Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Quest for "Easy" Gunks 5.9s

I've returned to my mission of two years ago: breaking into 5.9.

I already did the obvious easy ones. Two years ago, when I first travelled in this direction, I led Ants' Line as my first 5.9. It is a great climb, with a short crux and solid pro throughout. It is pumpy, especially if you dilly-dally and don't get on with it. But the vertical crack with great protection seals the deal; it is the first 5.9 for many a climber, and a good choice.

Right next to Ants' Line is the other obvious choice: Bonnie's Roof. Lots of good climbing here, and the crux, while intimidating, has great pro and juggy holds. Many folks think it is easy for the grade, insisting it still deserves its former grade of 5.8.

Once you knock off those two climbs, other entry-level 5.9s aren't quite so easy to find. There are gimmicky ones I've never attempted, such as Arch Direct (aka Wick's Banana), in which a contrived roof problem is thrown in the middle of a 5.5 pitch. Or short ones, like the fifty-foot Red Cabbage, on the Gerdie Block. But I'm not too inspired at the thought of doing these climbs. I have such limited time for climbing. I don't want to do a climb if the only thing I can say in its favor is that it is easy for 5.9. I'd rather get on great classics when I get out.

This past Saturday, climbing with Vass, I looked for some high quality easy 5.9 pitches to try, aiming for climbs whose ratings have floated between 5.8+ and 5.9-. We ended up getting on four of these climbs in the Trapps, and since Vass has been too busy to get out climbing much lately, he was happy to let me lead all the harder stuff.

(Photo: Looking down at the juggy final bits of pitch one of Cold Turkeys)

First up was Cold Turkeys, an obscurity hiding in plain sight amidst some of the highest-quality rock in the Gunks.

The climb sits at the right end of the Arrow Wall, occupying the same corner system as the classic climb Easy V. While Easy V takes a 5.3 path up the inside corner, Cold Turkeys goes up the outside corner at either 5.8, if you follow Dick Williams, or 5.9- if you believe Todd Swain.

I've been curious about Cold Turkeys for a while, because while the Arrow Wall is filled with amazing climbs, they are known mostly for their second pitches. Arrow, Limelight, Annie Oh!, Three Doves (see below), and Red Pillar all feature great second pitches on beautiful, marble-like white rock. But with the exception of Three Doves (and arguably Limelight), none of these climbs has a first pitch that lives up to the second pitch. Last year I tried an alternative way to get to the GT Ledge on the Arrow Wall: pitch one of Snake, a 5.6 at the far left end of the wall. Dick gives this first pitch two stars in his guidebook. And although the early climbing on the pitch wanders, the crux bit up a headwall with a thin vertical crack is very nice indeed, making Snake in my opinion one of the better first pitches in the area. It is a great link-up with pitch two of Red Pillar; I'd much rather take Snake to the GT Ledge than Red Pillar's first pitch, which has maybe two good moves on it above the initial pillar.

I was hoping I might feel the same way about Cold Turkeys that I did about Snake; maybe I'd gain a new favorite pitch in the neighborhood. Dick gives it a star, and I never see anyone doing it. Swain's 5.9- rating further piqued my interest. Why not give it a try?

It turned out to be pretty decent, and a one-move wonder. 5.4-ish climbing up left-facing flakes takes you two-thirds of the way to the GT Ledge. The flakes are pleasant, and the position at the corner is airy. You arrive at a ledge, really the top of a pedestal, beneath an orange face capped by overhangs. There is a shallow left-facing corner directly in front of you. The crux is stepping up onto the orange face, where one thin move up will allow you to move left to the outside corner and a good stance. Then it's smooth sailing up steep 5.6-ish jugs to the GT Ledge.

I thought the one-move crux was nice, and that Dick probably has it right at 5.8. There is also good pro at the waist level for the crux move; I placed two pieces before stepping up. My only reservation about Cold Turkeys is that without overhead pro for the crux move, you're risking an ankle-tweaker fall on the pedestal if you blow it. This factor alone will probably keep me from returning to Cold Turkeys any time soon.

Having completed the pitch, we found ourselves with a great opportunity: Three Doves was open. This is another borderline 5.9 pitch. Dick calls it 5.8+, Swain says 5.9-. Neither Vass nor I had ever done it. I led the 5.8- pitch one last year, and thought it was really very good, featuring fun climbing past horizontals and small overhangs to the exciting crux slabby moves on a clean face to the GT Ledge. Pitch two was a different story. It had always scared me off. It was the same old fear: thin face climbing past a pin.

But on Saturday I decided I was really over this fear. I had become a face-climbing dynamo. So I racked up for Three Doves and attacked pitch two.

The beginning of the pitch is just okay. It heads up from the GT Ledge trending right, and then left, following the pro, to an optional belay tree. Then the blank white face looms above, the lone pin in the middle pointing the way. The pro is good until the crux move, which comes just before the pin. There's a good horizontal at your feet for this move, in which I placed two cams.

Once you make the oh-so-delicate step up to the pin, the blank face continues for a couple more moves to the roof. You can see as you stand at the pin that there is pro at the roof but not before. You need to find some other pro at the pin level or you'll be relying solely on the piton (which looked pretty good, actually). I did my best to back it up. There is a rather shallow little slot below the pin in which I placed a micronut. I carry a biner with three different brands of micronuts on it for just this sort of situation. I kept trying different nuts, finding them acceptable for a pull straight down. But if I pulled them to the left they'd pop right out. Finally I wedged a # 3 Black Diamond micronut in at an angle-- I couldn't make it fit totally sideways. It sat at a diagonal in the crack, and I couldn't pull it out either with a yank down or sideways. I was dubious of this nut, but when my partner Vass inspected it he thought it was good. I was happy not to test it or the pin. I made the next couple thin steps and arrived at the roof with relief.

The traverse moves under the roof are pleasant and well-protected, and a final layback up a cool diagonal crack leads to the bolts. Three Doves is a stellar climb and I think that it fully deserves to be called a 5.9. It definitely features harder moves than the 5.8+ face-climbing on Birdland that I did the week before, and I'd also rate it as harder than the other 5.9s I discuss below. So I'm not sure I'd call it an introductory 5.9. The crux is several moves long and the pro is not entirely ideal. But it is such a high quality climb. It felt great to get it onsight.

(An aside: after Three Doves we did the second pitch of Annie Oh! (5.8), which has somehow eluded me over the years. This ended up being my favorite pitch of the day, with great move after great move, on and on. It doesn't let up until the final step up to the anchor. I had such fun leading it that it felt like it was over too soon; I wished it were twice as long. More evidence that (1) the Arrow Wall is one of the best locations in the Gunks, (2) 5.8 is one of the best grades at the Gunks, and (3) working on 5.9s is a good way to make yourself feel amazing on the 5.8s.)

After we came down from the Arrow Wall we headed to the far-out Slime Wall to check out another 5.9 with a reputation for being soft: WASP. This one is considered a 5.9 by both Williams and Swain, but it used to be rated 5.8. The hard, steep section comes right off the deck, and is over within about 20 feet. After the crux the angle eases and it's 5.5 climbing all the way to the GT ledge.

Now that I've climbed it, I'd say WASP is exactly the beginner's 5.9 climb I was looking for. The first pitch is long, but the 5.9 section is short and on the soft side. There are three or four good moves, none extremely difficult. You follow a thin crack but you don't crack climb. The holds appear on either side. The moves are steep and they come at you in succession. But then before you know it you are at the easy little rooflet and the hard stuff is over.

I thought the pro was great. There are numerous placements. I remember a # 3 Camalot in the obvious pod a few moves off the deck. I also got a great purple C3 behind a constriction in a thin downward-facing crack a little higher. That little cam placement was awesome; it was never going to pop out in a fall. I placed lots of other gear besides this. On WASP, you don't have to rely on some funky old pin.

And then the 5.5 climbing that followed the crux was a mellow bonus. I enjoyed leading all the way up to the GT ledge. Vass then took a turn leading the 5.5 pitch two, which was also well worth doing, at least through the neat roof problem. The last bit to the top was a little dirty.

After WASP, I wasn't sure I needed any more 5.9 in my day. Things were going very well; why push? So we took a little break and climbed Moondance (5.6), a single-pitch climb that Dick gives a single star. Vass took the lead and while it wasn't bad, or a waste of time like Fancy Idiot (5.6), my verdict was "eh." Steep climbing with good holds. It was nice enough but I'd never go out of my way to climb it. The most appealing thing to me about it was the secluded ledge it starts on. You really feel alone there. We didn't bother to do the sister climb Sundance (5.6).

After Moondance I felt re-energized. I told Vass I wanted to hit one more 5.9: Casablanca.

(Photo: Approaching the big roof on Casablanca)

Casablanca is a roof problem climb, and from underneath the roof looks huge. It seems highly unlikely that this roof can go at 5.9 (or 5.8, as Swain says!). Dick says in his guide that there's a jug over the roof; I figured the trick would be getting my feet up and grabbing it.

I was a bundle of nervous energy as I got ready to lead the pitch. Mostly it was the thought of getting over that roof, but I was also worried about the easier climbing below. I'd read some reports of runouts and crappy rock.

But my experience did not bear out these complaints. I thought the climbing was good, fun, and well-protected. The line follows the flakes that provide pro. First you jog right to one flake, then a little left as you pass over a nice 5.7 bulge and head for another flake. More 5.6-5.7 climbing takes you up into orange rock and a notch with some more flakes that do sound a bit hollow when you tap them. But nothing felt loose to me and I thought I got solid pro in a horizontal off to the left. Then a good move over a small overhang takes you to the perch beneath the huge roof, at a big, flexing, left-facing flake.

There is a pin at the wall behind the big flake. I clipped this pin and put a double-length runner on it. But I would not want to fall on this pin. It is really really rusty. One of these days someone is going to rip it right off with his or her bare hands.

I also placed a cam in the horizontal formed by the flexy flake. I wasn't thrilled about this placement either, since the flex in the flake could cause a cam to pop right out. I tried to place a cam as far to the right as I reasonably could, to try to minimize the flex effect. This was easy for me to do with my double ropes; if you are using a single it should still work without too much drag so long as you put a long sling on the piton.

After doing a pull-up on the flake to check my overhead cam placement, I decided this was as good as it would get. I told myself that I had read reports by other climbers who have taken a fall at this roof and that their cams have held. So it was very likely mine would as well.

But I still wasn't about to take a fall here if I could avoid it.

I ventured out for the first time, putting my hands in the flake, getting my feet up. I pawed around, looking for the jug and not finding it. But then I thought I could see it. I stepped down to the better stance and shook out.

Time to go again.

I stepped up for the second time, and now I was pretty sure I knew where the jug was. I threw a heel hook right and tried to reach for it. No dice. I managed to step down again, still not weighting the rope.

I was getting a little pumped. Not too many more tries in the tank. "Stop scouting around," I told myself. "Just get your feet as high as you can and go for it."

I stepped up again, and just popped for the jug with my left hand-- and suddenly I was holding it! It felt really good. I threw a heel, pulled up and I was on top of the roof, letting out a yell and an "Oh yeah!!"

Casablanca is a one-move wonder but a really fun one. The crux is short, and the pro is good IF it holds in that flexy flake. I have my doubts about that, and I shudder to think of what would happen if that rusty pin beneath the roof were tested. Now that I've done Casablanca once I'm not sure I'll be hurrying back. It sure was exciting, though.

A last note about Casablanca: the rap tree just above and left of the crux is not very big to begin with, and it is just about dead. There is one live branch on the thing. I took one look at it and decided it was the single scariest rappel station I have ever seen in the Gunks. I wish I had thought to chop the slings off of it, but I did not. Please don't use this tree. It isn't safe.

I did about half of the 5.5 second pitch instead of stopping there. I continued up and to the right, where there is another tree with slings. This tree appears quite healthy, and it is bigger than the dying tree as well. But if you are climbing with a single rope I don't think you can use this second tree, since it is well more then 100 feet off the ground. We were using doubles so it was no problem for us to do one double-rope rap to the ground. If you have a single rope and you are climbing Casablanca, I would advise you to go all the way to the top, even though from what I did of it the second pitch is not terribly inspiring.


  1. Nice work.

    You might check out Lisa. It was one of my first 5.9's.

    I don't remember the PG rating being warranted. It probably has to do with the beginning move where you step across to the wall from a boulder. It's easy, but feels exciting.

    C3's come in handy.

    It's relatively short with a variety of tricky sections and good stances packed in there.

    I liked it because it was one of the first climbs I felt like I did in control and relatively efficiently.

  2. Thanks Dan. I've never done Lisa, but it is definitely on my list. I love corner climbs. Looks sustained, though with good gear. I wouldn't mind using it to set up the Sting, either.