Last Sunday I got to explore further the boundary between 5.8 and 5.9. I also got some of my assumptions shattered by a stranger. Most importantly, I got to meet Gail Blauer.
Or I should say: I got to meet her for the second time.
The first time Gail and I met, we didn't get the chance to exchange names because I was leading Pas De Deux, and she was at the base of Son of Easy O. She gave me some helpful advice, telling me that some leaders like to back-clean a cam placed at the initial corner to protect the first move. I should have listened and removed this cam once I was around the corner, but I didn't feel like dealing with the gear that I'd already placed. Later, I regretted the drag undoubtedly created in part by that stupid cam.
By the time I was down from Pas De Deux, she was gone. Days went by before I realized from one of her posts on rockclimbing.com that we were in the same place at the same time. We put two and two together and realized that we'd met. It wasn't long before we started talking about potentially climbing together.
Gail is a regular on the "Weekend Warrior" thread on rockclimbing.com, as well as a prolific contributor of route information to mountainproject.com. She's also an inspiring figure who perseveres in the face of adversity. Her toes have caused her acute, chronic pain for some time, and surgery intended to alleviate this pain last year unfortunately only made it worse. Many climbers in her position would have thrown in the towel and quit climbing, but Gail has kept at it, in part with the assistance of carbon shoe inserts made by her husband Mitch. These inserts help keep her toes pretty stiff while she climbs, and with them she's able not only to get by, but seemingly thrive. She's at the cliffs practically every weekend on 5.9s and 5.10s.
This past weekend I told Gail at the last minute that I was coming up without a partner, and though she was pretty booked up herself, she arranged for me to climb with a very interesting person. I haven't asked him if I can use his name, but I'm sick of referring to people by their initials, so I'll call him The Wanderer.
The Wanderer came to climbing in his late 40s, but though he came to it late he really jumped into it once he got the bug. He seems to have built his life around the climbing season, structuring his work and living arrangements so he can climb 100 or more days during the warmer months. He has some idiosyncratic habits. He doesn't belong to a gym. Instead he climbs into shape every year once the season starts by being available to climb all the time. He climbs in a dress shirt with a collar. He never eats while at the crag; he reasons that this helps him lose weight and get in shape during the season. He owns a rope and a rack but he seldom brings them to the cliffs, figuring he'll find a partner who has gear. He'll lead if he's called upon to do so but he's happier following others and likes to do climbs that can be used to set up harder toprope problems. Climbing in this fashion, he gets himself into shape to follow or toprope 5.11s and 5.12s every year.
All of this is totally alien to me, although some of it is, I know, the way many people get to be strong climbers. I'm sure I could benefit from some of his approach. I don't mean to suggest that I should stop bringing food to the crag or that I should climb in a more formal shirt. But if I followed or toproped lots of 5.11s and 5.12s I'm sure I'd be leading 5.10s much sooner. The problem is that such an approach to climbing just doesn't appeal to me. I don't want to climb one pitch; I want to keep going to the top. I don't want to toprope; I want to lead. And, practically speaking, I've never had a partner who could lead a bunch of super hard stuff for me to follow, so it has never really been much of an issue.
Despite my prejudice against toproping, I try to be open to other people's approaches. And when I climb with someone else for the first time I don't want to sound like some kind of unreasonable jerk. So when The Wanderer proposed we set up a rope above Maria Direct (5.9) and Maria Redirect (5.11a) I said it was fine with me. I told him I had never been on either climb, but I didn't mention that this was mostly because I had always thought they were too short to bother with. Frankly, they seemed pointless to me. I mean what are they, thirty feet long, at most?
Both climbs go up the face below the large Maria dihedral. Maria Direct follows a couple steep, bouldery face moves to a short, right facing corner. Maria Redirect follows a similarly steep crack past a couple very shallow corners.
The Wanderer was assuming that we would set up these climbs by doing Maria's 5.6- first pitch, which starts up the crux crack on Frog's Head and then makes a long, rising traverse to the base of the big second pitch corner. (There is a bunch of fixed tat at this location, and a crack to the right provides good gear for an anchor above the Direct and the Redirect. A directional is helpful for the Direct.) When I suggested that maybe I would just lead up Maria Direct instead of toproping it, The Wanderer seemed skeptical. He suggested it might be hard for someone like me to get the first big horizontal off the ground. He was saying that I was short, maybe too short.
Well, dear reader, how could I resist a challenge like that? When we got there the regular start to Maria was occupied, so we couldn't go up that way even if we wanted to. I took a look at Maria Direct and it didn't look bad to me. If I could make the reach to the big horizontal with a piton in it, it looked like I'd have it made. I told The Wanderer I was going to lead it.
I found out Maria Direct is a reasonably fun lead. It is sort of a two-move wonder. The first big move is reaching the horizontal with the pin in it. Now, it is true, I am on the short side. I call myself 5' 7" when I'm feeling tall. But despite my diminutive stature, I found the beginning of Maria Direct to be a doable move. Just trust your feet, shorties. Get your toes on the smeary little footholds. Lock off and reach. The bucket is very positive. You have no pro for the move but you're just a foot or two off the deck. Once you've got your fat little fingers in the horizontal, you can clip the piton. I also placed a cam next to the piton to back it up. And I clipped them both short because it didn't look like there was much pro to come until after the second crux move.
One more step up, another reachy move, and it's pretty much over. I don't want to spell it all out but the footholds are plentiful. Whether you can make the reach to the next good hold depends on your body position. I thought it was no big deal, and it seemed to me that if you blew this move, you wouldn't hit the deck so long as your pro in that first crack is not extended AND your belayer is standing right next to the wall AND is keeping it pretty tight. After you get the second jug, there's pro up another step and the rest of the climb is easier, with good placements.
I thought Maria Direct was enjoyable. It is worth doing once. For me, it was another 5.9 tick off the list, and it involved very little effort.
Once I reached the tat at the big corner I set up a toprope for Maria Redirect. I used the fixed slings as one part of a three-piece anchor and lowered off. And as The Wanderer went up Maria Direct I gave the Redirect the once over. It looked hard.
Soon enough it was time for me to try the 5.11a Redirect. I expected to flail all over the thing, and my first step up wasn't encouraging. I immediately lost my balance and stepped back off the wall onto the ground. Without doing too much thinking, I stepped back up and tried again. And somehow I just about sent the thing. I kept moving up, moving up, and before I knew it I was just below the ledge that seemed like the finish. But I rushed the final move, lunging for the shelf and missing. I fell, cursing in mid-air because I couldn't believe I had almost but not quite sent a Gunks 5.11a on my first real crack at it, on toprope of course, but still. Who woulda thunk it?
I asked The Wanderer to lower me and I went at it again. But the magic dust had faded; I had turned back into a pumpkin. I couldn't just flow through it. With no memory of what moves I had just made, I had to work out the sequence, and I fell again, this time a couple moves shy of the top. I started to take a third go at it but The Wanderer wisely suggested I take a break and try again in a few minutes after resting.
And while The Wanderer went at Maria Redirect (in a totally different way than I had gone at it), I did something I seldom do outside, but which I often do in the gym: I looked at the sequence and thought seriously about the moves. I thought about my body position. I visualized how it would go (beta alert). I pictured how I would lean my body to the right so I could hang off the little corner, how I would high step left, and then switch my feet and lean the other way. I imagined the final steps up, easy does it, until I could step out to the right and grab the shelf.
When I tied back in it went down on the first try.
I had to admit that The Wanderer really opened my eyes. When he proposed doing Maria Redirect, I thought toproping this 5.11 would be a waste of time. I didn't expect to get very far with it or learn much. Maybe I'd struggle up it eventually and feel frustrated. But I found out by doing it that I am still limiting myself by underestimating my own abilities. And I found out that my climbing actually has improved a lot since I started bouldering harder in the gym. I'm thrilled that I got Maria Redirect in three or four tries, and I'm actually happy that I failed to send it the first time. If I'd succeeded the first time I blundered through it, I would have never worked the moves or put in the mental effort that ultimately got me up it in solid fashion. This effort was worth something, and I learned from it. Whether I'll be looking to toprope more harder climbs... is an open question. I'd still rather lead more 5.9s.
After we were done with the Maria business, we walked back down to the carriage road and found Gail and Mitch working on some routes on the Pebbles boulder. The Wanderer was looking to head out, and Gail had to get back on the road soon herself. But she wanted to climb with me at least a little bit so we headed towards the Uberfall to see if something attractive was open. Gail knows what kind of stuff I've been climbing lately, and she suggested I might like Walter Mitty, a 5.8+ climb right next to Laurel and Rhododendron that I never see anyone doing. It so happens that I have been curious about this climb for a while, since it is another Uberfall Dick Williams one-star and it is a face climb graded on the cusp between 5.8 and 5.9, which seems lately to have become my specialty. So I was really glad to jump on it with Gail.
I don't have too much to say about Walter Mitty except that it is nice, and a little too short. The climbing is good. It starts up a vertical crack, then heads around a corner into a chimney, although you can face-climb, avoiding the chimney, if you choose. Then the crux moves, three or four of them, come in the middle of the face above the chimney, past a very shallow left-facing corner.
Williams advises that you should bring small cams. I made two or three good crimpy moves and came to a small horizontal. I placed two small cams in this horizontal because I presumed that I was about to enter the crux moves of the route.
Then I realized I had already done them. The climb was basically over. I hopped up to the top and was struck again at how good 5.8 can feel when you're working on harder stuff.