Thursday, July 28, 2011

Gunks Routes: Ground Control (5.9) & The Main Line (5.8)


How I wish I never had to utter the word.

My week of vacation in New Paltz came to a somewhat sour ending: my first real lead fall of the year, and a minor injury.

Was it really just a few days earlier that I was out with my new partner Parker, sending 5.9's without a hitch?

After our day climbing together, we both had problems. On Parker's next day out he took a surprise lead fall low on WASP (5.9) and hit the ground. He wasn't hurt but now he's spooked and doesn't want to lead anything hard until the weather cools. He blames the heat.

On my next day out, I was with Liz and didn't try anything as hard as 5.9 or 5.10-- well, at least, not on purpose-- but I dealt with some interesting challenges that left me questioning my route finding skills and my overall judgment. Who knows, maybe the heat was a factor for me as well.

Then on the final morning of my vacation, July 5, I was planning to get just a few pitches in with Vass. He and his family had spent the night with us in our vacation rental on their way to their own rental house in the Catskills, and Vass and I planned to get a half day's climbing in before we all left the New Paltz area.

I proposed we head down to the far side of the Nears, because to my shame I'd never been down there at all. I'd never gone past the rotten middle of the Near Trapps; I believe the furthest I'd ventured down the cliff was Up Yours (5.7), last summer. I really wanted to go to the far end to do The Main Line (5.8), a three-star classic. And I was sure we'd find other good climbs to do as well; Williams' most recent guide identifies a whole bunch of other star-worthy climbs in the same area in the 5.7 to 5.9 range.

To get down to The Main Line, we hiked over the top of the Nears on the Millbrook Ridge Trail. It is a nice trail, well blazed with excellent views. After 15 minutes or so on the official trail we found it easy to spot the informal, unmarked trail down the gully to the end of the Near Trapps. From there it was an easy walk to the base of The Main Line.

But The Main Line was wet at the top of the corner that is ascended by the first pitch. I should have expected this, as Williams says in his book that the climbs around The Main Line stay wet for several days after it rains. And it had rained pretty much all day two days before.

We started to look around for an alternative, and quickly found one right next door: Ground Control (5.9).

Ground Control has a 5.8 first pitch, which ends at the same bolted station as pitch one of The Main Line. It appeared to be dry. Dick gives Ground Control two stars, so I thought we may as well give it a go.

I found the first pitch very awkward and not that enjoyable. The first moves are 5.7-ish and go straight up to a horizontal crack beneath a long overhang. I didn't know this at the time, but I later learned that Swain gives this part of the pitch an R rating. Williams gives it a PG and I think I agree with him. I got a good small cam (green C3 if I'm not mistaken) in a horizontal just a couple moves up, and then a bomber green Alien below the overhang.

Once the overhang is reached, the pitch follows a strenuous traverse to the left end of the long roof. The reason the traverse is strenuous is that the good footholds are a little higher than you'd like them to be. It might be less strenuous to ignore these footholds and smear your feet below. But this would likely also be less secure. I placed a great large cam in the middle of the traverse (thank you, yellow Camalot!), and then thought the move up to the stance above the overhang was no big deal. Dick calls this move the crux, but for me the crux was the traverse that came before.

I thought the rest of the pitch was easier than 5.8. It ascends a slab above the roof to a ledge with a bolted anchor. From the stance above the roof you diagonal to the right, crossing another little corner, continuing almost to the far right edge of the slab, where you find decent holds to take you up diagonally left to the bolts.

All this zig-zagging-- left, then right, then left again-- makes for an ocean of drag. Or it did for me, anyway. We were using my single rope. Doubles might help but if you aim to protect the traverses in this wandering pitch I think some drag is unavoidable. By the end of the pitch I felt like I was hauling an elephant behind me. I was really grateful to get to the bolts and even more grateful once Vass began climbing and removed a few of my protection pieces so that pulling the rope was no longer a tortuous exercise.

As I waited for Vass I stared straight up at the huge overhang that makes up pitch two of The Main Line. It was dry and it looked amazing, following a notch up and right through imposing, beautiful orange rock.

When Vass got to the anchor I asked him if he wanted the lead.

"I don't know, man," he said. "It looks really difficult from here."

"Yes, but it's 5.8, so you know it's jug city up there!" I replied.

Vass was happy to let me be the one to test this optimistic theory. He gave me the lead.

It turned out I was was right. It is jug city.

There are great holds all the way up. The crux is at the bottom of the overhang. Getting the jug above the first lip and stepping up are the hardest parts of the pitch.

There is great pro over your head for the crux move, in the big pod right in front of your face as you reach for the jug above. You can get a nice big cam in there (thank you, yellow Camalot!). It goes in at an angle, but I thought it was totally bomber.

Once you pull up into the overhangs, it remains steep, but there are great holds and pro, and the pitch is over quickly, maybe a little too quickly. It is my only criticism of the pitch: it is a bit short. But this is a quibble. It is a great pitch nonetheless. I'd really like to go back and do pitch one.

When we rapped back to the chains above pitch one I gave the 5.9 second pitch of Ground Control a good hard look. It angles left up the slab above the bolts, going up into a right-facing corner. Then you move left out to the outside corner and (crux) around on to the face. From below, the crux looked airy and exposed. It also looked like there'd be a good cam placement in a downward-facing pod just before the crux. And it appeared a fall from there would be clean, into air beneath the corner.

I thought it was worth a try.

So I headed up and placed a bomber cam (thank you, yellow Camalot!) at the base of the right-facing corner. Then I reached up into the corner and realized that the right face of the corner, which I hadn't been able to see from the bolts, was wet.

Reaching for a wet crimp with my right hand, I found it slimy, but it seemed like I could hold on to it. I just needed to step up into the corner. I never really considered bailing. It looked like there were dry holds at the top of the corner, and a tantalizing fixed nut. I would make one move, clip the fixed nut, and then move left into dryness.

I got a foot up and locked off on the slimy crimp, reaching with my left hand for the holds at the top of the corner.

But just like on Raunchy a few days before, I got my foot tangled in a sling. It was the same sort of move too, stepping up a little high into a corner that sticks out a little from the wall, with gear right below the base of the corner. Again it was not at all the crux of the pitch. I don't know why I've suddenly had this problem twice in one week, but I really need to sit down and sort out the spatial aspects of it before it ever happens to me again. It is such a klutzoid thing to do. I've been leading for years, and I should know better than this. It is completely unacceptable.

This time it wasn't the immediate cause of a fall, but I think it contributed to what happened next.

I cleared my foot. But as I reached up with my left hand for the dry holds, my right hand started to slip off the slimy crimp. And then I knew I wasn't going to stay on. Had I not had to deal with the foot issue, I might have smoothly reached up and had it made. I'll never know for sure.

"Falling!" I yelled.

I didn't fall far; I had just moved my feet above the level of my last protection. But as I got entangled on the way up, so I got entangled on the way down. My foot caught the sling below and I flipped over onto the slab, several feet below the corner and my bomber yellow Camalot, which held fast and true.

I really can't thank that yellow Camalot enough. If I have to fall on something, let it be that #2 yellow Camalot every time. You could hang a limousine off that thing. I am filled with warm love every time I place that big ol' bugger.

"You okay?" Vass asked.

"Yeah, I think I'm fine," I said, righting myself. "Oh, crap. I think I sprained my ring finger."

I have no idea how it happened. I can only guess that my right hand smacked the wall as I fell. As I turned myself right-side-up, I could tell the finger was starting to swell. As I tested it for tenderness, I realized that I'd actually sprained not one but two fingers, the ring finger and the pinkie. It didn't seem like I'd broken any bones, but both fingers were swelling up and becoming painful to bend.

Luckily we were at a set of bolts. I moved the few feet over to the anchor and Vass quickly climbed up and down to recover my gear. Then we rappelled out of there.

It has now been three weeks since this incident, and while the swelling has gone down, for the most part, the two sprained fingers are still not back to the way they were. They are a little swollen at the first joint and don't have the full range of motion that they should. I've been trying to take it easy on them, but I haven't totally stopped going to the gym. When I boulder in the gym I find that I can use them, even though I often feel like I shouldn't.

In a way the injury came at a convenient time. It has been brutally hot and we've had a variety of summer weekend family plans so I haven't yet even considered going back to the Gunks. I am planning on being there next on August 13 with Adrian, and I'm hoping that by that time the fingers will feel pretty normal.

I worry, though, that this fall will set me back, and not just physically.

I worry that it will mess with my lead head. There's no way to know if it will. I know that I'm in much better condition than I was the last time I injured myself in a fall, and I hope as a result I won't suffer the same crisis of confidence this time around.

In an effort to avoid mental breakdown, I'm trying to see this incident in a cold, intellectual light, as something to learn from. The lessons are pretty easy to spot.

For starters, I need to watch my feet and their relationship with the slings and the rope. The more I think about it the more instances I can think of in which I've been surprised to find I need to clear my leg away from the rope. Some of my partners seem instinctively to keep their legs out from behind the rope, while mine always seem to be creeping towards the wrong side. I need to bring a new vigilance toward avoiding this problem.

I also should be more alert to potential trouble ahead and quicker to back off. There is no shame in abandoning a pitch. I never really considered backing off of Ground Control, even though I saw it was wet and downclimbing from so early in the pitch probably would have been easy. This was a mistake.

I plan to treat this injury as an excuse to take the break I likely needed anyway. I peaked in my fitness in the late Spring. Since then I've been coasting, less motivated to train (not that my "training" was ever rigorous), but really just enjoying my time outside actually climbing. Now I can start over, rest a bit, and then try to build up towards a new peak in October and November, the best time of year in the Gunks. Periodization is a good thing.

So on August 13 I won't go to the Gunks with any big goals. I'll just take it easy and go with the flow, and hope to be comfortable out there.

But I know you'll forgive me if once I'm there I say "screw it" and hop right on The Dangler. I've been really feeling like it should be my first 5.10, it looks so doable...

Gunks Routes: Cakewalk (5.7) & Raunchy (5.8)

After our hasty descent from atop pitch one of Bitchy Virgin (5.5), Liz and I sat around a while, eating and hydrating. Liz, who is expecting a baby in the fall, had suddenly felt faint while I was leading Bitchy Virgin's pitch two. I had downclimbed back to her and we'd bailed.

Back on the ground, we had to decide whether to continue climbing or just give it up and head back to my rental house.

Liz was insistent that she could, at the very least, belay me while I did another pitch or two. But I didn't want to be the only one climbing. Also it seemed a little insensitive to use the pregnant lady as my belay slave. Eventually Liz convinced me to climb something else, and we left it tentative-- maybe she'd try it too. I decided to pick something that could be easily set up as a single pitch toprope.

It just so happened that there were a few such climbs nearby that I'd been eager to try.

The first was Cakewalk, a 5.7 I've wanted to get on for about as long as I've been climbing. It is one of those climbs I've inspected from the ground and rejected previously because I couldn't spot the line. It begins with a scramble up to a tree, and then it gets confusing. If you keep going straight up from the tree, you're on a 5.10b called Nurdland. Cakewalk, by contrast, goes up a bit from the tree and then traverses left to a crack which is followed up to a larger flake system and then a big corner. Several folks have made the mistake of going up too far without traversing left and found themselves committed on the 5.10 Nurdland when they'd intended to stick to the 5.7 Cakewalk.

I recalled reading on the web about this hazard, so I was sure I'd find the correct route and not fall into the trap. I thought I could spot the correct traverse. It looked to me like the route went a bit up from the tree and then traversed through a slightly lower-angled weakness to the left, heading up again at the prominent right-facing flakes below the big corner. It didn't seem like there was much pro in this section, but Dick says this part of the pitch is a little run out, so I thought I must have found the correct path.

Well, I soon found out I was way off. I headed up to the tree, moved up, placed some gear in the flakes directly above the tree, and took another step or two upward. Then I tried to place some more gear in a thin vertical seam. It was a bit of a struggle, but I finally wormed a marginal C3 in there.

I didn't realize it, but I had already gone up too far. In my ignorance I made another couple moves up and left, and soon found myself in very thin territory. My feet were on a little edge, and my hands were matched on a pimple. It looked like I could make a couple more thin moves left to the flakes that I thought must be on Cakewalk, but these moves clearly weren't going to go at 5.7. What had appeared lower-angled from below now seemed plenty steep and basically featureless. Looking back now, I don't think I was on either Nurdland or Cakewalk at this point; instead I was in a no-man's-land between the climbs.

Contemplating the moves I was sure that in a fall I would hit the ledge even if the marginal cam I'd placed was good. I'd messed up. Even though I had been warned in advance, I had fallen into the trap. I was off-route and committed. I had no choice but to carry on. I managed to place another tiny cam in a shallow horizontal, but I didn't like it any better than the first microcam I'd placed. Then a couple very tense 5.9-ish thin moves to the left brought me back to the 5.7 territory.

I was shaking and sweating like crazy, but I'd made it through. Now I could relax and go back to the easy climbing I was expecting.

The rest of the pitch was pretty awesome. Good steep juggy climbing, with an interesting mantle or two to get atop various parts of the big corner system. Once you are established beneath the huge right-facing corner, the route finding could not be more obvious. It is straight up the corner past several overhanging bits to the bolted anchor. Lots of fun with good pro.

When I reached the top, I set up a toprope so Liz could give it a shot. I cleaned the gear as I came down so she wouldn't have to follow my errant path. She sent Cakewalk with no problem, and she found the right route.

It's actually easy to stay on course. Please, if you want to climb Cakewalk, listen to me. Go left immediately after the tree! This is the key. On the ledge just above the tree level, go straight left. Do not go upward again until you are beneath a thin vertical crack that leads to right-facing flakes and the big corner. I didn't climb this vertical crack, but Dick says it is actually the crux. Liz said it felt like 5.7 to her. I'm sure it is easier ground than what I traversed through to get above it!

After we were done with Cakewalk we took a look at another nearby climb that's been on my tick list for a while: Raunchy (5.8). The first pitch is very popular. It has a good tree directly above the pitch so it is also easy to use Raunchy to set up the R-rated Wild Horses just to the right, which adds to the traffic.

I thought Raunchy would be good for us because it would be simple to set up the first pitch as a toprope for Liz. After her success on Cakewalk she was thinking she might just try another climb too, and it didn't have to be an easy one. If she didn't want to finish it or wasn't feeling well I could just lower her and go up again myself to clean it.

Raunchy has two cruxes. The first one is right off the ground. A seemingly blank, smooth face leads up about 15 feet or so to a ledge with a tree. There is no pro.

Earlier, as we'd walked over to Cakewalk, we saw a group of three starting Raunchy. Their leader had scrambled around left to sling the tree, effectively stick-clipping it and giving toprope protection for the early crux moves.

"No way I'm doing that," I thought, full of hubris.

When we came back to check on the climb after Cakewalk the party of three was just finishing up. I said something about how excited I was to try Raunchy. One of the party of three said "Oh, you haven't done this before?"

I told him I had not.

"Do you want a little beta?" he offered.

"Absolutely not!" I said.

Then I started up. There were a few little features to the right and a few little features to the left, leading to some slightly bigger horizontal edges. I tried to go to the right, made a step or two up. It didn't feel right. I stepped down again. I looked it over, then tried again. Again I decided to step down, thinking the start to the left must be better. This time I slipped off the starting foothold and slid to the ground, skinning my knee.

Undaunted, I headed up from the left side, and after a couple tenuous steps I made it to the better holds. From here the climbing got easier to the tree. But it still wasn't exactly a gimme. I had to wonder, as I approached the tree, whether the protection on this climb is correctly rated. Williams gives it a PG. I know it is typical in the Gunks for the protection ratings to disregard bouldery starts. But how is the start of Raunchy any different from the R-rated Hyjek's Horror? Isn't the distance to the first pro roughly the same? Aren't the hard moves at roughly the same height?

After I put a sling around the tree I looked up at the shallow right-facing corner that makes up the second crux of the pitch. The traditional route steps left around the corner after a move or two. There is a 5.9 variation that goes straight up the corner instead of stepping around left.

I was thinking about doing the 5.9 variation. But then as I stepped up into the corner, I somehow got my foot caught in a sling, and I stumbled back to the ledge with the tree. The rope was never weighted and I wasn't hurt, but I acquired a couple more scrapes and bruises.

I was kind of rattled. I decided to have a seat next to the tree and rest a minute.

I realized that I had been ignoring some warning signs. With the downclimbing earlier on Bitchy Virgin and the off-route sweat-fest on Cakewalk, I was mentally wasted. It was very hot out. I was making poor decisions: I probably should have stick-clipped the tree, and I'd just stumbled on an easy move. Maybe this just wasn't my day.

I considered packing up and heading home. But after thinking it over I went ahead and did the rest of the pitch, the traditional 5.8 way. It is very nice. I thought the crux step around the corner was fun, with good pro in the crack at the back of the corner, and then on the face after the move. The hardest moves on the pitch are the ones right off the ground. One day I'll go back and do it the 5.9 way, and try the 5.8 second pitch, which no one seems to do. Williams also suggests a couple other quality second pitches in the area that seem worth trying out: Stop the Presses, Mr. Williams (the second pitch is 5.6) and High Times (P2 is 5.7). It also might be worth checking out the short final pitch of Pleh! (5.8), which is a roof problem that starts from the GT Ledge.

Liz sent Raunchy on her first try on toprope, her near-fainting episode long forgotten. At this point we were both fried. We finished up with Dennis, a joyful 5.5.

It ended up being a productive day, and one with maybe a few lessons I've yet to fully digest. Something about being sensitive to your partner's limits, perhaps? Or maybe it's about being more observant of warning signs? Or is it all about route-finding skills? No, maybe the lesson is that you have to be mindful of the heat...

Maybe shit just happens.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gunks Routes: Immaculate Conception/Son of Bitchy Virgin (5.6) & Bitchy Virgin (5.5)

(Photo: Heading up pitch 2 of Son of Bitchy Virgin (5.6))

Good judgment.

It is important to have good judgment when climbing. As a leader, I hope I have it. It is important to me to think that I have it. Thinking I have it is probably almost as important to my leading as actually having it.

As I've edged back into pushing my limits this year, I've tried to be cautious. But I know enthusiasm can at times threaten my good judgment. And I have a lot of enthusiasm.

My friend and longtime climbing partner Liz is having a baby in the fall. She has continued climbing (though not leading anything) during her pregnancy. She was with me on Apoplexy (5.9) earlier this year, for example. As her pregnancy has progressed she's gradually been forced to accept that she has to dial it back to easier climbing. But she hasn't given up without a fight. She gamely followed me up Birdland (5.8) in May even though she struggled with the cruxes of both pitches. On another occasion, climbing not with me, she had to prussik through the crux while following Modern Times (5.8+).

I was looking for partners while I was in New Paltz for the week before July 4 with my family, so I was excited Liz was thinking about joining us. I didn't want to put either of us in a dangerous situation given that she was now about halfway through her pregnancy. So I promised her that if she joined us at our summer house in New Paltz in early July, I wouldn't push her to do anything hard. We could focus on 5.6 and below, which we felt would be easy and casual for both of us.

My first idea was that we should do the Bitchy Virgin climbs. I had never done them. The original route, Bitchy Virgin, has two pitches of 5.5, and the successor Son of BV ups the ante slightly with one pitch of 5.5 and a second that is 5.6. In between is a variation single-pitch climb called Immaculate Conception (also 5.6) which ends at the Son of BV anchor. If we did them all we'd get 5 pitches done in this one little spot. Liz hadn't tried these climbs either so she agreed.

When we arrived at the base of the climbs, I thought Immaculate Conception looked like the most interesting line. A couple steep moves past some suspect flakes about 15-20 feet up seemed like the crux.

Once we racked up, I enjoyed it. The crux steep bit past the flakes leads over a bulge to easier climbing at a lower angle. The flakes are creaky but I don't think they're popping out any time soon. Once over the bulge there is a little bit of a runout to the belay ledge, but this runout is through territory much easier than 5.6. At the belay ledge there is a station made from slings threaded around a boulder, but I elected to build a gear anchor in the good cracks right above the ledge instead, so we could both comfortably stand on the ledge and belay with the anchor above our hands.

If our first pitch, Immaculate Conception, was nice, pitch two of Son of BV was really quite nice indeed. The climb goes straight up, trending a little left. It is nothing but good face climbing. Clean, steep and sustained, with good moves and good holds. I have seen reports of inadequate pro, but I thought the pro was just good enough. The horizontals appear every so often, and I even passed up an opportunity or two to place something a little off line to the left and the right. This is definitely not a pitch that you can sew up, however, and if 5.6 is your lead limit this climb might not be the best one for you. With that caveat aside, I would say Son of BV is yet another high quality 5.6 in the Gunks, worth the two stars Dick bestows upon it (when linked with Immaculate Conception) and further evidence that 5.6 is one of the great grades at the Gunks.

The rap tree on the GT Ledge at the top of Son of BV bears watching. This muti-forked tree has some live branches, and some that are dead or dying. It has seen better days. We went ahead and used it, because it didn't look like it would be that easy to get over to the much bigger and healthier-looking tree atop Bitchy Virgin. Pretty soon, unless the tree atop Son of BV recovers a bit, we may not have a choice. I have seen worse rap trees in the Gunks, but I think at another time in my climbing life I would have insisted we use a different station to get off the cliff. It may be that I have mellowed a bit when it comes to using these sketchy rap anchors, and I'm not sure this is a good thing. Perhaps we should not have used it.

Liz had no trouble following me up either of our first two 5.6 pitches, so I thought the two 5.5 pitches of Bitchy Virgin would be a breeze for her. It was getting hot out but neither of us were concerned. We didn't stop to take a break. Once we returned to the base I went right at pitch one of Bitchy Virgin.

The pitch climbs a corner at the back of a little gully that goes between the main cliff and the left side of the Mantle Block. I was surprised to find the Bitchy Virgin corner a little dirty. I didn't see much evidence of other climbers, either. This was in stark contrast to Immaculate Conception, the climb we'd just finished to the left, which had tons of chalk on it, even though all the nearby climbs were only recently reopened after the peregrine nesting that closes a portion of the cliff every year.

Is Bitchy Virgin unpopular? Dick Williams gives it a star. Perhaps it is the little scramble up the gully to the start that puts people off?

Whatever the reason, I think if people are taking a pass on Bitchy Virgin they are missing out. In my opinion it is good, and a bit stiff for 5.5. Nice moves go up the corner, using the crack at the back for pro and sometimes for upward progress. Eventually there is a somewhat awkward struggle past a tree (admittedly this part of the pitch isn't so great), after which you move a little further up the corner, almost to its top, before obvious holds take you on a fun, short traverse with good pro to the outside arete and around onto the main face, about 10 to 15 feet above the belay station for Immaculate Conception/Son of BV.

If I'm right that Bitchy Virgin isn't getting much traffic, I think that's an injustice. It is not a superclassic 5.5 like Horseman or Ursula, but I've done much worse one-star climbs in the Trapps. It is a totally worthwhile climb, and there aren't enough quality 5.5's out there for it to get so little attention, in my opinion.

Once I built us a belay, Liz had no trouble following the pitch. There was no sign of any problem. She came right up. Things were still going well.

So I set off on pitch two, having fun. It seemed a lot like pitch two of Son of BV, but easier. Clean steep climbing with good holds.

I was about twenty feet off the belay when Liz called up to me to say that she wasn't feeling well.

Uh oh.

I guessed that she was maybe feeling a little sick to her stomach.

I stopped and asked her a question. "Do you think you'll be able to finish this pitch?"

"No," she said. "I feel like I'm about to pass out!"

Crap. Not good.

Clearly we needed to get down. I immediately chastised myself for taking Liz up a multipitch climb. She hadn't had any fainting episodes on the rock before, but it suddenly seemed patently unwise to have her belaying me 100 feet off the ground halfway through her pregnancy, in the bright sunshine, away from the food and water. What a stupid thing to do. Both of us should have known better.

I stepped down to the last piece of gear I had placed and thought about our options. Option one: I could place another piece or two and build an anchor from which she could lower me to the belay. This meant that we'd be leaving pieces behind, which of course was a secondary consideration but still something to think about. Also, what if she passed out while lowering me? She was tied in, so she wouldn't go anywhere, but what about me? I'd be falling through space. She was belaying me with a Cinch, which should lock off if she were to let go, but still... this was not an acceptable option. I supposed I could build an anchor, attach myself to it, then pull up the rope and rap. But this seemed very time-consuming. There had to be a better way.

Quickly I came up with option two: I could just downclimb back to her. This immediately seemed like the better idea. She'd keep me on belay, I wouldn't leave any gear, and if she lost consciousness I'd still be on the rock, and not relying solely on her Cinch to catch me. The climbing had so far been through easy territory and I was confident downclimbing would be no problem.

I racked my brain for another option, but these were the best I could come up with.

So I downclimbed the twenty feet back to her, going as fast as I reasonably could and all the while talking to her to make sure she was still with me. It didn't take long, and it seemed with each passing second that it was less likely she'd actually faint. Nevertheless I was relieved to get back to the belay and clip in.

Once we were together I lowered her from the belay ledge to the ground, and then I rapped off. Even as I lowered her it seemed that the crisis had passed, but it still made sense to go find some shade, have some fluids, and rest a bit.

On the ground we ate and drank and Liz soon felt better; we even resumed some single-pitch climbing after we took a break.

As crises go this wasn't a big one. No one actually lost consciousness. No one was hurt.

But still one can learn from these experiences.

Obviously some of our decisions could have been better that day. We probably should have made more of an effort to stay in the shade, and to take things slow. And while maybe we didn't have to rule out multipitch climbing completely, at the very least we should have brought up some food and water with us on the cliff. I think we were lulled into a certain complacency by the fact that the climbing was easy and things were going smoothly.

So we maybe should have been more careful not to get into the situation in which we found ourselves. With that said, I think we behaved reasonably when the issue emerged. And I think the decision I made to downclimb was the right one, under the circumstances. The most conservative thing to do would have been to build an anchor, leave the gear, and rap to Liz. That would have allowed me to descend to her without requiring any belaying from her. If the climbing had been more difficult this likely would have been the only reasonable choice. But since the climbing was so easy I think my decision to downclimb instead was correct; it was the less complicated solution and quicker as well.

Good judgment? I guess I'll give myself a B. Poor planning, but a decent recovery.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gunks Routes: Higher Stannard (5.9-), Friends and Lovers (5.9) & The Nose/Fillipina (5.9-)

A week's vacation in the New Paltz area is, to me, like a dream come true. My wife is very generous to agree to it year after year. Not that it's such a huge sacrifice for her. She likes the town and the beautiful countryside. There are great hikes for the whole family. And the community pool is nice.

But if the cliffs weren't there it obviously wouldn't be our first choice for a vacation destination. My wife goes there for me, because she knows how much I love climbing there. In a week in New Paltz I'll climb two of the days, maybe part of a third; more than that would be too much time away from the family. And the whole rest of the time we're there I'll just be staring at the cliffs, wondering how anyone can live in such proximity to them and NOT be a climber.

This year as our week approached I was in the unusual position of not having any partners firmly lined up. Gail suggested a new partner to me named Parker. A young guy, Parker's been climbing a couple years, and he's been working on the 5.9's like me, even trying a couple 5.10's. Gail is a good matchmaker; we had a great day together.

We met up on a sunny Thursday. It was expected to be quite hot so we mostly stuck to first pitches, which at least gave us some shade at the base of the wall.

On the way to the cliff we talked a bit about our objectives. Our goal: do some 5.9's! We settled on the Mac Wall as our first destination of the day. Parker was interested in leading MF (5.9). It is known as a real testpiece at the grade, with a pin at the first crux and then a bit of a runout through the second crux. I have never done MF and I am still too scared to lead it, so I was kind of excited to follow it and see what the fuss is all about. We were thinking that after MF I would lead Higher Stannard (5.9-), which is just a few climbs to the left.

As it turned out, MF was wet. So I had no choice but to jump on Higher Stannard right away. Warming up is overrated, I've decided.

Higher Stannard is a face climb, and the line isn't obvious from the ground. Dick does his best in his guidebook to to help you find the route; various thin cracks and right-facing, ramp-like corners are mentioned. The problem is that there are many little cracks and right-facing ramp-like corners on the wall. It all looks the same. Last year I tried once to stand beneath the route and find the line; on that occasion I was about 95% sure I could see where to go. Then I tried to lead the route earlier this year, got up about three moves, and decided I had no idea if I was on-route or not. So I downclimbed and did Something Interesting (5.7+) instead.

This time I had Parker as my trump card. He'd done the route before. I also took a hard look from the ground and thought I spied the crux ramp-like corner beneath a thin crack. So then I started up, did the surprisingly difficult starting move with the smeary feet, and got it wrong again. I moved to the right, and then started to head up too soon, but Parker told me I was off. If you are as unfamiliar with the route as I was, my advice is that you make a note of the crux corner and crack from the ground. It is behind and just to the right of the big tree at the base of the wall. You start climbing well to the left of this tree, then move right. Continue going right, farther than you might think you should. Then look up for the corner and crack, using the tree as a reference.

There is a great horizontal for gear at the base of the crux corner. I put a bomber tricam in there, and then started to work out the move. It is thin, balancy... with the gear at your feet. I started to step up, then backed down and placed another piece next to the tricam. It was an application of the timeless climbing wisdom expressed by the father character in the opening scene of Vertical Limit: in climbing, best to have both a belt and suspenders.

Once I was satisfied with my two pieces of bomber pro, I made the move-- walking up the little ramp-like corner with sideways crimps for the fingers. Nice, and fairly graded, I think, at 5.9 minus. The rest of the pitch is outstanding, with many thoughtful moves in the 5.7 to 5.8 range. The gear comes along just when you need it. The final two overhangs are in the same range and very well protected.

After the initial route-finding challenge, it becomes easier to stay on the path, but you should still take care to look around. The usual Gunks chalk marks are very helpful.

Despite the wandering line, I think the first pitch of Higher Stannard is one of the best climbs I've done this year. Awesome moves from the start to the finish. With a short crux and good gear, it is a wonderful 5.9 on the easy side of the grade, although the climbing is sustained at just a slightly lower level of difficulty. High quality face climbing throughout, and then two little roofs as a bonus.

After Higher Stannard it was Parker's turn to lead and he decided to have a look at Beatle Brow Bulge, a 5.10a that used to be rated 5.9+. It has a huge crux roof and then juggy steepness after that for 30 or 40 feet to the end of the pitch. It was another climb I was psyched to check out. I've even considered that I might try to lead it one of these days. Unfortunately it was wet, so we had to change plans again. Parker decided to lead the nearby Friends and Lovers (5.9), which I'd followed once before. Climbing it again for the second time, I breezed through both cruxes but still doubted I'd be happy leading it, with the pro at your feet for the smeary second crux and at least one or two more moves before the next placement appears. It seemed committing in the extreme, and yet I'd just led a climb that was very similar. The gear was at my feet on Higher Stannard, and hadn't I made another move up before finding another placement? What was the difference? Was it the difficulty? Or was it just that every time you follow a hard climb you think "whew, I sure am glad I'm not leading this!" Then when you are on lead yourself, you just carry on and get through it.

Soon enough it was my turn to pick another climb, and I suggested we head down the cliff, past High E, to where the wall undulates in and out, creating more shady nooks for cooler belaying. Once we got down there I settled on The Nose/Fillipina link-up (5.9-). This was one of the few 5.9 minuses I had left to try.

Fillipina is another route people sometimes have trouble finding. But if you know what to look for you can locate the correct roof from the base. Looking upwards, try to find the roof with two thin parallel cracks running diagonally to the right from the wall to the lip. Several feet below these parallel cracks there is a fixed piton you can spot from the ground. This is where you're going.

I thought most of the pitch was just okay, but the roof problem gave full value.

When I started on the Nose's dihedral, I was surprised-- it seemed pretty stout for 5.6+. Fun moves go up the corner, with great pro in the crack at the back.

Then it becomes awkward. It is kind of awkward exiting the corner, then it is awkward again moving past the tree and stepping left and up to the slab beneath the roof. I didn't find this part of the climb so difficult, but my anxiety increased as I approached the overhang. It seemed more and more imposing as I approached it; my movements became slower and slower.

There is a good stance beneath the roof, and thank goodness, because I needed a place to retreat to. From the stance you have to get your hands to the good holds above the lip and then move right. I stepped up there and placed a bomber cam in the good horizontal. Then I stepped down again and took a rest. I went back up and took a good long look at the next move right, to a finger-sized horizontal where the footholds just drop away. Scary. I stepped down again.

It was time to commit. I went up again, threw in another cam (suspenders and a belt!) and then made the move right to the finger-sized horizontal. This was it, I wasn't going back now. Thankfully I could now see the way up through the notch, and two or three burly moves got me through it. It's all there, and the hands and feet improve with each move up. I don't know if I could have thrown in another piece mid-crux, but even if I could have there was no way in hell I was stopping to place one.

For me there's no feeling like pulling a roof. Getting over the roof on Fillipina was definitely one of those let-out-a-whoop and an "oh yeah!" kind of moments. I also recall shouting something (and here I'm paraphrasing to avoid using off-color language in this family-friendly blog) about the "minus" in the grade being kind of unreasonable.

The crux on Fillipina is harder, in my opinion, than anything on Wasp or The Spring, two other 5.9 climbs I've led recently. I thought it was harder than Apoplexy and Pink Laurel. I don't think I would give it a "minus."

It is a really good 5.9 roof problem, and committing for sure. I thought Friends and Lovers was committing? After doing Fillipina it seems like nothing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gunks Routes: Pink Laurel (5.9)

It had been a wonderful weekday in the Gunks. After we finished up with The Seasons, Maryana was looking for a 5.9 to lead. She suggested Pink Laurel, mostly because the first pitch has a G rating. I'd never done the first pitch, but had long been curious about it. I told her my understanding was that the first pitch crux is short but polished/greasy and that some people hate the route. But I also told her I've been wanting to do it and that I'd love to lead the 5.9 pitch two. So off we went.

Pink Laurel is a two-star classic you don't often see people doing. It looks intimidating. It sits just to the right of some very popular, easier climbs like Jackie (5.5) and Classic (5.7). The first pitch ascends a corner system, with the crux coming low at an escape from an awkward alcove. When we arrived at the base and looked upward, it seemed to me like the dark, awkward alcoves continued throughout the whole pitch.

(Photo: Maryana pondering the crux alcove on pitch one of Pink Laurel (5.9))

Maryana was more than up to the task of climbing the pitch. Although there were placement opportunities, she didn't put in any gear until she got herself through the easy starting territory and into the crux alcove. Once there she placed two solid cams. At the time I was ignorant of what was to come, so I didn't know to tell her what I'm going to tell you now: I'm not sure those two cams were placed optimally. If she'd blown the crux move they would have kept her from hitting the ground, but maybe not the rock at the base of the alcove. Maryana placed the cams in the ceiling of the alcove, one in the crack on the left and one in the crack on the right. Because the cams were set back a bit from the lip, she extended the draws on both of these pieces. Better, I think, would have been to place a cam right at the lip of the roof of the alcove, clipping it direct. No extension.

But she was totally solid on the moves, so there were no worries. As soon as she stepped up out of the alcove, I suggested she place a piece ASAP, which she did from a rather strenuous stance. Then it appeared the climbing eased for the rest of the pitch.

(Photo: Maryana almost through with pitch one of Pink Laurel (5.9))

When it was my turn to follow, I saw why people gripe about Pink Laurel. The polished part of the route is short, but it is the crux. Dick tells you to undercling left out of the alcove, but this advice only tells part of the story and doesn't begin to capture the weirdness of the move. It is a committing undercling up left with very slippery feet, then a step right, awkwardly straddling a corner. Another strenuous step up and you're out of the crux.

I didn't think the moves were hard, exactly, but they were strange and insecure. Very good protection is available but as I realized watching Maryana some care should be taken to protect the crux well.

I thought the climbing above the crux was interesting and unique. The remaining alcoves went at around 5.6, and there were some funky moves required to get out of them. Before I knew it I was at the ledge with Maryana.

Pitch one of Pink Laurel was very interesting, and a little different from your typical Gunks climb. I'd like to go back soon and lead it myself.

And I'd really like to go back and lead pitch two again because I totally botched it with Maryana.

(Photo: Vass leading pitch two of Pink Laurel (5.6 variation))

Last fall I did the 5.6 variation to pitch two of Pink Laurel with Vass, sending him up on lead after I led pitch one of Jackie. This easier variation of Pink Laurel is fun (I thought it seemed pretty soft for 5.6), and it led me to believe the 5.9 version of the pitch wouldn't be too difficult, because the crux would have to be short. Both versions of the pitch, easy and hard, start and end the same way. The only difference is that the 5.6 version cuts left around the roof while the 5.9 version cuts right.

Returning to the pitch with Maryana, I set off, getting to the stance atop the prominent pointed flake (just over Vass' head in the photo above) with ease. Then I headed right, towards what I thought was the 5.9 finish. An overhanging 5.7-ish traverse around a little nose led me a stance at a shallow left-facing corner. Here I looked up and could see a big angle piton in the roof above and to my left. I thought that this piton must be at the exit to Pink Laurel, but I wasn't sure I was supposed to go that far back left to exit the roof. It seemed especially contrived to go back and left when I was already standing at an easy-looking corner that seemed to go straight to the top.

So I went straight up the corner instead of heading back up and left, and since the climbing to the top couldn't have involved any moves harder than 5.5, I knew I'd messed up.

Later I looked at the photos in the guidebook and realized I'd traversed too far to the right, going all the way to the finish of A-Gape. This climb is a 5.11 down low but the part I did is easy and from all appearances seldom climbed. Judging from the line in the book I went straight right when I should have gone diagonally up and right from the stance at the flake. I don't know how I missed the line so completely.

Now that I've avoided Pink Laurel's second pitch from both sides, I have to go back and attack it directly!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Gunks Routes: The Seasons & More

I'm getting behind in my blogging. I've been climbing but I haven't been posting. A few quick climbing days in a row plus a week's vacation will do that to you.

Flashback to June 20. My friend Maryana and I took advantage of a break in the summer heat to get in a pleasant weekday's climbing.

We both had similar goals. I've been working back into the 5.9's, and Maryana is starting to lead them too. Or I guess I should say Maryana has just started leading 5.9, but she's rocketing through the grade and I have no doubt she'll leave 5.9 in the dust in short order. As recently as March she'd only led a couple trad pitches in her life. But her growth has been rapid and amazing to watch. She weighs next to nothing, she has great instincts, and she climbs all the time. She also has several partners who climb much harder stuff. All of this taken together means she'll soon be leading climbs that I have hardly any hope of following, much less leading myself.

But for now, in this one brief moment in early summer 2011, she and I can be plausibly considered equals.

On June 20 we had a really good day together. I warmed us up on V-3 (5.7). It was my first time on the route. It was pleasant but not as exciting as I expected. I thought I would be forced to use opposition and stemming to get up into the famous V-shaped notch that ends the pitch, but to my surprise I found good face holds inside the notch, pulled easily up into it, clipped the pin, and the climb was basically done. Nice, but nothing to rave about, in my opinion.

Then I suggested Maryana lead Absurdland (5.8; I believe Williams used to call it 5.9-). I led it two years ago, and I remembered it as having good crux thin face climbing, which is Maryana's specialty. I also remembered the crux as being short, so I thought it would be well within her abilities. I actually remembered the climb as being a little underwhelming, because after the low crux moves it eases off into mellow cruising on lower-angled jugs for the final two-thirds of the pitch.

Well, Maryana managed the low cruxes quite well, and placed great gear, sending the climb with style. As I followed the pitch I was impressed. The hard bit is a little longer than I remembered, with two or three steep crux moves in a row. The hands are good. The feet are thin and more of a challenge. The cruiser climbing above is very nice. I decided I've been underrating Absurdland. It is a beautiful pitch.

I next proposed we head down to The Seasons, for a couple reasons. The first was that I wanted to lead The Spring. I thought it fit my "easy" 5.9 criteria. The crux seemed like it would be short, at a little rooflet about 15 to 20 feet up, and it appeared the pro was good, with a vertical crack running up the whole pitch. I had seen reports that the early pro was a little tricky, but that the crux pro was solid. I was ready to give it a go.

The second reason I wanted to head down to the Seasons was that I hoped we could toprope the other, harder Season climbs, and that I would learn a thing or two from Maryana. One of the reasons she's improved so quickly is that she's been climbing with people who like to work these harder climbs. I wanted to see what she'd do with The Fall (5.11a) and The Summer (5.11d). And I wanted to see if I could do anything with them as well. I'm not much of a toproper but a few weeks before I'd been surprised at my success on Maria Redirect (5.11a), and I was curious to see if that success was just a fluke.

(Photo: Past the crux rooflet on pitch one of The Spring (5.9))

But before we could work on the 5.11's I had to lead the 5.9.

It went down pretty quickly. In my opinion the first pitch of The Spring is one of the easier 5.9's I've led this year. I got some disagreement on this point from other folks on, so you should keep in mind that I am fond of corner climbs like The Spring. Perhaps the climb actually plays to some unknown strength of mine, which makes it seem easier to me than it would to others? But in my experience, the moves up to the rooflet are straightforward, and then the move over the roof is strenuous but features great holds. One more steep move after that, again with very positive holds, and the real business of the pitch is over. What remains of the pitch is a somewhat awkward exit from the corner to the right and up, then the final easy moves to the bolted anchor.

The pro did prove to be surprisingly tricky. The crack at the back of the corner is the only place to put pro until you reach the rooflet, and it is a pretty thin seam. I worked in a nut a few moves up. I tested it for a downward and outward pull and I thought it would hold, but I also expected it to lift out as I got higher, and it did. Nevertheless I think this nut was acceptable for its purpose; if I'd fallen right after placing it I think it would have held me. I then worked a pretty marginal C3 into the crack just a couple feet above the nut. I wasn't sure what this cam was worth, but it was just another step to the rooflet, where I had dynamite pro in the horizontal to the left.

Above the rooflet, the crack at the back is again the thin seam, and if you feel like it you can hang in there and try to place a tiny nut. I didn't try. I took the extra step, and then got a bomber red C4 over my head where the crack widened. Looking at this pro afterward, I could see that if I'd blown the clip to the red C4 and somehow slipped with all that rope out, I might have been in ground fall range. But I think that was a very unlikely event, since the stance there was good. You could definitely put something in lower that wouldn't require you to pull the rope over your head if you were concerned about it.

My verdict on The Spring: fun, on the easy side of 5.9, adequate pro, but a little too short. Of course, if I were up to leading the 5.10 pitch two then pitch one would be a great warm-up.

(Photo: Maryana on the steep lower bits of The Winter(5.10d))

From the chains above The Spring I scrambled up and left to the tat anchor above The Winter. This tat anchor did not inspire confidence. The slings all appeared to be old and they were wedged in a constriction in such a way that I found them impossible to evaluate. Fortunately there is good gear there. I built a bomber gear anchor above the tat and we now had one end of the rope above The Spring and The Summer and the other end above The Winter. This was a nice setup for a weekday. On a crowded weekend this might pose problems as both The Spring and The Winter are popular leads. But no one came along wishing to climb the routes while we were there, so we were free to take our time.

After Maryana ran up The Spring, I gave The Winter (5.10d) a try. The lower moves are steep and strenuous but certainly easier than 5.10. The crux is just a few moves up a corner, similar to the Spring but facing the opposite direction, and featuring no juggy holds. Stemming and opposition technique are required for a couple moves, then better holds lead to the anchor.

I think I would have sent it on the first try, but as I completed the crux moves (stepping up to the prominent piton which isn't fully driven into the rock), I thought I pulled a muscle in my leg. As I stemmed there I suddenly felt a sharp burning pain, and because I was on toprope I had the freedom to simply let go immediately, cursing my aging body. After resting a bit I decided it was just a cramp, did the same moves again (leaning a bit more on the other leg!) and completed the pitch. I felt good about it, almost thinking I could lead it. My main concern would be that the crux gear involves fiddly nuts at the back of the corner in a thin crack, much like The Spring but with higher stakes and a much more likely fall. The pin is too high to really help you; by the time you clip it you're basically done.

After Maryana sprinted up The Winter with no issues, she removed my gear anchor and scrambled back to the chains, and it was my turn to try The Summer (5.11d). A nearly blank face leads up to the rooflet. Then steeper, thin face moves continue above the little roof. The whole thing looked really hard to me; I guessed the rooflet would be the crux.

I was wrong. The crux was the face below the roof, and I couldn't do it at all. It was somewhat dispiriting. I tried several different tactics, and Maryana eventually suggested several different strategies I hadn't considered, but none of them worked for me. There was a long reach to the better holds below the roof, and I couldn't make it work out. I couldn't use the tiny crimper holds effectively to get my feet up. For the first time, I think I got some real understanding of why people who train climbers talk about finger strength so much. I apparently don't have enough of it.

I was eager to watch Maryana figure it out, and after several falls she worked out a sequence that got her up to the roof. She was able to use a tiny hold as a side-pull, which enabled her to get her feet up and reach for the jugs. Then after one fall at the roof she figured that out as well and finished the route.

Even with Maryana's beta I still failed at the low crux. Eventually I gave up, cheated up to the roof from the side and was able to do the second crux moves after one fall. A little more falling upward got me up to the chains again, pretty worn out and beaten down. 5.11d is hard!

(Photo: Mr. Smooth leading The Fall(5.11a))

I set two directional cams above The Fall (5.11a) as Maryana lowered me. You could probably go without them, but you'd have to be really careful of the swing you'd take towards The Spring's corner if you blew the crux. We were both grateful to have the directionals in place.

I was excited to try The Fall because the crux move appeared to me to be really cool, and I imagined it would be super intimidating on lead. An undercling with good gear leads to a balancy crux high step up above the same rooflet shared by The Summer and The Spring. It seemed to me it was all about footwork and technique, not muscle.

Last year I watched someone I'll call Mr. Smooth lead it. I don't know his name, and at the time we'd never spoken. I was floored at how he calmly cruised up the route. Dick Williams says there is good pro for the 5.11a crux move, but that it is runout above for the rest of the way; in his words it is "5.8 R or worse." Mr. Smooth placed a cam in the undercling at the crux, and then as he gracefully made the crux high step he got a tiny wire in the vertical seam. Then he placed one more piece in the next 40 or so feet. He had three pieces of gear in the whole pitch.

It was quite a performance. Then I watched as his (absolutely gorgeous*) girlfriend cruised it and The Summer on toprope, as if these hard routes were nothing.

Later in the year I happened to see the couple again. I was leading the first pitch of High Exposure and I saw Mr. Smooth climb Modern Times (5.8+). He did the whole thing in one pitch, with practically no gear. He put a sling around a small tree on the GT Ledge and then placed nothing else until he got to the roofs at the top. Later at the base of the wall I told him how impressed I'd been at his lead of The Fall, and he said he'd been working up to it for some time and even backed off of it on an earlier occasion.

Maryana wasn't quite as smooth as Mr. Smooth. She had to take a few tries at the crux. I was interested to see her solve it without the high step Mr. Smooth had used. She managed it with a step-through, crossing one leg behind the other. She also seemed to have trouble seeing the crucial handhold, which caused her to fumble for it a bit.

I scored a small victory when my turn came. I got The Fall on the first try. On toprope, using Maryana's experience. I decided to try her footwork and it worked like a charm for me. But still. It felt good, especially after my total failure on The Summer. The Fall really is a one-move wonder. After the crux step up it is much easier. But with the lack of pro I can't imagine ever leading it.

I guess I'm warming up to toproping. It still isn't my preference, and I feel vaguely guilty while I'm doing it, which is just silly. But it's hard to deny it has benefits. After we finished with The Seasons I felt I'd gained some skills and insight, and I was pretty worked over besides. Not a bad way to spend a few hours.

* But not nearly as gorgeous as my wife, of course.