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!

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