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.