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.

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