I had the opportunity to visit Arizona in late January. My wife had a conference in Scottsdale and got the idea that I could meet her late in the week and we could have a romantic weekend getaway in Sedona. Plus on the Friday I would have the chance to get in a little climbing while her conference wrapped up. With the grandparents lined up to babysit, we were in business! All I needed was a partner for climbing, which I found on Gunks.com. A longtime regular on the site, C had moved from New York to the Flagstaff area several years ago. He couldn't take a full day to climb, but he suggested we could check out Mars Attacks! together, and once I read the route description on mountainproject.com, I was excited to try it out. It looked like a wonderful, varied outing in a pretty setting.
On the appointed day I drove up from Scottsdale to Sedona and met C in the middle of town. We then went in his AWD Subaru over the bumpy dirt road to the trailhead, and set off on the 20 to 30 minute approach hike for the climb.
Immediately, I was in heaven. The hike alone seemed worth the drive. I had never been in such a beautiful place. It was like I'd landed in God's own SUV ad, without the annoying presence of SUVs. I've spent some time in Red Rocks, Nevada, and it is pretty there for sure, but Sedona has it beat by a mile. The canyons in Sedona are filled with such gorgeous colors, and they seem to stretch on forever. This was the off-season, and I'm told it is sometimes rainy in January, but for us the weather was perfect, bluebird skies with temperatures in the high 50s to low 60s. Hiking up to the cliff I couldn't stop remarking at how amazing the surroundings were. As we arrived at the base of the climb I was already feeling it had been a successful day.
Then as we racked up I had to decide what, if any, part of this climb I wanted to lead. All four pitches are rated 5.8. C, who climbs 5.12, was happy to lead all four if I was too wimpy to do my share. Of course there was no way I was going to let that happen, but at the same time it was my first rock climbing trip outside since November. I was afraid I'd feel rusty. On the other hand, I had recently shed twenty pounds and felt I was climbing really well in the gym. And for goodness sake, this was sure to be an easy 5.8. This climb was put up in the last decade, by people who most likely felt any entry-level climb should be rated 5.8.
I looked up at the first pitch, which climbs a low-angled slab. It certainly looked easy from the ground, but I was a little spooked by the opening runout of at least 20 feet to the first protection bolt. I had also read of a sandbagged crux move at another bolt further up. And although I'd read about the basics of slab technique, I had basically zero experience in slab climbing. I had no idea what a 5.8 slab should feel like, or if I'd be comfortable doing it. I decided to let C take the first pitch, which turned out to be the right decision.
He zipped up it with ease but there was no doubt where the crux move was located. I watched C get through it and tried to commit the sequence to memory: a delicate high step, then one more thin move, and then the crux would be over. But I'm afraid it didn't work out quite as well for me. The whole pitch was a breeze except for these two steps. I arrived at the stance before the crux step, my feet on nothing, pasted to the slab with every bit of sticky rubber I could manage. I could see the little dish into which C had made the high step. I hesitated, glad not to be leading. Even with a bolt right there, I felt this bit of climbing was insecure and scary. Then I went for it, but I forgot two of the most important Rules of Slab: (1) you must keep moving, and (2) you must believe in your feet.
I didn't keep moving. I high-stepped into the little dish and froze. And then I lost faith in my feet, and I fell. Pissed off, I tried to jump right back into the stance and slipped off again. Then I took a minute to collect my thoughts, got back up, used the Force, and got through it, cursing my own ineptitude and worrying that C surely thought I was a total loser. "I need to find a way to practice slab," I told myself, "because that totally sucked."
Once I arrived at the anchor I was a little angry and determined to lead pitch two. This pitch features something any Gunks climber can handle: a traverse. The whole pitch traverses, 80 or 90 feet, on a limestone band around a corner to the base of a huge flaring chimney that is ascended by the climb's final two pitches. As I checked out the pitch, I felt pretty good about it. It looked like there were good holds and a good footrail running the whole way. I could also see that the whole traverse was protected by bolts, and it appeared to me they were reasonably closely spaced.
So I set off and thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a really nice pitch, with amazing exposure, and good protection. There are a couple places where trad gear could be fiddled in but there is no need, there's always another bolt just a step or two away. I found the pitch to have several exciting steps over gaps, but no real difficulty at all; in the Gunks this would be an amazing 5.5. On mountainproject.com some commenters call it pumpy, but I didn't find it pumpy in the slightest. I suspect some folks, freaked out by traverses, might overgrip like crazy on this pitch. But if you can enjoy the exposure and relax this pitch is a great, easy thrill. I loved every second of it.
Pitch three loomed above, presenting a new challenge: a fist crack at the back of a flaring corner/chimney. Looking up, I could see the crack widen to an off-width; further up the chimney appeared to close in, forcing you to escape out the top. I'd read that this was the real money pitch of the route, and it is a long one, nearly 200 feet, a full rope-length.
As C arrived at the belay he started to sort the gear, preparing to lead the pitch, but after hemming and hawing for a minute I told him I wanted to take it. I really wanted to lead another pitch and I knew that I would want C to lead the slab-climbing pitch four. So despite some doubts I had about my own crack-climbing abilities, I decided to take the lead again for pitch three. And I'm so glad I did. This was the most enjoyable pitch yet, full of beautiful moves on deep-red rock in a spectacular corner. Again I had trouble finding where the supposed 5.8 moves were. I'd seen this described as a crack-climbing pitch, but I found plentiful holds in little huecos on the side walls. Much like so many of the so-called "crack" climbs at the Gunks, neither crack nor off-width climbing technique was actually required. I threw a jam or two into the crack at the back just for kicks, but they really weren't necessary. And there was pro available at will in the crack. At the point where the chimney closed in I found the one somewhat tricky move in the whole pitch, and before I committed to the move I was able to place a perfect #3 Camalot over my head. It was a good feeling.
After the wonders of pitches two and three the final pitch was for me a bit of an anticlimax. C led up another 5.8 slab to the anchor. This time I found no sandbagged crux move, and I followed without difficulty, but still felt insecure on my feet and grateful not to be leading. Slab is a head game, and I clearly don't yet have the head for it. I must find a way to practice slab climbing. Maybe in New Hampshire? Or Yosemite. Must get to Yosemite. Perhaps Squamish, some day...
All in all Mars Attacks! is a terrific excursion, four varied pitches on good rock in a peerless, jaw-dropping setting. I can't say I've ever found a better moderate multi-pitch climb. At one point C described it as "the High Exposure of Sedona." And what he meant, I'm sure, is that it is the highest-regarded moderate climb in the area. But in one critical respect it is very different: there are no people around! We were there on a beautiful day and saw no other climbers, not a single one. This climb, which is an easy walk from a popular trailhead, and follows obvious natural features, wasn't put up until the year 2000! It is just a world apart from the Gunks. Local climbers, reading climbing sites on the internet, must see the threads about rudeness and crowding in Eastern climbing areas and just laugh and laugh. They have it all over us in many ways.
But hey, here in NYC we've got the ballet. And the museums. And delis. So fugeddaboutit, Sedona.