Saturday, June 25, 2011

Gunks Routes: Sixish (5.4+)

(Photo: following the 5.3 pitch two of Sixish)

Sixish was one of my first outdoor climbing experiences. It may well have been THE first experience I had in the Gunks.

It was the summer of 2006. I was with my friend Greg, who'd introduced me to climbing in April of the same year. Greg had been climbing for a couple years. He had some leading under his belt, but not much.

I was little more than a liability to him. My experience was limited to toproping indoors with a GriGri. When we climbed outdoors, Greg had to teach me the standard commands and tutor me in ATC usage at the start of every pitch. I was just along for the ride, willing to follow Greg up anything. I was enthusiastic, but I brought nothing to the team. By agreeing to climb with me, Greg knew he was taking responsibility for both of us.

I remember nothing about the first two pitches. As I recall they went uneventfully enough.

What has stayed with me is what happened at the end of pitch two. We arrived at the GT Ledge and Greg began to scope out the 5.4 pitch three. And he wasn't at all pleased, because it looked scary. Over our heads was a gigantic roof. The guidebook said to move left to where the roof met the wall, and to climb up on the outside face of the cliff. Then we were to traverse back right just above the lip of the giant roof, and underneath a second roof, for about 15 feet to a notch, where we would head straight up to the top.

Greg thought the traverse looked precarious. It didn't appear to him that it could possibly be only 5.4. He worried that if he fell he'd hang below the roof and have trouble getting back on the rock. He was especially upset about a pointy dead tree stump, about ten feet tall, that stood on the GT Ledge just below the finishing notch. Greg envisioned taking a fall at the end of the traverse and being impaled on this stump. This was an unlikely event, but Greg can be morbid like that.

Of course, at the time, I had no tools with which to judge the likelihood of any of Greg's fears coming to pass. I just sat there impotently as he thought out loud about the risks of continuing, and about bailing. He considered leaving gear behind so we could rappel off. He worried about whether we could get down to the station atop pitch one with a single rope rappel. Unsure of this, he decided we had no choice but to continue.

Of course, I now know that we could have easily reached the next station with a single rappel. And I now know that we could have done even better: a short walk left on the GT Ledge would have taken us to the bolts above Kama Sutra, an unbelievably easy two raps to the ground. No need to leave any gear behind. But back then I was a blank slate, with nothing to offer, which turned out to be a good thing in this instance because our collective lack of information led us to continue with the climb.

Finally Greg led pitch three of Sixish; he got through it with no problems. Then I followed the pitch and it turned out to be a formative experience in my climbing life. I had no expectations, but the pitch nevertheless surprised and delighted me. No pitch in a gym was ever like this. The climbing up the face was straightforward, and then a perfect foot rail appeared just where you needed it to move back to the right above the giant roof. Traversing felt entirely different than moving upward; the most elementary of steps seemed somehow insecure when the movement was sideways. The position between the two roofs added a thrilling element of exposure. Then the exit through the notch to the top featured good holds, but the features of the real rock again seemed entirely new to me. Maneuvering my body through the notch was unlike any climbing I'd done before.

I arrived atop the cliff to find Greg totally high on having successfully done it. The lesson for him was that Dick Williams can be trusted. If Dick says the pitch is 5.4, you should have faith the holds will be there.

For me, the lessons were different. I was learning what real climbing was like. I was at a stage where I still found pulling on plastic to be novel, great fun. But doing a climb like Sixish made me see that climbing outside had so much more to offer. And I began to fall in love with the special features of the Gunks: the wandering traverses, the roofs, the escapes. The peace of sitting on the GT Ledge, comfortably belaying your partner in an atmosphere of seeming isolation among giant rocky overhangs. The pleasure of watching the birds slowly circle, of admiring the green valley below.

Fast-forward five years to 2011. I was climbing with Margaret on a very hot day. She was looking for easy leads, and after I led Son of Easy O (5.8) in the bright sunshine, I was looking to collapse, I was so dehydrated. We took the very short walk over to Sixish, and upon finding out it was in the shade, we decided to do it.

(Photo: Placing gear at the crux of the 5.4+ pitch one of Sixish)

I was figuring I'd lead pitch one because Margaret seemed interested in taking the easiest pitches. In the case of Sixish, the easiest pitch is the middle one, which is only 5.3. I also thought it might be fun to try the 5.6 variation start to the climb. But then we looked at the traditional 5.4+ start to the climb, which ascends a large left-facing flake and then moves left into the big corner system, and it seemed pretty straightforward. Margaret said she thought she'd be fine leading it. I was sure she'd be more than fine leading it and I was thrilled to follow her.

It turned out to be a bit of a sandbag. If I'd been told this pitch was rated 5.6 I wouldn't have argued. The climbing past the initial crux flake is steep and pumpy. The holds are very good, but hanging out to deal with pro is surprisingly strenuous. Then the pitch moves left to the big corner and it gets pretty pumpy all over again. This pitch is not very long, maybe 60 feet or so, but it packs a lot of value in.

Margaret had no trouble with the climbing, of course, but she did get a bit confused about where to belay. I told her I thought I remembered that she was to go all the way around the big corner to the left and onto the main face to finish the pitch. But she found a small ledge in the big corner which seemed to match the "small belay stance" mentioned in Dick's guidebook, so she stopped there. When I arrived I thought she'd made the right choice, but then I began to lead pitch two and as soon as I moved onto the main face I reached a much better stance with some fixed gear. This was obviously the right place to do it. It wasn't an issue of safety or even really of convenience, and Margaret didn't miss any important high-quality climbing by stopping where she did. But you'll find if you lead pitch one of Sixish that you'll have a more comfy belay if you move all the way around the corner onto the main face.

I led the 5.3 pitch two, and it was such a pleasure. The pitch goes up and slightly left, passing an overhang. Then it moves right to a vertical crack system that provides plentiful holds all the way to the GT Ledge. As I led the pitch I was struck by how nice the climbing was, and how I hadn't realized what I was missing by not doing these easy classics much any more. I couldn't remember the last time I considered doing a 5.4 like Sixish. There are so many of them in the Gunks; it is so easy to take them for granted. How many climbing areas have such high-quality super-moderates like this? In most places a 5.4 would be an unpleasant thrash up a gully. But in the Gunks you get clean climbing up steep rock with great holds and pro. What more can you ask for?

(Photo: At the end of the traverse on the 5.4 pitch three of Sixish)

When we reached the GT Ledge I found the scene unchanged from 2006. The big, pointy, dead tree stump was still there. I assured Margaret she'd find the perfect foot rail up there above the roof, and she cast off on the lead. While she took care of the lead I looked at the 5.10 b/c variation, which is the original aid route directly out the huge roof. Standing on the ledge it appeared to me there'd be good pro in the crack running out the roof but later I saw Dick gives this variation a PG/R rating. I'm not sure whether he gives it this rating because of the pro through the roof, or because of poor protection for the face climbing below. It looked like it would be fun to try it out if the pro were good. I'd wager it would be easy to rig a toprope from above by climbing Sixish through the traverse and then bulding a gear anchor above the roof, but I would be a little concerned about the swing you'd take if you blew it before making much progress out the roof, or during the face climbing below the roof. You might swing out and hit a tree pretty hard.

Soon enough it was my turn to follow pitch three. The traverse was great, still exciting and exposed even after a little more experience. I was surprised by one aspect of the pitch I didn't remember: the notch at the finish is kind of hard for 5.4! Like pitch one, it is surprisingly pumpy. The holds are there but they aren't quite the jugs I was expecting, and pulling through the notch felt to me a lot like pulling a small roof. It is a fitting finish to a great three pitches of climbing, well worth doing regardless of whether 5.4 is your leading limit.

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