It was one of those treasured weekdays in the Gunks. I was going climbing with Margaret, one of my longest-running climbing friends, but with whom I somehow haven't climbed outside in years. She wanted to do some easy leads. I just wanted to climb and didn't much care what we did. And with a heat wave rolling through and temperatures in the high 90s, easy leads sounded pretty good to me.
After I warmed us up with a run up Rhododendron (5.6-) we took the quick walk over to Easy Overhang, which neither of us had ever done and which Margaret wanted to lead.
(Photo: Almost through pitch one of Easy Overhang, having gone in and out of the 5.1 chimney.)
Pitch one is rated only 5.1, but the opening move (up a little flake and left to the chimney that makes up most of the pitch) sure feels harder than that. Neither Margaret nor I were at any risk of falling off, of course, but it was kind of a wake-up call. I get this same wake-up call whenever I do a super-easy climb in the Gunks. There's always a move somewhere that makes you think a little, no matter what the rating is. On Easy Overhang it comes right off the ground. It's just hard enough, I imagine, to give a brand new leader pause about what's to come, and it could cause real problems for a totally inexperienced climber. After we finished the climb, in fact, I saw a young girl of perhaps twelve or thirteen struggling mightily with these first moves of the pitch while her belayer/dad chatted on his cellular phone, oblivious. I gave her a little beta and she eventually got through it, but not without some skidding feet here and there.
Once you are established in the chimney the climb is as easy as advertised up to the bolts at the belay ledge. I thought it was pleasant, good fun. When I got to the bolts I looked up at the 5.2 pitch two and it too looked like another entertaining sandbag. The holds appeared to be plentiful but the climbing looked quite steep, and not just at the namesake overhang(s).
(Photo: Pitch two of Easy Overhang.)
Margaret set off and made quick work of it. As I followed her, enjoying the moves, I tried to imagine Hans Kraus leading it in mountain boots in 1941 (or perhaps sneakers, as he wore for the first ascent of the crux pitch of High Exposure that same year). It wasn't easy to envision. I tried to picture what this cliff was like without the lines already drawn in. I attempted to see this hunk of rock as a blank slate, as Kraus saw it; to find the line without outside influence, as he had found it. And it was hard for me to imagine that a person could look at this particular line and think it would be easily climbed with the tools of his day: clunky boots, a few pitons, hemp ropes. I resolved to try it one day-- not with hemp ropes or pitons, but maybe in mountain boots, as one internet climbing forum participant proposed somewhere a few months ago. Easy Overhang seems like the perfect climb for it. The going is steep in places, but rests are plentiful and there are great edges for stiff soles; no need for smearing. I think primitive footwear would work well, and that leading Easy Overhang in them would scare the crap out of me, in a good, safe way.
After we were done with Easy Overhang it was my turn to lead something. I couldn't resist hopping on Son of Easy O (5.8). I led it two years ago, just a few days before I broke my ankle. When I looked back on it I remembered the thin face climbing on pitch one as rather tough going, and the pitch two overhang as a surprisingly easy pleasure.
I was eager to get back on it because I've been feeling so good on the 5.8 climbs lately. I wanted to see if pitch one would seem easier this time around. I also wanted to check it out again because a few weeks ago in this space I declared Birdland to be perhaps the best 5.8 in the Gunks, and the reason I qualified my praise with that word "perhaps" was that I thought possibly Son of Easy O deserved the honor instead.
Well, pitch one was still tense the second time around. Maybe the heat was a factor. Maybe my performance was also affected by the fact that the party before us elected to rap from the pins near the top (this requires two ropes or a 70 meter single) and dropped their rope on me while I was negotiating the crux. (They were actually nice guys; they realized this was an error and then waited until I said it was okay before they dropped the other end.) Whatever the reason, I thought this was one of the hardest, and best, 5.8 pitches I've done at the Gunks. It just doesn't stop coming. It is steep for 15 or 20 feet, with thin moves past the pin and the little left-facing corner. Then the angle eases but the thin moves continue. You are over your feet so you don't pump out, but there isn't much in the way of a rest stance until you are practically at the ledge. It's just one thoughtful move after another, with great, abundant pro, the whole way. So good.
I wonder if this pitch feels harder than it used to because it is so popular. The route is polished, so much so that you can pick out the line from the carriage road by the streak of polish going up the wall.
I know it is fashionable these days to combine pitches one and two but it was so hot out I thought it might be nice to take a break between the pitches. I also wanted to experience the traverse over to the overhang at the start of pitch two again, and this traverse is skipped when the pitches are combined. So I angled up left at the ledge and belayed at the traditional spot at the end of pitch one. After Margaret arrived at the belay ledge (remarking as she finished climbing that she couldn't believe pitch one was only a 5.8) I set off on pitch two.
(Photo: In the thick of pitch two of Son of Easy O (5.8).)
Again my impressions of two years ago were more or less confirmed. After a slightly dicey step into the traverse, which requires a move or two before you can get good pro in, the pitch is steep, with great holds and gear as you move up into the overhanging corner. Then it is over before you know it. I made the traversing moves, thinking things were getting pumpy in a hurry. Then I stepped up to the pin, telling myself I'd better keep it moving. I placed a dynamite back-up cam to the right of the pin. I moved up and placed another cam in a horizontal. I thought about whether it was worth the energy I would have to expend to improve this last placement... and then I looked to the right and realized the hard stuff was already done. One step around the corner to the right and the pitch was in the bag.
Having done both pitches of Son of Easy O again I have to say it is a close call, but I don't think it is the best overall 5.8 in the Gunks. If the second pitch were just a bit longer it might get the nod. The first pitch is amazing, the second is only very good. In addition, the climb is a victim of its own popularity; it is getting quite polished on the first pitch. Regardless of these small caveats, it is certainly still among the best 5.8s, and it deserves of every one of its three stars.
But Birdland remains the champ as far as I'm concerned.