Friday, May 27, 2011

Super Classics in the Near Trapps: Grand Central (5.9), Roseland (5.9) & Birdland (5.8+)

All these buckets of rain; so depressing. I had to cancel on the Gunks the weekend before last, and it looked like the next weekend might be a washout too. But undaunted, I planned for a Gunks Sunday with Liz and Adrian and hoped for the best.

It was quite foggy the whole way up to Exit 18. When we arrived at the cliffs, the path beneath the Near Trapps was muddy. The air seemed pregnant with moisture. But the rock appeared dry, or at least dryish. We walked in the direction of Gelsa (5.4), figuring it would be best to start with something easy. We dodged puddles on the trail.

Our plans changed when we stopped to look at Grand Central (5.9), a three-star classic. The vertical cracks at the start were very attractive to my crack-addicted partner Adrian. For my part, I was game for a three-star 5.9, but I wasn't sure I wanted to do it if the rock was damp. What happened to that easy warm-up we were going to do?

Adrian wasn't going to be denied. He was ready to go. So I said okay. But I didn't want to be on the hook for the crux second pitch, so I suggested he combine the short 5.6 pitch one and the steep 5.9 pitch two.

(Photo: Into the mist on Grand Central (5.9))

It turned out that the rock felt fine. Adrian flew up the first two pitches of Grand Central. He got to the traditional first belay in no time, then tiptoed through the rightward traverse around a nose to a stance beneath the steep, crux face on pitch two. Adrian complained about the traverse being a little spicy (his actual words were "that's a-one spicy meatball!") but I thought he had good pro. He then tried a couple different tactics before settling on his approach to the crux face. He started up right, then stepped down and went up left to the belay stance beneath the pitch three roof.

When I followed Adrian up I saw why Grand Central is such a great classic. There is a lot of variety on this climb. I enjoyed the crack climbing at the bottom, which is no giveaway, and the traverse around the nose, while not very difficult, is thin and quite exposed. I felt like I would have been fine leading the crux 5.9 face climbing that concludes pitch two, but the gear seems to come only at the very beginning of the crux moves, and the leader has to be comfortable working it out through the moves above this gear until the crux is basically over. It isn't particularly run out, but neither is it one of those one-move cruxes with gear over your head. There are several straightforward but steep moves in succession. I thought going to the right was definitely "the way" to do it. There are really good holds over there; every third one felt like a bomber jug to me.

(Photo: Getting started on pitch three of Grand Central)

By the time we all arrived at the belay I wasn't worried about the rock anymore; I was eager to lead pitch three. This pitch is short, but it is a doozy, through a big two-tiered overhang. Dick Williams says the pitch will go at 5.7 to 5.9 depending on your height. Immediately above the belay the huge roof looms. There is a notch running through the roof that provides a perfect slot for a #2 Camalot and a fist jam that isn't quite as good as you want it to be. The trick, if you're short like me and my partner Liz, is to find a way to get your feet up so you can reach for the jug above the roof. If you're a little taller, like Adrian, you can just stand there and grab the jug, making the climb a few grades easier and infuriating all of your partners in the process.

After a couple of false starts, stepping up, sliding/stepping/hopping down, then adding another back-up piece in case I fell out, I really went for it and it was a blast. I pulled up over the roof into a cramped, pumpy stance, wormed in another cam, moved awkwardly one step to the left, pulled over the second (easier) overhang, and it was over.

I couldn't recall a more exciting 20 feet of climbing. It was a great rush, and if you call it a 5.9 pitch, I would say it's a great introductory 5.9 lead. The hardest move is the very first one, and there's great gear. If you fail to grab the jug you can hop right down to the stance, as I did a couple of times.

In retrospect, I think it would be better to combine pitches two and three, rather than combining one and two as we did. This arrangement would better minimize drag. But I'm happy we combined one and two, because I got to lead pitch three!

After we were done with Grand Central we found Roseland (5.9), another three-star classic, sitting open. Dick Williams calls the first pitch one of the best 5.9s in the Gunks. I had never considered climbing Roseland before, but after taking one look at it I was eager to get on it. Roseland goes up a vertical crack at the back of a pretty open book. Halfway up the crack, there's a roof. And at at the end of the crack, a traverse under an overhang leads to the final moves up to a bolted anchor.

(Photo: approaching the first roof on Roseland)

It looked hard. And it was seeping a little water. But I also thought the pro looked great. The vertical crack seemed like it would provide secure placements at will. I figured the climbing would be a lot like the first pitch of Airy Aria, a corner climb in the Trapps that was one of my first 5.8 leads, and one that I really enjoyed.

I told Adrian I wanted this one. He was fine with it.

And then I proceeded to get my ass kicked a little bit.

I headed up the opening crack, placing lots of gear, having fun. The moves were great. Every step seemed technical, interesting. before I knew it I was at the roof. The crack continued around the side of the roof, providing good holds. I pulled up over the roof with no problems. Things were going well.

I was almost at the traverse. As I neared the top of the crack, the climb grew steeper, pumpier. I could see a pin out on the traverse, beneath the ceiling. It was a burly angle piton. I couldn't wait to clip it. But first I had to get established in the horizontal crack under the roof. This crack would provide the only handholds for the traverse. And the crack starts out very thin. With the pump clock ticking, I had no time to waste. I made a big step out, putting my right toe on a crease. I tried to stick my fingers in the crack. There was chalk all over it, so I thought I could use it. But I couldn't get my tips into it. The crack was too thin.

Suddenly I got scared, and a little spooked. I felt pumped, I was leaning out, and I had nothing to hold on to.

"Dude, watch me!" I yelled at Adrian. "I think I'm about to fall!"

I looked down and my last piece was, to my surprise, below my feet. I wanted gear higher, at the top of the vertical crack. I reversed the moves, going left and down a step. Then I got in a great cam and clipped it before saying "take" and hanging off of it.

I needed to regroup.

As I rested there a minute I looked over the traverse. I could now see the holds; I just hadn't reached far enough. And the feet followed an obvious line of edges. If I'd been more patient I might have seen all of this the first time. This was going to be okay.

Once I got going again, the first move of the traverse was the hardest. I made the big step and with great relief clipped the first pin. Moving to the second pin, the climbing was pumpy but I felt pretty secure with the hands and the feet. The traverse got easier as it progressed, and although I've read complaints that Roseland has gotten too polished, I can't say that problem ever entered my mind while I was climbing it.

After the traverse Roseland still comes at you: another couple of steep moves and a big mantle get you, finally, to the bolts.

As I look back on it, I think I did reasonably well with the actual climbing on Roseland, but the other aspects of my performance really suffered. I got scared and had to take. My rope management was horrible, creating so much drag that by the time I reached the anchor I could barely move the ropes. And I fumbled with a biner and dropped some nuts on the traverse. What can I say? This climb got to me a little bit. It was hard for me.

When I lowered off of it I felt exhausted.

But oh, what a great pitch. Roseland is packed with quality moves. It is a stiff 5.9 that just doesn't let up. I was sort of correct in figuring that it would be a like Airy Aria, except Roseland is longer, steeper, more technical, and includes a roof problem in the middle and a thin traverse at the end. Aside from all that, it is just like Airy Aria!

I would gladly lead Roseland again, and I hope to send it next time. Despite its difficulty I would recommend it to anyone looking for a 5.9 to try, because it takes such great gear. You can throw in a piece and take a break at any point if you want to. You would take a swing backwards if you blew the crux move to the pin, but so long as you place gear at the top of the vertical crack I don't think a fall there would be too bad.

After we'd all had our fill of Roseland I ran over to check on Birdland, a climb that has been on my ticklist for a long, long time. Something about the first pitch face just calls to me, begging me to climb it. It ascends the right-hand face of a big open book, much larger than Roseland's. The angle appears reasonable; the face seems so climbable. I have stood before it on several occasions and been so excited at the prospect of hopping on it. But I've held back, partly out of fear. Testpiece face climbs scare me, and Birdland is known as a testpiece face climb. It is a 5.8, but some people think it should be a 5.9.

The crowds have also kept me away. Birdland may be the most popular climb in the Nears. It always seems to be occupied. Both pitches are very highly regarded, and the first pitch ends at bolts that can be used to toprope several popular harder climbs around the corner as well.

Earlier in the day we weren't surprised to find Birdland occupied. But after we did Roseland, we found it open. And after my brave struggle with Roseland I realized I no longer feared Birdland. Gunks face climbs have felt really good to me lately. I felt good on Pas De Deux. I felt good on Apoplexy. Why not Birdland? It was time.

The only problem was that my buddy Adrian wanted to lead it. I had snatched Roseland from him, after all. It was his turn. And yet I had to have pitch one, and I told him so. I confessed I'd been working up to this lead for a long time. And bless his heart, he let me have it. Such a nice guy.

The pitch went down like butter.

It is a beautiful pitch. Great rock on a nice face. The line wanders just a bit but there is a natural path to it, pretty much straight up through flakes, then a touch right to the arete, then straight up again through the face to the anchor. After an initial steep cruxy move to get established on the face the angle is low, so there's no pump factor, just a bunch of great moves with very good pro.

(Photo: A mini-crux right off the deck on Birdland)

At one point there was an interesting move, right before a fixed piton, in which I stepped on a tiny pebble to move up. And afterwards I realized I had just done the crux everyone talks about. I recall reading about this crux; it is reputed to involve iffy pro and a "secret" crimper hold. But I had a good cam right before this move (I think it was a .3 or .4 Camalot in a vertical crack), and the so-called secret hold was so covered in chalk there was no way it could remain much of a mystery. For me, on this particular day, the crux was over before I even realized it was a challenge.

I'm not trying to pooh-pooh the crux of Birdland as if it's no big deal. Liz struggled with it when she followed the pitch, and she's a great climber. Last year I'm sure it would have been a whole different experience for me, too. And that's really my point: it is amazing how things can change when you lose a little weight and adjust your mindset. I'm now in a so much healthier place, both physically and mentally, than I was a year ago. Last year I wanted to believe I was still as solid as ever on Gunks 5.8s, but in the wake of my 2009 climbing accident I was really a different climber, worrying and shaking my way up climbs I would have cruised through before the accident. Now that I'm feeling good again I realize just how far I was set back.

It's so good to pick up where I left off, working on 5.9s and feeling awesome on the 5.8s. Reaching the bolts at the end of pitch one of Birdland was a little like a homecoming to me, even though I'd never been in that particular spot before. Everything about it seemed familiar and right. I can only pray to the climbing gods that the good karma continues; I know now how fragile progress can be. One stupid mistake or blown muscle and it could all get set back to zero. It happens all the time.

After the joy of pitch one I expected pitch two to be an afterthought. I had never given it much consideration before. But I knew it was supposed to be good, and very different from pitch one. From our vantage point at the bolts it sure looked steep. It was supposed to be Adrian's lead, but as we stood at the belay he told me that if I was into leading it he didn't mind giving it to me.

I was taken aback. I told him I'd be thrilled to lead it but that I didn't want to be a hog about it. He handed me the gear.

The second pitch of Birdland is not better than the first, but I think it is equally good. It starts with the technical crux, a few thin moves right above the anchor, to a pair of pitons that I'm guessing used to form the belay station for pitch one. After that, it is an overhanging jugfest up to a big, left-facing corner. There are ledges along the way if you want to take a rest. And then the physical crux comes: a steep and awkward pull up into the big corner.

Once you're in the corner, an easier traverse with good pro brings you to an escape from the roof and the finish. A very high quality pitch, with good pro the whole way. Steep and pumpy, it provides the perfect counterpoint for the technical face-climbing on pitch one. To my mind these two pitches together make Birdland perhaps the very best 5.8 in the Gunks.

No wonder it's so popular.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Uber-follies: No Picnic (5.5), Shit or Go Blind (5.8), Fancy Idiot (5.6) & More!

My partner Liz and I were in the Gunks on a Tuesday, and the place was practically deserted. Flipping through the guidebook, Liz made an observation.

"There sure are a lot of starred climbs in the Uberfall area that we never do."

It was true. I usually speed through the Uberfall as fast as I can to get away from the crowds. But Dick Williams gives stars to a whole bunch of climbs right at the start of the Trapps, and some of these never seem to be occupied, even on crowded weekends.

I've had mixed experiences with the routes I have tried in this part of the cliff.

I hated Handy Andy (5.7), to name one example. This climb sits right where the carriage road makes the turn that puts you at the left edge of the long wall that is the Trapps. I led Handy Andy a couple years ago, at the end of a long climbing day. I'd wanted to do it because it looked improbable. From the road, the face climbing past two old pins looked totally smooth and blank. When I actually climbed it, I thought the holds were thin, for sure, but the real problem was the pro. You're stuck with the old pins and nothing else for several moves, which isn't exactly ideal. What's worse, since you start the route by climbing in sideways, I always felt like I was about to hit the deck. The routine was: make an unprotected move, clip a pin, then make another move sideways and feel like you're in groundfall range. Rinse and repeat.

I got my hands up to the first real horizontal above the pins and threw a cam in, then scampered up to the next stance. And then on the lower-angled bit to the top I felt like there wasn't any good pro and that I was once again entering ground-fall range. I told myself I was never leading that climb again, although in retrospect it doesn't seem so bad. I could see myself getting psyched up to do it at the end of another long climbing day.

I have a similar distaste for Laurel (5.7), one of the Gunks' most popular routes. Laurel was once rated 5.6, but the start has gotten so polished over the years that the first few moves seem significantly harder than that. The current 5.7 rating is Dick Williams' concession that the bottom part of the climb has changed, but in my opinion he didn't go far enough. It is probably much harder than 5.7, if only for one or two moves. I have successfully climbed the route on toprope a couple times. I can't say I found it particularly memorable or worth the trouble.

One day last year I decided, for some reason, to lead it for the first time. I made the first move up to the slick but sizable foothold. Then I tried to put some pro in the pin scar over my head, so the next slippery move would be protected. I wormed a C3 into the pin scar, but I wasn't happy with it. I thought the placement was marginal, but it seemed this was all I was going to get.

I could see the good hold, not too far out of reach. I just needed to make one step up and grab it, and the rest of the climb would be a cruise.

Of course, I blew the move and fell.

The marginal cam held for half a second, then popped, hitting me in the helmet. Then my ass hit the ground.

Yes, that's right, I decked from three feet up on Laurel.

I started to get to my feet when a stranger appeared out of nowhere, saying "Whoa! Whoa! Don't move, let me check you out!"

I started to reassure this guy that I was fine, but then I decided he was right. Who knows, I figured, maybe I broke my spine during the stupidest lead fall in the history of the world. I shouldn't compound the humiliation of the moment by arrogantly jumping to my feet and ensuring my total paralysis.

So I waited as the stranger waved his hands over me and otherwise determined that I was intact. After this inspection he told me my gear was the problem. He said I'd blocked a necessary handhold by placing a bad cam in the pin scar, and that a micronut would've worked there. I'm sure he was right, but I didn't try it out. I decided instead that I was NEVER climbing stupid Laurel again.

Not all the climbs in the Uberfall are stinkers. Some are three-star classics, worthy of all the accolades. I love many of these climbs, including Horseman (best 5.5 in the Gunks), Apoplexy (my new favorite!), Retribution (which I will some day lead), Bunny (great 5.4 or one-move 5.6), and others.

And some of the less heralded, one-star climbs in the Uberfall area are quite nice, like Black Fly (5.5), Nice Crack Climb (5.7), and Nice 5.9 Climb, all of which sit just right of Handy Andy. Black Fly was one of my first leads, several years ago. It has nice casual climbing up to the right-angling crux crack, which takes great pro. It is a wonderful easy lead. Nice Crack Climb next door has a short 5.7 crux, and then more casual climbing up to the same slanting crack. And Nice 5.9 Climb has two good cruxes, the first of which I found a little tricky on toprope last year. I couldn't make the stand-up move at the overlap; it took me several tries, but finally I got my weight over it just right and it seemed preposterously easy.

So the other Tuesday we decided to try a few more one-star Uberfall climbs. We started our day with No Picnic (5.5) and Shit or Go Blind (5.8), which are tucked away just left of the Gerdie Block.

(Beta Photo: No Picnic (5.5))

Dick says that No Picnic has some sandy holds. I thought it was actually quite clean. Maybe a touch of grittiness at the crux overhang, but nothing worth complaining about. The climbing is nice and reasonable. Up an easy slab without much pro to the obvious left-facing corner, where good pro appears. At the top of the corner move right to a spot beneath a crack that runs through the overhang. Crank up over the overhang and say to yourself: this is 5.5? Then easy face climbing, pretty much straight up, staying left of and avoiding another overhang, brings you to the belay tree, which as of this writing has a burly steel cable around it with rap rings.

No Picnic is a pleasant warm-up climb. Good rock, quality climbing, and fine protection except for the first few moves.

(Beta Photo: Shit or Go Blind (5.8))

Shit or Go Blind offers more nice clean climbing, with two good little cruxes, both soft for 5.8 in my opinion.

The climb starts a bit low-angled, without much pro for the opening moves, just like its neighbor No Picnic. There's great protection for the rest of the way. Once past the opening face, you climb into a shallow open book and up to an overhang. The first crux comes as you traverse left through an overhanging section, and then up and over the roof, about five feet to the right of where No Picnic goes over it. I remember a pin in this part of the climb, but Dick says the second roof has the pin. Even if I'm wrong about the pin, I remember placing at least two cams in this section; I felt very well protected. And the holds are great, it's just a little pumpy.

Pretty straightforward climbing leads to a second roof, which is again surmounted using great holds and a strong move up, with good pro and apparently a pin that I've forgotten. Trend left above the roof to join No Picnic just below the belay tree.

Nothing spectacular to see here. But Shit or Go Blind is another perfectly pleasant climb; not a waste of time at all. Good moves, good rock, convenient and easy to approach and descend from.

(Photo: Looking down through the bushes from the top of pitch two of Fancy Idiot)

Later in the day we were looking for a climb to do on the way back to the parking lot. Looking over Dick's guide we considered a couple Uberfall one-stars. At first I was thinking about Eyebrow (5.6). But as I surveyed the cliff, searching for the line, I couldn't tell where it went through the upper roofs.

Then my attention turned to Fancy Idiot (5.6), which starts just left of Bunny. I could see where both pitches went. I spied the pins on pitch one, and I could see the second pitch's obvious corner. Seemed like a reasonable enough choice.

"I didn't know there was a climb here next to Bunny," Liz said. I guess I never really did either.

So we racked up and did it. And I'll cut to the chase here and say I basically think Fancy Idiot is a waste of time. I'm not sorry I did it once, but I'll probably never do it again.

The most worthwhile parts of pitch one occur in the first 25 feet or so. Up the face left of Bunny, the climb ascends a shallow right-facing corner that is crescent-shaped (fixed pin). Getting established in this corner was surprisingly challenging for me; it requires a couple interesting moves.

After the crescent-shaped crack a huge ledge is reached. Here look for another pin above and a little to the left-- I also found a crack for pro off to the right, which was easy to make use of with my double ropes. One more thin face move takes you up past the pin to easier moves and another ledge.

Once atop this second ledge, the worthwhile climbing is over, but the pitch continues. I elected to keep going up a little right (passing a disturbingly small tree with slings around it) and then left, traversing towards another, larger tree growing at a severe angle out of a precariously stacked pile of blocks. I kept moving towards this second tree because I believed it to be the belay tree at the base of the pitch two corner mentioned in Dick's guide. But the closer I got to this tree the less I wanted to have anything to do with it. It looked like even stepping on the blocks around the tree might send the whole pile down into the gully to the right of the Gerdie Block. So I stopped at the base of the big left-facing corner, built a gear belay in some suspect flakes, and brought Liz up.

Once she got to the top of the pitch, we debated what to do next. We could traverse to the right and join Bunny to its belay tree. Or we could traverse left and walk across to the top of the Gerdie Block, and then rappel or scramble down the other side. Or we could do pitch two of Fancy Idiot, to the top of the cliff. This 5.4 pitch looked simple enough, if a little dirty and overgrown. I figured I could lead it in about five minutes. So we decided to keep climbing. What the heck, why not?

I will say this in favor of pitch two of Fancy Idiot: it is surprising how much of an adventure experience you can find right on top of the Gerdie Block and just to the left of Bunny, Retribution and Nosedive. Surrounded by these immensely popular climbs, you suddenly find yourself fighting through bushes, lichen, and dirty ledges to the top of the cliff. I felt like we were the first pair to traipse through this territory in quite a while.

The climbing was actually more interesting than I expected. The face to the left of the big corner is pretty blank, and blocks and flakes in the corner are often necessary tools for advancement. The problem with these blocks and flakes, however, is that many of them are loose.

If the crappy rock quality were not an issue, I might actually say pitch two of Fancy Idiot is worth the trouble in spite of the bushwhacking nature of the pitch. As things are, however, I think it isn't worth it. Fancy Idiot doesn't deserve the single star that Dick gave it. Don't bother.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gunks Routes: Pas De Deux (5.8) & Apoplexy (5.9)

Since returning from Vegas I'd had only one short day in the Gunks, with just four pitches, mostly easy stuff.

But the last climb of that short day, pitch one of Pas De Deux (5.8), really changed everything.

I felt so solid.

Pas De Deux is hard for 5.8; it is a little scary. As Dick Williams says, the climb features thoughtful and committing moves for the first 30 feet. The climb winds its way slightly right, and then slightly left, all rather close to the ground, until thin face moves lead to a vertical crack, which is then followed upwards to easier climbing between good horizontals. In the traverse left to the vertical crack, I worried for a moment that I was in too deep. I'd chosen the high foot traverse rather than the low hand traverse, and I was now perched in a tenuous position, with great footholds but tiny crimps for the hands. Matching my two hands on a minuscule pebble, I stretched left, reaching, reaching for the edge of the vertical crack that I hoped would put me at a good stance with more gear. It was balancy, precarious. My last piece was below my feet and to the right. But my footwork was good, my fingers worked the crimps, and with the move completed, I knew this climb was as good as in the bag.

As I exhaled and placed a cam, I felt something I hadn't felt in a long time. I felt that fire in the belly, the hunger I didn't even know I'd been missing for more than a year.

I was finally ready to start pushing it a little more. The rock felt so good. I was fit, climbing well. It was time. Time to start moving forward and to challenge myself. Time to break back into 5.9 at the Gunks.

So for my next day out I started to get very excited about various possibilities. One climb in particular, Apoplexy, became the focus for me, the climb I just had to do. And this was strange since Apoplexy was a climb I'd never even considered leading before. I had always been scared off because I was a little worried about the pro. The climb has a reputation as being tricky to protect through the middle, at a fragile flake that many people consider untrustworthy.

But now I wasn't too concerned about the pro through the middle, because it isn't the crux. Dick's guide says this part of the route is 5.8. Not so bad. 5.8 face climbs have felt pretty good to me lately.

I also felt a boost in confidence because I'd been on this climb once before. It must have been at least three years ago: I threw a toprope over Apoplexy by leading up Dirty Chimney (5.0) to the ledge, then moving left to Pony Express (5.6-) and up to the chains that sit above and right of Apoplexy's crux. Looking back, I remember more about setting up that toprope than I do about climbing Apoplexy that day. I recall working my way up the chimney and then somehow getting kind of sketched out on the traverse over to Pony Express. I ended up hugging the huge tree that used to sit on the ledge. That tree is gone now; it fell down during a spring storm in 2010. It sure seemed sturdy three or four years ago when I was holding on to it for dear life.

All I remember about the climbing on Apoplexy back then is that it didn't seem so difficult on toprope. The face climbing was reasonable. The crux overhang seemed more straightforward than the one on the third pitch of Maria (5.6+). I knew that leading it in 2011 would feel completely different from toproping it in 2008, but I took some comfort from my prior experience: I was pretty sure I wouldn't be spit off the climb because I missed a secret hold or needed some special beta.

Another factor in Apoplexy's favor was that it is such a Gunks classic. Everyone walks right by it; it is surrounded by some of the most popular climbs in the Trapps. All the real Gunkies have climbed it over and over again. There are Gunks regulars who end every climbing day with a run up Apoplexy. Gunks blogger Dawn Alguard has probably climbed Apoplexy a thousand times. And here I had never led it, not once. This situation had to be rectified.

The plan was to go up to the Gunks on a Tuesday with Liz. The fact that we were heading up on a weekday sealed the deal for me. The Uberfall would be relatively empty. I wouldn't be climbing in front of a huge audience. I needed to do this.

When we arrived on Tuesday, we warmed up on a couple easy pitches and then headed over to the climb. I told Liz if it was occupied we'd just go do something else. No sense in waiting for a climb on a weekday. A small part of me would have been relieved if it had been occupied. As we approached the base of the Apoplexy I was filled with both excitement and dread. I knew this climb was well within my climbing abilities. But was my head really ready?

The climb was open. We flaked out the ropes and I headed up.

The early face climbing is pretty casual. I passed the first horizontal, clipping the totally unnecessary angle piton and placing another cam next to it. I got another great cam in the next horizontal and clipped the rope into it direct since it looked like the next pro was going to come at the infamous shaky flake about 30 feet off the ground.

Then I stepped up to the flake. It makes for a great handhold. I found getting pro behind it to be kind of a challenge. I wanted a nut rather than a cam-- I didn't want to put any expanding forces on the flake in the event of a fall-- but it seemed to me that the micronut I worked into the space behind the flake might pull out sideways if it was tested. So I tried to get a little C3 behind the flake, but no dice. Then I thought about the little pod up and right of the flake. I'd read that a tricam could be worked into this pod, so I tried to place one, again without success.

The nut was going to have to do.

I started to step to the left, because Dick says it is a little easier that way. But I couldn't find anything easy over there. It seemed that if I went straight up from the flake instead it would be just one thin move and then I'd be able to reach the next good horizontal. So I started to step up, but as I did so I looked down at that nut behind the flake and I didn't like it. Maybe a smaller nut would seat more securely?

I downclimbed a step and dicked around with another nut behind the flake. Better? Possibly.

I had to get on with this early surprise crux before I lost my nerve. I made the thin step, grabbed the horizontal, and moved up. So far, so good. All according to plan.

Now came the real business. Up into a shallow right-facing corner, and then a committing layback move with good pro up and around left to a pumpy stance beneath the overhang. As I made the moves up to and under the overhang, I started to feel the strain in my forearms immediately.

I thought the horizontal below the little roof would take a good cam. I worked one in. I extended it with a sling. Then I had to shake out. I still needed to clip the rope to the little bugger. If I couldn't clip the cam it wouldn't do a thing for me. I grabbed the rope with my left hand and tried to make the clip, but I had to abort the clipping and grab back onto the hold. I shook out my right hand again, and got set to try once more to make the clip. The pump clock was ticking. This wasn't going to get any easier.

As I hung in there, looking at this cam I had yet to clip, my mind was racing. Was I going to be able to clip it? If I expended the energy to make the clip, would I be able to make the moves above the overhang? Should I have just climbed through without placing more gear? Was attempting this climb a mistake?

There is a well-known maxim in climbing that advises "when in doubt, run it out," which means that if you are faced with a cruxy sequence and aren't sure you have the strength to both place gear and make the moves, it is better to choose to make the moves. The thinking behind this rule, as I understand it, is that once the hard moves are behind you, you can rest or place gear, and you never have to take a fall. If instead you choose to stop and place gear before the cruxy moves, the likelihood that you will fall and test that gear (and perhaps be injured) increases greatly.

I have always had mixed feelings about this rule. It seems to me that if the leader "runs it out," the increased possibility of injury in a fall without gear might outweigh the increased likelihood of completing the moves. I find it very difficult to balance the risks and benefits of these two possibilities. To my mind it seems that the real question any climber in this situation should ask him or herself is: why am I in doubt in the first place? If you are forced to choose between placing gear and making the moves, you've made an error in judgment. You are climbing something that is above your leading abilities. And now both of your choices are less than ideal.

One of the things I admire about my partner Adrian is that he always, and I mean always, places great pro in the crux. To me it is a sign that he knows his limits and stays within them. He has the juice to place the necessary gear and still make the moves. He doesn't run it out, because he isn't in doubt. I aspire to be like this.

And yet on Tuesday I found myself hanging in there at the roof crux of Apoplexy, in more than a little doubt. I knew I had good gear just a few feet below me, but I wanted the gear at the roof. I couldn't stop thinking about what a fall from just above the roof would be like if I couldn't clip the gear. It would be just like the fall on Insuhlation that broke my ankle in October 2009, and I obviously did not want to go there again.

I told myself this had to stop. I knew I could make this clip. I knew I could make the moves. I didn't have to choose one or the other. I was solid and I was going to get this done. I was going to grab the rope and pull it up strong to the carabiner; no more failures. And then I was going to blast through the moves above the overhang to the stance.

I made the clip; I made the moves. I got to the stance and felt like a million bucks. I had done it; I was back in it to win it. It really hadn't been that hard, once I sacked up and went for it.

I decided to finish the route with the chimney above the crux rather than moving right to the chains, and I'm glad I did. The chimney is fun, even if it is much easier than the rest of the climb. (It's probably 5.5 or so.) Doing the chimney adds to the variety of the climb, and you get to top out, which is always such a great feeling. If you climb with double ropes, it is easy to rap off the Horseman tree just a few feet to the left. A single 60 meter rope juuust makes it as well, in my experience. Watch your ends.

After leading Apoplexy I had to wonder why it isn't a three-star climb. (Williams gives it two stars.) It has great face climbing for about 40 feet, then good steep moves up to the overhang, followed by a fun run up a chimney to the top. It is hard to imagine more sustained good climbing in a single pitch.

The climb also occupies an important position historically. Put up by Jim McCarthy in 1960, Apoplexy represents the state of the art of climbing at that time. Along with MF, another classic McCarthy 5.9 that was established the same year (and which McCarthy also gave a name similarly indicative of his perception of its difficulty), Apoplexy was a stepping stone to later, even greater achievements. The following season McCarthy would push through to a whole other level, ushering in the 5.10 era with new climbs like Tough Shift (5.10a) and his first free ascents of Retribution (5.10b) and Nosedive (5.10b).

You no longer have to be one of the best climbers of your generation to climb Apoplexy. But it remains a great stepping stone for climbers of all generations in the Gunks. I can only hope that for me, it is a stepping stone to a lot of other fun 5.9s, and perhaps beyond, this year.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Gunks Routes: Yellow Ridge (5.7)

(Photo: coming around to the stance beneath the off-width on the first pitch of Yellow Ridge.)

Often described as the best 5.7 in the Gunks, Yellow Ridge delivers a classic Fritz Weissner old-school sort of experience. An intimidating 5.7 off-width crack looms about 10 to 15 feet off the ground. The first belay traditionally follows directly above, and then the second pitch follows a path-of-least resistance 5.5 traverse up and left to a decent ledge. Then in the final pitch comes the glory: a thin traverse left to an arete and an improbable 5.6 haul through great jugs to the top.

The first decision confronting the climber is how to get to the off-width. Guidebooks have differed as to which approach is the original route; one can climb up to the off-width from the left, from the right, or directly up a nose from below. Dick Williams' latest guidebook suggests the approach from the right. This approach has the advantage of being the only start with good protection. When I led the pitch in March, this is the way I went, and I thought it was a bit strenuous for 5.7, but very secure and fun. The climb begins up a left-facing corner and then traverses under a low roof to the nose beneath the off-width. A good undercling crack provides great pro and hands for the traverse. The feet are quite smeary, however, and this part of the pitch really gets the pulse going, quite close to the ground. Then it's a fun maneuver rocking over the top of the nose to the stance beneath the off-width.

The off-width itself is kind of a letdown. I doubt even Fritz grunted up the thing. There are enough little edges around it that there is no need to use the wide crack to advance. I brought up a couple big cams just to see if they'd be useful, and it turned out they were totally unnecessary. I placed a gray #4 Camalot just above the piton at the base of the off-width. It wouldn't fit any higher. I suppose it had value in backing up the pin, but a #3 would have gone in almost as high. Then about half-way up the crack I placed the purple #5 Camalot, but right there a good horizontal also appears which takes a variety of different cam sizes. So leave the big gear in your bag, there's no point in bringing it for Yellow Ridge.

Traditionally there is a belay at the ledge above the off-width. I wasn't experiencing any drag, even though I placed gear both before and during the traverse beneath the roof at the start of the pitch, so I elected to continue through the easy 5.5 moves up and left to the final belay ledge. Here my partner Adrian took over for the 5.6 money pitch. I had been through this area before, but never from this direction. Instead I had previously done the final portion of Yellow Ridge by approaching it from the other side, through a link-up climb called Basking Ridge, which ascends the excellent 5.7 first pitch of Baskerville Terrace, then moves to the right and goes up a cool rising traverse around a corner to the right to join Yellow Ridge at the arete below the overhangs.

When I climbed Basking Ridge last year and came around the corner to join Yellow Ridge at the arete, I looked to the right and thought the Yellow Ridge traverse looked a little thin and intimidating. This year, Adrian made it look very easy, then moved up, clipping the pins that are the only pro for a while through the arete section. Then he started to move out of sight, but he paused beneath the overhangs. As I've mentioned before, Adrian is a recent transplant to the Gunks. He is used to climbing out in Squamish, where the cracks are vertical and the roofs don't tend to go at easy grades.

"Do you know where I'm supposed to go?" he asked. "There's nothing up there that looks like 5.6 to me."

"Straight up!" I said.

"Really?" I think I see a pin off to the left through this filthy gully..."

"NO! No! Straight up, man. You'll see, it's nothing but jugs and awesomeness."

"I trust you, but it doesn't look that way..."

"I've done it before, really, I'm quite sure about this."

"Okay, okay."

So Adrian headed upward, and after a short period of silence, he let out a great whoop, and yelled:

"5.6 in the Gunks!!"

And that's the magic, really, of a climb like Yellow Ridge, and of so much climbing in the Gunks. It looks like it's going to be absurdly hard, and it is actually quite steep, but the holds are so great it really is fair to call it a 5.6. Powering through these overhangs is a joy, a special kind of thrill you don't get anywhere else from such moderate climbing.

When I followed the final pitch I thought the traverse to the arete was nice but no big deal. A couple of delicate face moves and it was over. Having done the whole climb I had to conclude that Yellow Ridge is not the best 5.7 in the Gunks. Aside from a few nice moves at the bottom, the climb is just okay until the wonderful, outstanding final overhangs. I think that Basking Ridge, on the other hand, is a legitimate contender for the "Best 5.7" crown. Starting with the technical, challenging thin corner of Baskerville Terrace, it then offers an airy, rising traverse to the Yellow Ridge arete that is more exciting than traversing in from the other direction. You also arrive on the arete a little lower than you do when you come in from Yellow Ridge, which adds a bit more exposure as you move up to the pins and then the final overhangs.

And I have another idea for what might be the very best, and most direct, link-up that leads to the last pitch of Yellow Ridge. It would start with the classic first pitch of Fat Stick (5.8), which I've never done, and then climb the second pitch of Fat Stick Direct (5.10(b)), which I've also never done. This would place you just to the right of the belay for the final pitch of Yellow Ridge, which you would then do instead of the R-rated third pitch of Fat Stick Direct. This link-up would produce an awesome moderate climb with a well-protected 5.10 roof crux in the middle. If I get the guts to break into 5.10 this year, I'll definitely give it a try and report back!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Red Rocks 2011, Part 2

After our first two days in Red Rocks, I felt like the trip was going well. I was getting back into the swing of climbing, and having fun. I wasn't pushing my trad leading into much new territory, however. And I couldn't help but be a little disappointed at the hand we'd been dealt by the elements. Adrian and I had to abort climbing Solar Slab because of extreme wetness, and only got three pitches up Ginger Cracks because we were caught in a sudden snowstorm.

But things were looking up. The weather was forecast to be wonderful for our final two days. And I was determined to get to the top of something.

Day 3: Jubilant Song

On our third day we got up and moving pretty quickly because we really wanted to have no issues finishing Jubilant Song (5.8), our big objective for the day.

Jubilant Song is a well-regarded moderate classic, climbing all the way to the summit of Windy Peak in eight sustained pitches. Despite its stature among the many wonderful moderate climbs in Red Rocks, Jubilant Song has a reputation for being less crowded than many other climbs, for two main reasons. The climb sits in Windy Canyon, which is well outside the paved Red Rocks loop road. The canyon is approached by a confusing patchwork of dirt and gravel roads that are challenging for a compact rental car to navigate. And once you make it to the trailhead, it is a steep hour to hour-and-a-half hike to the base of the route.

I felt like our luck had changed for the better as we carefully eased down the gravel road in our rental car, searching for the trailhead while doing our best to avoid hitting large axle-bending stones. We were the first ones to arrive at the little parking lot, and the weather was perfect. The hike to the base was much easier to follow than I expected; in fact, the trail up and down from Jubilant Song was the best-marked trail we experienced on our whole trip. And although the hike was no joke, and quite steep in places, we made it to the base of the route in just over an hour. We were trucking, on a mission to get this one done.

Pitch one was my lead, a generally easy 80 foot pitch with a 5.7 roof in the middle. It is a fun pitch and though the roof is easy I nearly took a lead fall. I placed great pro at the roof level, and then I grabbed a couple juggy holds to the right, thinking they were so good they had to be part of the climb. As I searched vainly for some more jugs above, my left foot suddenly cut loose and I was surprised to find myself swinging backwards, attached to the rock only with my hands. I held on, though, and once I got my feet back on I saw the obvious holds on the left wall with which the roof is easily surmounted.

(Photo: looking down from atop pitch one of Jubilant Song.)

Pitch two is a much more sustained pitch, also graded 5.7, but more involved than the first. There are some wide sections, but no real crack or off-width technique is required. Still, there are lots of interesting moves in this 150 foot pitch, and Adrian took his time about leading it. As I belayed him, a team of three climbers started up the route and their leader caught up to us. This Gunks-like proximity to other climbers was a first for us on this trip; on Solar Slab, there was a party well ahead of us, bizarrely soldiering on through the wetness, but we never came close to them, and on our second day we were the only party on Ginger Cracks. The trio behind us on Jubilant Song seemed like a very competent crew. We learned at some point that they were travelling around in a camper and climbing. In other words, they were LIVING THE DREAM. Also, they were a dude and two women living in a camper, which brought to mind all sorts of interesting situations. But I digress.

These guys were raring to start leading behind me as I followed pitch two, so I tried to be quick about getting up that pitch and also my next lead. They would catch up to us on each of the next couple pitches, but after pitch four we didn't see them again, so I hope they didn't regard us as much of a problem for their day. I noticed at least one other party coming up the trail to Jubilant Song at some point while we were on the route. If our experience is representative, then the days in which a climber can find him or herself alone in Windy Canyon may be a thing of the past.

Pitch three was my lead, a long 5.5 up a fun and easy chimney, and then up the face into a corner below a gigantic, dramatic roof. Perched at the belay, waiting for Adrian to come up, I was jealous that he'd get the next lead, which appeared to be a spectacular 5.7 traverse under the huge roof to a notch beneath a smaller, triangular ceiling. I hoped that he would do the traditional hanging belay at the notch and not continue as many people do these days, because I really wanted to lead pitch five, which begins with 5.8 moves over the triangular ceiling and up around a corner.

(Photo: Pitch four of Jubilant Song.)

Adrian led the traversing pitch without incident, protecting both of us well with frequent, good gear placements. As I'd hoped, he decided to stop and belay in the traditional place below the ceiling. As I waited for him to finish leading the pitch I felt like we were finally having the exact experience I'd dreamed of in Red Rocks. We were hundreds of feet up a beautiful wall, in a very dramatic location, doing fun, varied climbing in comfortable conditions. Just standing at the belay beneath this gorgeous roof was a thrill. And the climbing turned out to be great too. It was generally pretty casual. Handholds were abundant, and for the most part little edges for the feet appeared wherever they were needed along the traverse. The crux of the pitch came early, as the traverse began, when there was a gap between the footholds. Adrian solved this section with a single, wide step from one crease to another, while I chose to do one quick smear-step on the blank slab before hurrying to the better feet. After the crux, the climbing seemed to get progressively easier as the pitch went on and it wasn't long before I arrived at the hanging belay, with Adrian handing me the rack in a hurry and suggesting I get some good gear in as soon as possible to protect the anchor.

(Photo: more from pitch four of Jubilant Song.)

With the hasty changeover I never really got a chance to inspect the gear he used for the anchor, so I never saw for myself whether he had any real cause for concern. I recalled some comments on suggesting that this belay really ought to be skipped, but the reasons cited by those commenters revolved around the awkwardness of the hanging position and the possibility of a lead fall directly on the anchor at the start of the next pitch, and not the quality of the gear for the anchor. Personally I found the hanging belay to be no more awkward than any other hanging belay, though of course it is not unreasonable to aim to avoid all such belays where it is practical to do so. And I found absolutely no reason to worry about falling directly on the anchor or the belayer. As I began the pitch, before I even made a move, I placed a solid purple .5 Camalot in the vertical crack running through the roof. And then as I grabbed the holds above the roof I stuffed a perfect blue #3 Camalot above the overhang. We now had enough gear to hang a piano, if for some reason we wished to hang a piano.

With such good gear, I had no worries about pulling the 5.8 roof that begins pitch five. It takes one big move but the holds are great. I actually thought the next move after pulling the roof was a little trickier, as I found myself in an awkward, balancy position above the roof. But with one step to the right I got a much more stable stance. And then it was a breeze up around a corner with a layback crack. Handren in his guidebook describes a tricky move with good pro in this part of the pitch, but if there was something tricky there I couldn't find it. In fact, I got so caught up in how well things were going that I blew right past the belay point for the pitch. Suddenly I realized I had climbed up a chimney I didn't remember reading about. I did not wish to downclimb the chimney, so I started to look around to get my bearings and saw that I was directly beneath the water streak with a bolt that is in the middle of pitch six. So I built a belay using the bolt and cracks in the slab beneath the bolt, and brought A up.

The last couple pitches were uneventful, with easier, pleasant climbing to the top. I confess that I took the 5.4 variation to avoid the 5.8 water streak with slabby climbing on pitch seven. I wasn't really that concerned about the climbing, as I found the 5.7 water streak on pitch six to be very straightforward. But in my experience when Handren says "limited protection" in his guidebook, he means that a pitch is seriously run out. And Richard Goldstone, in his somewhat famous Red Rocks pictorial on Supertopo, describes this pitch as a sandbag, perhaps really as hard as 5.10(a). So I figured why spoil a perfect day? I heeded the warnings and played it safe. Looking back, it seems like it was the right decision for us.

Day 4: among the crowds on Birdland, plus Cookie Monster

We had a few limitations on our final day in Red Rocks. We didn't want to tackle anything too long, or with too long an approach, since we had flights to catch in the evening. But we still had the whole day in which to climb, so we didn't have to limit ourselves to cragging or sport climbing.

Eventually Adrian sold me on doing Birdland. It wasn't on my original list because the hardest pitches are 5.7+, which I thought was a little too easy. And at 5 pitches it wasn't the kind of big objective I dreamed of when I thought of Red Rocks. But Adrian had done it before and he swore I'd love the climbing. I knew it to be a very popular, sunny climb, with an easy approach by Red Rocks standards. Maybe on a Monday the crowds wouldn't be too bad? I said okay.

There were easily a dozen cars in the Pine Creek Canyon lot when we arrived, but this was no surprise, given the numerous classics (Cat in the Hat, Dark Shadows, Crimson Chrysalis, and the Rainbow Wall, just to name a few) that are accessed from this lot. As we began to hike towards Birdland, we could see one other party almost to the base of the climb. I hoped they might get up a pitch or two before we even arrived. But when we got to the base, we found this group of three had not even finished getting ready to climb. I should have taken the initiative at this point and said to them, truthfully, that Adrian and I were already totally racked up and ready to fly up the route. I'm pretty sure if I'd asked them they would have let us jump on the route and go. They were totally nice guys, and didn't seem territorial at all. But stupidly I didn't do it, the moment passed, and as a result we were stuck behind them all the way up and down, which seriously hampered my enjoyment of the climb.

I want to be clear that I liked these folks and don't blame them for the situation. As Adrian repeatedly mentioned through the day: if you don't like crowds, don't climb Birdland. We could have gotten up a little earlier. There was no point now in doing anything but going with the flow. But I couldn't help but feel let down. During the many times we had to wait I kept dwelling on the climbing we were missing, and it killed me a little inside.

Luckily we were only the second party of the day. Within minutes of our arrival, three other groups showed up to do the climb! I knew this was a popular route, but the crowding we experienced there approached weekend Gunks madness. I can't remember ever seeing a situation like this in the Gunks on a Monday, even on High Exposure.

Once we finally got to climb Birdland, it was great fun. I thought the whole climb was basically an easy romp, perhaps because it involved mostly face climbing, which I always find easy for the grade at Red Rocks. The two standout moments for me were the two crux 5.7+ pitches, which Adrian was kind enough to let me lead. On the third pitch, a fun, delicate traverse (with a protection bolt) is followed by steep juggy climbing to the anchor. And then on the final pitch, a great finger crack through a smooth, varnished wall makes for a dramatic finish to the climb.

The real crux for us, however, was getting finished. Those nice guys ahead of us? They got their ropes all tangled atop pitch four. And then it happened AGAIN on pitch five, and I stood for a while at the base of the crux finger crack, waiting for what seemed an eon for them to get it all worked out so that at least one or two of them could rap off, making some room for me on the little triangular ledge that marks the end of the pitch.

When we finally got down from Birdland it was verging on 4:00. I was feeling frustrated with how long the climb had taken, and I also wished we'd chosen something a little more challenging. I suggested to Adrian that we run up something else before leaving. I wanted Dark Shadows but Adrian had done that one before, and didn't much care for it. Then I thought of Cookie Monster, a three-pitch 5.7 route on Mescalito that doesn't get much press. Handren gives it no stars, but the threesome we were stuck behind all day had mentioned that they'd really enjoyed climbing it. It was nearby and if we hurried, we could surely get it done. It probably wouldn't satisfy my desire for more challenging climbing, but doing it quickly would require real effort, and probably there would be no one else in our way. Adrian agreed and off we went.

Cookie Monster is just okay. The climb ascends a huge, imposing corner system that sits on one of the shady sides of the mountain. The first two pitches, which are graded 5.6 and 5.7, respectively, have almost no moves on them that justify their grades. For the most part the climbing on these pitches is ladder-like and not particularly interesting, and the huge huecos and shelves in the corner are generally dirty and sandy.

(Photo: Coming up pitch two of Cookie Monster.)

We rushed through the first two pitches in no time, and the feeling of moving efficiently, without other parties constantly nearby, did wonders to brighten my mood. Then I got to lead the 5.7 pitch three, which follows the corner to its top, and I found that the climbing changed character, steepening towards the top and offering good moves with overhanging, juggy climbing. As I came to the end of the pitch I decided it was one of the best pitches of the whole trip. And at the exit from the corner system came the payoff, as I emerged into the sunlight and onto a beautiful ledge with great views up Pine Creek Canyon.

(Photo: Pine Creek Canyon from the top of Cookie Monster.)

The descent from Cookie Monster is a little more complicated than Handren's guidebook might lead you to believe. The book makes it seem as though Cookie Monster plants you directly on the rappel line for Cat in the Hat, when this isn't really the case. As of the time of our trip, the ledge atop Cookie Monster has a boulder with a single ratty sling around it which one may use to rappel down to one of the Cat in the Hat raps. I didn't really like the looks of this option. Alternatively, you can downclimb about 15 feet to another ledge that has a bushy tree with slings around it; this is the tree atop pitch two of Cat in the Hat. The second option seemed more appealing to us. The downclimb isn't hard but you may want a belay for it. From here a single-rope rap will bring you to the top of pitch one of Cat in the Hat, and then a double-rope rap (150 feet) will get you to the ground.

As we topped out on Cookie Monster, it was getting a little late. We needed to hurry down so we could get out of Red Rocks and head for the airport. But we knew our descent might be held up by other people descending from Cat in the Hat, another one of Red Rocks' most popular routes. As if on cue, we saw two pairs rappelling while we set up our own raps. These were no ordinary pairs, however. They were two pairs of young women speaking French and simul-rappelling. Now, I can't quite articulate why this is the case, but nevertheless I must insist that there are few things quite as enticing as young, French-speaking women who are simul-rappelling. The combination of these unrelated characteristics works a strange kind of alchemy.

Unfortunately we didn't have much time to chat with these fine young women, and in an effort to get down quickly Adrian actually rappelled right past them in midair and started setting up our last rappel ahead of them. As I rappelled behind Adrian and reached the ledge I said something apologetic to the girls about our need to pass them, mentioning our flights.

"Yes, eet is really quite rude," one of them said with a hint of a smile.

"It is true, why do you not give to us something to make up for it?" said another.

I am a happily married man, but I couldn't resist playing along with this joke just a little bit. "Well, ladies," I said, "I am at your service. What can I do for you?"

At this point one of them walked up to me and started to reach with her hand in the direction of my chest. All of a sudden it seemed to me that this exchange might get uncomfortable. I didn't want her touching me; I almost couldn't believe that she would. And yet it seemed she was about to do just that.

Then I realized she wasn't reaching for me. She was reaching for my gear.

She put her fingers around a $60 C3 and said "How about you give to us thees one; I lost one of these climbing just the other day. Or how about this?"

She was now touching my $70 blue #3 Camalot.

I beat it out of there in a hurry.

As we walked out, away from the rocks for the final time, I wondered if we'd chosen the right objectives for our final day. Perhaps I could have led some 5.9's if I'd tried. But then I was reminded of how timid I'd felt on 5.6 and 5.7 just a couple days earlier, which made me realize how successful our trip had been. In four days of climbing we'd knocked off a few classics. But what I'd really gained was a good base for the season. I was no longer feeling so rusty, and my confidence was back. Returning to the Gunks yesterday, I walked up to Pas De Deux (5.8) and sent it, onsight. It's one of those climbs that I've been saving, never wanting to follow it because I didn't want to taint my eventual lead, but never leading it either because the thin climbing off the deck seemed too intimidating. Climbing it felt like an early-season milestone, and a promising sign of what's to come this year.