Monday, September 26, 2011

Adirondack Crack Attack, Day One: Poke-O Moonshine Cliff

Back to the 'Dacks.

Rogers Rock in July whetted my appetite for more climbing in the huge Adirondack park. Adrian too was eager to get out there. We thought about doing an ultra-long one day strike on the region in August, but the prospect of so much driving to and from NYC in one day ultimately turned off the both of us. Instead we resolved to find a weekend in the autumn in which we could get in two days of climbing up there.

Somehow when I mentioned the plan to my wife her head did not explode. I told her that I might try to disappear for two days of climbing and she calmly responded that early September would probably be my best chance to go, given her busy work schedule later in the fall.

And so we found ourselves on a climbing road trip. As we left the city I almost couldn't believe this was happening. At times it had seemed events would conspire to derail our plans, but in the end neither tropical storm damage nor my cat's visit to the animal emergency room (she swallowed a sewing needle) got in the way. This was too easy. I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop; there's no way I get to be this lucky. I'm going to pay for this trip at a later date, of that I am certain!

As the magical weekend approached I became more and more excited at the various possibilities. I sent annotated PDF's of various sections of the Lawyer/Haas guidebook to Adrian. I considered Poke-O Moonshine Cliff, the Spider's Web, Upper Washbowl, Pitchoff Chimney Cliff, Chapel Pond Slab, the King Wall... the options were seemingly endless.

Ultimately we decided to hit Poke-O on day one and Upper Washbowl on day two. I knew we'd get just a taste of Poke-O (an enormous cliff) in one day, but I wanted to experience more than one place. I figured we'd do a few long classics there and then maybe if we were speedy the next day we could do most of the good lines on the Upper Washbowl. I didn't realize until later that by choosing these two destinations we had set ourselves up for a tour of the routes of John Turner, a visionary climber who was active in the late fifties and early sixties and who is famous for his sandbagged moderate vertical crack climbs all over the Northeast.

When we arrived at Poke-O there were two other cars in the lot at the defunct state campground. As we should have expected, we found both of these groups of climbers at the base of our first route (and first Turner climb of the weekend). This was, of course, Gamesmanship (5.8+), the most popular climb at Poke-O. Fortunately, the first party was already moving fast up pitch one and the second party had decided to do the neighboring single-pitch climb The Sting (5.8) while they waited. So, technically, Gamesmanship was actually open, or at least we deemed it so. The leader of the second party seemed to think he had the right to reserve his spot in line for Gamesmanship while he was climbing a different route! Adrian and I both thought that was utter nonsense, but I wondered aloud to Adrian whether we'd create a scene if we went ahead of them and hopped on Gamesmanship. Adrian solved this by loudly announcing our intention to start climbing. No one dared try to stop us so we were in business. It turned out we were much faster than the party we leapfrogged, anyway, so it was all for the best. I have no regrets.

(Photo: Pitch one of Gamesmanship (5.8+). The pink rope heading left is on The Sting (5.8).)

Gamesmanship is a five-pitch climb that goes all the way to the top of the cliff, but many parties skip pitch five, which is an undistinguished, poorly-protected 5.2 slab. The big attractions of the climb are the sustained 5.8+ handcrack of pitch one and the twin vertical "ski track" cracks of the 5.7 pitch four. The guidebook describes pitches two and three as being of lesser quality.

Supposedly the crux of the route comes in the first ten feet, at a pod just off the ground. I knew as soon as I looked up, however, that for me the rest of the pitch would be harder than the pod because I don't have much experience climbing vertical cracks. I remembered what a crappy climber I became on Reppy's Crack (5.8) at Cannon last year. Immediately I chickened out and offered Adrian the lead. Crack specialist that he is, he flew right up, expressing joy at the quality of the jams.

As I expected, I didn't fly right up. The pod at the bottom was definitely a little tricky, but this was a type of climbing I could deal with; little edges and a couple long reaches get it done. What I mostly remember about the rest of the pitch is that I thought it was great, and that I felt insecure and challenged the whole way up. I made it through without any falls or hangs, but I repeatedly expressed thanks not to be on the lead, and I tried not to be depressed at how hard I found the climbing. This was the learning experience I needed, I told myself. I'd be a better crack climber for it.

(Photo: looking down the 5.8 pitch two of Gamesmanship.)

Pitch two was my lead, and I enjoyed it. While neither as sustained nor as aesthetically pleasing as pitch one, it is still a quality pitch, with a little bit of face climbing and a little bit of vertical crack. I thought it was easy for the grade. I'm not sure where the 5.8 crux is supposed to be.

(Photo: The throwaway pitch three of Gamesmanship. Adrian is almost to the ledge where he'll head right to a tree.)

Adrian dispatched the easy 5.4 pitch three in no time. The pitch exists only to get you through the broken dike rock and right to the base of the obvious cracks ascended by the 5.7+ pitch four. This fourth pitch was my lead, and it looked gorgeous from below. I found it fun to lead, but in my opinion the great cracks don't go on quite long enough. Soon you reach lower-angled rock where you have to climb past a couple dirty bushes up a corner to the belay.

(Photo: A butt shot of me leading the 5.7+ pitch four of Gamesmanship.)

Actually I realize in retrospect that this pitch was a lost opportunity. It follows a pair of cracks, the left one a perfect vertical handcrack, the right one more featured. I found it easy enough to climb it by mostly holding the right edge of the left handcrack and using features in the crack on the right. In other words, I didn't do much jamming. I should have forced myself to do more. It would have been good for me, and more secure besides.

After we rapped to the ground we found The Sting (5.8) open, and since it was Adrian's turn to lead he jumped right on it. The first few moves follow the crux of Gamesmanship through the pod, then a thin traverse left leads to another long vertical handcrack. This is another great pitch, certainly the equal of its neighbor to the right. It is also quite a bit easier. Or at least, I thought so. The pod and thin face climbing left are just the sort of climbing I like, so I didn't worry there. And the jamming is much less continuous than on Gamesmanship. I got to the top of this pitch wishing I'd led it.

After The Sting we wanted another multi-pitch climb so we took a look at Bloody Mary (5.9+). And once we looked at it we had to climb it. It is truly impressive, heading up an imposing, steep corner. The second pitch looked strenuous but, to me, it seemed not that bad. I liked the looks of the steep layback flake and the section above, which stemmed between two corners, seemed doable. It wasn't a jamcrack so I thought "why not?" Still, I was intimidated by the climb's reputation as a Turner testpiece, which stood as the hardest climb in the 'Dacks for more than a decade. Eventually I decided to be content with leading the 5.6 pitch one, which turned out to be a nothing pitch to get you to the base of the crux corner.

(Photo: Adrian about to attack pitch two of Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

As Adrian set off on pitch two I was kicking myself for not taking the lead. But then it started looking pretty hard as Adrian came around the first layback crack and then entered the stemming portion between the two cracks. As Adrian got to the part of the pitch where the left crack ends and the guidebook mysteriously suggests an "unlikely" move onto the face, he was suddenly airborne. Unsure if he was to step left or continue just a bit further upward, he'd chosen to head up and slipped out of the crack.

Adrian was unharmed in the fall but he wasn't sure how to continue. I read him the entry in the guidebook, which seemed to suggest going further up the face to the left, but it also mentioned an anchor on this left wall that neither of us could see. The topo seemed to indicate that the pitch went up right, not left, into the tiered overhang above, but the description said nothing about this.

(Photo: Pitch two of Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

Suddenly Adrian spotted a bolted anchor to the left and headed for it. By the time he got there I realized this was a mistake. The bolted anchor was for the neighboring line to the left. But Adrian was already there, so he put me on belay and up I went.

I found the climbing strenuous but not mysterious, at least at first. I made it up the layback crack through an overhang, thinking it resembled Roseland in the Gunks. Then the stemming began, and this was heady. I wasn't sure how I'd feel leading this. It was mostly opposition keeping me on; there were few real footholds on either side. As I approached the point where Adrian popped out I tried to suss out the next part of the pitch. I was sure now that we were supposed to have headed up into the weakness in the overhang. I thought I could now spot some fixed crappy anchor up in there on the left. I wondered if the climbing up the face to the overhang would be easier, or harder, than what I'd been doing?

(Photo: Throwing in a chicken wing in order to get a rest on Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

Then, unexpectedly, I popped out, just below the point where Adrian had popped out. Screw it, I thought, I'm not leading the rest of this. We'll come back some other time and do it right. I headed left to the bolts and we rapped off.

It wasn't time to end the day, and I felt I still hadn't challenged myself, so I decided to try a slightly harder lead. P.T. Pillar (5.8+) seemed like a nice choice. It is a single-pitch climb up a corner. The guidebook contends it is often unfairly overlooked. The "P.T." stands for Positive Thinking, which is a popular ice climb in the winter, just to the left.

The climb ascends the left side of the pillar, at a crack in the back, against the main wall of the cliff. I resolved to jam, jam, and jam to the top. But it didn't really work out. If I faced to the right it seemed impossibly overhanging. If I faced the smooth back wall there were few holds. The crack seemed too wide most of the time for jams. I ended up worrying my way up the route, making frequent layback moves with insecure feet. Strenuous roof climbing got me past a big death block wedged in the crack about one third of the the way up. Continuing, I jammed my feet in the vertical corner crack whenever I could, but it was very awkward. A little more than halfway up I stopped and took a hang on a cam. Then I fell trying to get back in the crack. Then I finally powered through the rest of the pitch.

(Photo: Adrian cruising up P.T. Pillar (5.8+), just below the wedged death block.)

I had Adrian lower me from the fixed anchor so I could belay him from the ground. He proceeded to cruise up the freaking thing. He turned to the right and put his back on the smooth wall, often pinning a bent left leg with dropped knee behind him.

He made it look so easy I wanted to kill him.

Near the top, where I had been pumped and feeling like shit on the lead, grunting through the last few moves, Adrian found a no-hands rest and chilled there a while, sorting gear. Grrrrr.

When Adrian came down he said "I climbed it like a chimney. When you have a smooth wall like that it's usually a good idea to put your back on it."

Okay, noted. Why didn't he tell me that before? I know I say I don't want beta, but any idiot can tell I don't really mean it...

I couldn't wait to get out of there and get a drink. After fighting with vertical cracks all day I was worn out.

I loved Poke-O. It's a big cliff with tons of great stuff we didn't even see. My day there mainly demonstrated to me that I have so much to learn. And that if I'm going to get the schooling I need I have to get out of the Gunks more often.

Coming soon! More Turner classics at Upper Washbowl Cliff: Hesitation (5.8) & Partition (5.9-), plus the Weissner Route (5.6).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gunks Routes: Red Cabbage (5.9-) & Triangle (5.9-)

I think I’m almost out of "easy" 5.9 climbs in the Trapps.

I’ve found many more of them lurking there than I expected.

Part of the reason I’ve found so many introductory 5.9’s is that as soon as I climb a 5.9 and find it pretty straightforward, I begin to discount it. I think that if I’ve done it so easily it must be one of the less serious ones. So, when I got through WASP with no problems I began to categorize it in my mind as a former 5.8 and not a legitimate 5.9. The same logic demoted Casablanca. Swain said it’s a 5.8, so it can’t be a “real“ 5.9. Bonnie’s Roof? Obviously it should still be a 5.8+, as it was for so many years…

You can go on and on this way, rationalizing away all of your success stories. The first pitch of Three Vultures? Just a boulder problem, not really worthy of the grade. Pitch three of Keep on Struttin’? Not as hard as pitch two so obviously overgraded.

Apoplexy? Okay, I’m still proud of that one.

Oddly, one place I haven’t found too many easy 5.9’s is in the land of 5.9 minus. One exception is the first pitch of Higher Stannard. When I climbed it I thought it was graded 5.9- appropriately. (It is also one of the best 5.9 pitches I’ve climbed.) Fillipina, by contrast, seemed hard to me. Another 5.9-, Land’s End, is so notoriously hard for its grade (and run out between the cruxes) that I haven’t even dared to try it.

I recently hopped on two more 5.9- climbs that I’d previously dismissed as not worth the trouble. And I was surprised to find they were both pretty good, and pretty much spot-on in terms of their difficulty ratings.

The first one was Red Cabbage. It is a short climb (perhaps 50 feet), squeezed in on the side of the Gerdie Block. It begins just around the corner to the right of the Gerdie climbs, at a vertical crack that goes up about fifteen or twenty feet. The crux comes as you figure out a way to exit the crack at its end and head left around the corner, at which time easier climbing takes you to the top.

I had always assumed this climb had maybe one move on it, and so never found it very appealing.

But recently I was standing there at the end of a nice Saturday full of climbing with Adrian and Maryana. I thought I was pretty much done leading anything of any real difficulty for the day, but then Adrian did a great job leading Retribution (5.10b), and, inspired by his example, I followed it clean.

I decided I was still feeling pretty good and so why not try Red Cabbage?

It turned out to be more than one move’s worth of climbing.

As is usual in the Gunks, the vertical crack is jammable but there are face holds to the right as well, so no jamming technique is really required. The face is steep and the early going is surprisingly pumpy. I wanted some jamming practice so I made sure to try to throw in at least a couple of jams. I got a really good cupped-hand jam about halfway up the crack. I also placed a lot of pro, perhaps unwisely, in quick succession: my # 1, # 2, and # 3 Camalots all went into the crack.

Then at the exit to the crack I had to decide whether to go immediately left or to go a little right (the chalk goes right) before moving up and then left around the corner.

I started to head left but quickly realized it wasn’t happening.

Feeling the pump clock ticking, I headed right, and confronted the move up to what looked like a good horizontal. I kept pawing the key hold, a pebbly ball of rock, with my right hand, wondering if I’d be able to hold onto it as I stepped up to the better horizontal. I hesitated, thinking I just might blow it, but finally clenched the pebbly ball, made the move up, grabbed the good hold, placed a great tricam, and the difficulty was over.

But I wished I hadn’t used all my bigger pieces in the initial crack, because once you’re around the corner you’re at a big horizontal. I didn’t have anything left on my rack that was big enough to place there, so I had to run it out a bit on easy ground.

Reaching the top I decided Rad Cabbage is a totally worthwhile little route. It’s no destination climb but it’s certainly not the waste of time I assumed it would be.

More recently, on my day out with Gail in late August, I had occasion to try out Triangle.

Really the only reason I led it was that I wanted to set up a toprope for us above Never Never Land (5.10a). (Later on I flailed all over the ridiculous crux of Never Never Land, but that’s another story.) I had always assumed that this was the only reason anyone ever climbs Triangle; after the crux it is easy to traverse to the bolts above Never Never Land and several other hard face climbs.

Considered in its own right, Triangle looks unimpressive. The triangular, blocky feature it is named for leans against the main wall of the cliff, offering what appears to be very easy climbing up the right side. Then a little roof awaits above. This roof is the crux. It doesn’t look like much from the ground.

There is a variation to Triangle that Dick Williams recommends in his guidebook, which goes up the center of the face of the triangle, offering a pitch of more sustained 5.9 climbing than the regular route. But I have read that the hard moves on the face of the triangle are poorly protected. So I elected to just do the regular route.

Like Red Cabbage, Triangle surprised me. I thought it was good fun. The climbing up to the roof is easy but enjoyable. Then the roof itself is a good one-move problem. There are several pins just above the roof. I saw at least three; I clipped two of them. It appears that people get above the roof two different ways. I started from the left, stepping up to the obvious undercling block beneath the roof to reach a good hold above. Then a couple pumpy moves right and up took me out of the crux. I noticed as I moved right, however, that the whole right side of the roof seems like a good layback flake hold, which may present another (easier?) way to solve the problem.

Whichever way you solve it, the climbing is clean and the pro is good so long as at least one of the old pins will hold. There’s probably other pro for the crux besides the pins if you stick around to look for it.

Don’t get me wrong; the Triangle crux isn’t the kind of roof that will have you letting out a whoop and an “oh yeah!” But it is a good little route, a nice warm-up for another challenge like Never Never Land, or a casual way to end your day with just a little more good climbing.

Neither Red Cabbage nor Triangle comes close to the greatness of Higher Stannard, the king of the 5.9 minuses. But they’re both good, and far from the waste of time I assumed they might be. And now that I’ve done them, I think I’m just about out of easy 5.9’s to try. I’ll have to stop being such a bore and work on some 5.10’s.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Day in the Picos de Europa: Espolon del Agero ("Agero Spur"), 6a (5.10a)

(Photo: Mount Agero, seen here in the afternoon after the morning fog cleared away.)

It has been several years since I've used a guide for clmbing.

My experiences with guides have always been very professional, educational and satisfying. But these experiences were all in the United States. And the guides spoke the same language I did.

Last week in Spain, in the Picos de Europa, I didn't know whether I could expect the same sort of experience.

I had never planned on climbing there. The Picos were not a part of my climbing dreams. Until recently I'd never heard of these mountains. They are largely unknown to American climbers.

Oddly enough, my wife Robin made it happen. She'd planned a family vacation in Northwest Spain for the whole family: the two of us plus the kids. I was passively, notionally involved but really I left the details to her. She picked the locations in Galicia where we'd spend the first week of our trip. As she looked into Asturias and learned about the Picos de Europa, she knew we'd love the place and decided we should spend several days in the region. She wanted us to go hiking in the area as a foursome, which we did. (It is a hiker's paradise.) But she also planned things so I could take one day apart from the family and go rock climbing on my own. I don't know many non-climbing spouses who would do something like that. That's just the kind of generous person she is!

In the months leading up to the trip, I looked into finding a climbing partner in the Picos. There weren't many resources (in English) for finding a climbing partner. I did some web searches but did not stumble on any guide services with English-language web sites. I posted queries on both and mountainproject forums but got no responses, either about potential partners or a guide.

Eventually I decided I would just find a way to hire someone. This would be simpler-- I wouldn't have to bring much, just my harness, shoes and helmet. It was unlikely I'd find a partner for just the one day any other way. I asked my old partner Greg about the guides I knew he'd used when he was in Chamonix. He put me in touch with a reputable guide, an American that he'd used over in Europe. Greg's guide wasn't planning on being anywhere near the Picos in August but he put me in touch with Kjeld Andreasen, who co-founded a service called ATG out there that offers guiding not just for climbing, but also caving, rafting, mountain biking, and other adventure sports.

Kjeld immediately contacted me by email and when I told him I was looking for long mountain trad routes in the 5.9 to 5.10 range he said, in perfect English, that he knew exactly what I was looking for and that I would love the Picos.

As the appointed day approached my biggest worry was the weather. We'd had a mix of rainy and sunny days in Galicia and temperatures that were a little cool for August. On the day before my planned climbing day, we'd arrived at our hotel in Arenas de Cabrales to find overcast skies and mountains shrouded in a damp fog. We'd gone ahead and done an afternoon hike with the kids despite the weather, and been immediately amazed at the beauty of these mountains. We were instantly in love with the Picos, even in the fog.

That night I spoke to Kjeld. He had hoped to take me out personally, but he had bad news: he had just broken his ankle in a motorcycle race.

But I was not to worry, he told me. He had set me up with one of ATG's guides, Fernando Zamora. He said Fernando spoke English well, and that they had talked about good routes for me. Fernando knew what I was looking for and had a few options in mind, one of which was easier, and the other more difficult, depending on how “eager” and “enthusiastic” I was. Then Kjeld chuckled. I wasn’t sure what to make of the chuckle.

I told him I was well known for my enthusiasm.

The next day dawned sunny and bright, although with fog still surrounding many peaks. It was much clearer than the day before, giving Robin and me our first real look at the full beauty of the Picos. We drove to the appointed meeting place in Potes and marveled at the giant formations so close to us on either side of the road. The forecast still called for potential rain in the afternoon, but I was hopeful I could get a good day in. (We learned over the course of our stay that the weather forecast is pretty meaningless in the Picos.)

We met up with Fernando at 9 a.m. in a parking lot in the middle of Potes, where we learned his English wasn’t really so hot. But as Robin told him (in her broken Spanish), his English was surely much better than my Spanish! I’m terrible with languages. After a week in Spain I could still barely order coffee or beer.

Fernando told us in a mixture of Spanish and English that he thought we’d have a good day, but that we should do routes not too far up in elevation, because of the potential for bad weather later in the afternoon. It seemed very reasonable to me. He told Robin to expect us back in the lot about 4 p.m., and then we were off.

On the way to the climb, Fernando and I communicated to the extent we could about my climbing history. I realized after a few questions that he was trying to figure out what I was capable of. He asked me how long I’d been climbing (5 years), and if I had any experience with long mountain routes (a little but not much). Eventually, and I don’t know how this happened, he got the idea that I knew what I was doing and that he could take a chance on me. He told me he’d been planning to take me up a very nice, long route that is pretty easy, but that he’d changed his mind and decided to take me up a similarly long route that is even nicer, but also harder. He said it was rated 6a, which I later learned is considered equivalent to the American/YDS grade of 5.10a. At the time, I didn’t know what 6a meant, but I told him I was game to try whatever route he wanted.

We drove about 8 kilometers north out of Potes, to where Route 621 crosses the Deva river and the first sign for the town of Lebena appears. Suddenly Fernando turned to me and said “This car, it is good.”

Before I had time to wonder why he was telling me this, he turned off onto an extremely steep, narrow road that headed upward towards a large mountain (which I later learned is called Agero) sitting directly above Lebena. The pavement soon ended, and the road turned to dirt. It seemed our first thrills were going to come on the drive up. After a week in Spain I’d become accustomed to driving on narrow, curvy roads, but this one was crazy, barely wider than his small pickup, twisting and turning past tiny farms and houses. I couldn’t imagine driving on this road myself, and it’s unlikely I could ever find my way again on it even if I were willing to. Fernando made several sudden turns at various unmarked tiny intersections, going ever upward towards the mountain. Suddenly a gravel parking area, big enough for two cars, appeared. He gingerly found a way to squeeze his truck into the second space.

We had arrived. Fernando told me that by braving this road we’d saved ourselves an hour of hiking.

(Photo: Agero upon our arrival at the base, shrouded in fog.)

He instructed me to put my harness on at the truck. I had brought a small Camelback pack with water and a little food but Fernando told me he preferred it if I left all that behind. He handed me an even smaller water pack (cyclist size) that he wished me to carry.

For his part, he carried a rack of only 6 cams (Camalots .4 through # 2, plus a yellow Alien) and a similar number of quick draws/shoulder-length slings. That’s it. Nothing else. No nuts, nada. A couple locking carabiners. I have long known guides to carry less gear than the rest of us, but still I was surprised at just how little Fernando was bringing.

The mountain was right across the road from the tiny parking area. I thought we had arrived at the base of our climb, and I tried to engage Fernando in a discussion about belay commands. But he told me this wasn’t necessary, since we weren’t using the ropes just yet. Then he started up the rock, and I realized there was a cable attached to the rock heading upwards and to the right. This approach pitch was apparently going to be my first via ferrata. Fernando attached himself to the cable with a sling; I went ahead and used my Metolius PAS, with Fernando’s approval. It was hardly necessary, but there were a few exposed spots. Periodically, as he would throughout the day, he would ask me if I was "good," to make sure I was comfortable with whatever we were doing.

(Photo: Ascending the via ferrata approach pitch.)

After the via ferrata pitch we headed left for another approach pitch, this one probably third class, without any cable or need for one. It follows a faint trail up a dirt path with occasional rocks to the main wall of the formation.

We were already high above the towns in the valley, and finally ready for the first real pitch of climbing, on what I later learned is a classic 9-pitch (if you don’t count the two approach pitches) route called Espolon del Agero ("Agero Spur").

Fernando flaked the ropes (9 mm doubles) and talked to me about belay commands. He didn’t use the terminology I would use, but I understood what he wanted. He told me when he reached the end of the climbing he would say "open the system," and that I should not climb until he said "you go up!" In an effort to help his future business with English speakers, I tried to explain the terms "on belay" and "off belay," but I don’t think much of what I said got through. It didn’t matter. I knew what he meant and the system was the one I was comfortable with.

(Photo: At the crux of pitch one.)

He climbed the first pitch, telling me as he left that it is the hardest one on the route. He didn’t seem concerned with whether I could belay him properly. I soon learned this was because he didn’t really need much of a belay. He placed hardly any gear. In fact he probably soloed at least the first 60 feet, passing what I later found to be the first crux of the pitch without a single piece. Eventually he put in a piece and clipped a fixed piton (this route has lots of old pitons) before telling me he had reached the hardest section. Then he was quickly through it and it was my turn.

(Photo: Climbing pitch one.)

I was nervous. This was my first time climbing on limestone, and I didn’t know how it would feel. I also didn’t know what kind of hard climbing to expect. If we were talking about overhangs or a few thin face moves, I’d be right at home. If, on the other hand, I was going to be expected to climb a jam-crack for 100 feet or do a hard slab-climbing pitch, I could end up humiliated.

I needn’t have worried. The climbing felt very familiar to me.

The rock was featured with cracks, mostly vertical in orientation, but horizontal often enough for my taste. Lots of pockets as well. And the way the rock was formed was very Gunks-like in one respect: incredibly positive edges tended to form along the cracks. A steep face might appear impossible, but then a crack would turn out to provide the most awesome jug, sidepull or undercling. And I loved the texture of the limestone. It was so grippy, I felt I could put my toe on the smallest dimple; even rounded corners could form positive handholds.

I got through a couple 5.8-ish cruxy moments in the first pitch, shaking my head that Fernando had climbed through this same territory without placing any gear. Then I confronted the real crux of the pitch, a steep corner/slot with a finger crack at the back. I stood there, thinking of it as a test. If I could do these moves, Fernando would know I could do the whole climb. If I couldn‘t do them, what would happen? Would he try to pull me through it? Would we bail off the route and do something easier? Either of those possibilities was very unappealing.

The crack gave good finger locks. I placed the fingers of my right hand in one direction, my left in the other. Pulling outward in opposite directions (a move known as a Gaston but which I always think of as "forcing open an elevator"), I committed to moving my feet up, then got a better hold with my left hand. It was still steep, but then the holds improved. The crux moves were strenuous but the sequence was blissfully short. I got through it just fine.

When I arrived at the belay Fernando seemed overjoyed.

“You!” he said. “You are a professional! You are a very good climber!”

I was very happy, too. I had passed the test. I was also impressed at Fernando’s trust in me, a total stranger. He knew this was the type of climb I wanted, but he didn’t know ahead of time if it would work out well, or instead turn into an epic with a whiny, incapable client. He took a chance on me. He could easily have taken me up something easier and I wouldn’t have complained. Instead he gave me precisely what I’d asked for, a long route in the mountains at the upper limit of what I could do.

After this first pitch I relaxed completely. We were going to have a very good day.

(Photo: Fernando atop pitch one, with the fog already clearing.)

The rest of the climb unfolded smoothly.

Pitch two was an easier pitch up unremarkable territory.

Pitch three started out easy, but ended in another steep corner similar in size and difficulty to the one on the first pitch.

(Photo: Fernando shooting a photo of me from the end of the crux corner on pitch three.)

As we got higher, the day got clearer and hotter, and the peak, which was shrouded in fog at the start of our day, emerged into the bright sunshine.

(Photo: Emerging from the steep crux corner on pitch three.)

Despite what Fernando told me about the difficulties of pitch one, I later learned that pitches four and five are generally considered the crux 6a pitches of the route.

(Photo: Heading up the wide stemming section on pitch four.)

Pitch four is short, ascending a technical stem corner using wide-split legs. I thought it was really fun, but I didn’t think it was actually terribly demanding. I hate to be that guy who says "in the Gunks this wouldn’t be considered so hard," but in this one instance I am tempted. And let’s face it, I am that guy. I wanted to bring Fernando to the Trapps and have him climb Ants’ Line (5.9) or maybe Simple Stuff (5.10a, which I’ve never done), and ask him how he thinks they compare.

(Photo: Standing at the belay for pitch four.)

Pitch five was the actual crux for me, and on this particular day it seems it was for Fernando too. He did the early hard bit, ascending an arching crack which provides great hands but no footholds at all. Then he moved to the right onto the steep face and got to what looked like a committing layback move off a side-pull. He started to move up, grimaced and stepped down a couple times. This was the first time I’d seen him hesitate all day.

Then he called down and apologized, saying he was having trouble because he’d broken his hand a couple weeks before.

I quickly decided he couldn’t possibly mean what he’d just said. There was no way he was climbing on a broken hand. Right? (I figured out later that he believes he strained a tendon.)

(Photo: In the steep, exposed face-climbing on pitch five.)

Eventually he did the move and finished the pitch. It was my turn.

The early moves up the arching crack were tense. There really are no footholds at all for this rising traverse, but the texture of the limestone is so good, I felt my feet were stuck to the wall with glue. And Fernando had really done right by me, placing pro at reasonable intervals for my benefit along the traverse, the one place in the route it actually mattered. After this I got to the steep face, which Fernando had described to me as "impresionante." I didn’t know what he meant when he said it but as I made the moves I realized he'd meant "exposed." I was above a drop of several hundred feet.

(Photo: Belaying pitch five. Above me you can see the curving edge that is followed up and right, with smearing feet.)

I didn’t have any trouble with the sidepull Fernando had struggled with, but the holds above weren’t as good as I hoped they’d be. I still needed to move right and up to finish the pitch, and I suddenly felt for the first time all day that I was about to peel off. I was barely hanging on.

But I had to freeze when Fernando said "stop!"

I looked up, startled, to find he was pointing his camera at me. "Facebook!" he said.

Urg, not right now, I thought. I finished the pitch and the hard stuff was over.

(Photo: Belaying pitch six or seven.)

After two more easy pitches, the 5th class climbing was over as far as Fernando was concerned. For two full rope lengths to the top, Fernando instructed me to feed him the rope but told me not to put it through my belay device while he was climbing. He put me on some kind of body belay when I climbed each of these pitches behind him. Although he had climbed them without the benefit of a belay, I thought there were a handful of fifth class moves in these two pitches. Some people might not feel comfortable without a better belay, not to mention an anchor. I don’t know if the AMGA would have approved of Fernando’s approach to these final pitches, but I felt secure enough.

At the top we enjoyed the splendid view on what had turned into a gorgeous, sunny day. Fernando told me we’d finished more quickly than he’d expected by an hour, and he confirmed my suspicion that he’d really rolled the dice on me at the beginning. He said he’d normally never take someone on this route on his first day with that person. I guess something in our conversation had made him understand that I wouldn’t be a disaster for him, and that I’d really enjoy this route. I’m really grateful to both Fernando and Kjeld for giving me such a fine day in the mountains.

(Photos: On top of Agero.)

As I enjoyed the walk-off down the beautiful gully next to Agero I wondered if I’ll ever get back to the Picos. Before we left the area I bought the Adrados guidebook (which is in Spanish), a huge tome which contains select highlights of the region. I purchased it as both a souvenir and a motivator. If I look over it enough maybe I’ll stay motivated and find a way to come back some day.

And by then maybe I’ll learn how to order a beer in Spanish with confidence.

(Photos: Heading down.)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Fighting With 5.9+: Double Clutch & Jean

I've been writing all year about breaking into 5.9.

It's been going pretty well.

On-sight leading of easier 5.9's in the Gunks has for the most part felt reasonable and good. And working on these harder (for me) climbs has made the easier 5.8 and under climbs feel REALLY easy.

But it's never enough. There are always new frontiers. And I've realized that if I ever want to feel super-solid at 5.9, I have to work on climbs that are harder than 5.9.

I want to feel about 5.9 the way I feel about 5.8.

I recently found out one of my son's classmates has a dad who used to be quite the climber. I was talking to him one day about the Season climbs and I mentioned how scary I thought it would be to lead something like The Fall (5.11a R). And he said he thought he'd led it, "back in the day." On another occasion he told me he'd gotten out to the Gunks for the first time in who-knows-how-long and climbed some easy stuff. I asked him what easy stuff and he told me: MF (5.9).

Yes, MF.

MF, the climb I've been working toward attempting my whole climbing life.

MF, the climb about which John Stannard said if you can climb it, "you can climb anything."

I told him I couldn't believe that MF was his climb for shaking off the rust, and he said "you know, it's a 5.9. There have to be good, positive holds."

I want to feel this way about 5.9.

Hence my effort to find some 5.9+ climbs to try.

Now, 5.9+ is a notorious grade at the Gunks. People frequently claim that the 5.9+ climbs are harder than many 5.10’s. I can’t really say whether these claims are true. I’ve proceeded under the assumption that such claims are false. I know that 5.9 used to be the top of the scale, so many old-school 5.9’s are actually far tougher than the grade would indicate. But the grades in the Gunks have been scrutinized for decades, and changed by the guidebook authors when they thought it appropriate. So when I see a 5.9 in the Gunks, I figure it really is a 5.9.

Over the past couple months, I’ve tried a couple 5.9+ climbs. These were on-sight attempts on lead. And I’m sorry to say that each attempt has been a failure.

The first one I tried was Double Clutch, which sits in a very popular area of the Uberfall, just right of Retribution and Nosedive and left of Doug’s Roof and Horseman. The climb begins at the left end of the huge roof, climbing up to the overhang at about the 5.6 level. Then a traverse with a big horizontal for hands and not much of anything for the feet takes you to a large notch in the overhang. At this notch you have to go for a good horizontal that is rather far away.

The best reason to try Double Clutch is that there is awesome pro for the crux move. There is a big angle piton just to your left, and you can stick a # 4 or # 5 C4 securely in the notch. When I tried to do it I also got a perfect .75 C4 in the back of the notch, right below my # 4. So you can make the move with three bomber pieces at your waist. And the fall is totally clean. You are at the lip of a gigantic roof. Theoretically, you should feel free to go for it, knowing that if you blow it you’ll hit nothing but air.

But even though I knew the pro was good I couldn‘t make myself really throw for the rail with abandon. I kept trying less dynamic strategies to get the hold and none of them worked. I tried getting my feet up and twisting, I tried to work out some sort of heel hooking arrangement, I tried turning my body left and right. I got close but couldn’t quite make it. I was with Maryana at the time. After I gave up, she led up on my gear and couldn’t do it either.

Afterwards I got a lot of beta advice. Gail told me she’s done it by heel hooking and cranking really hard. This sounds like a good approach, but I feel like I tried that already. A friend of Maryana’s told her he solved it by sticking his knee in the notch. I never considered this method. It won’t work if you’ve already filled the notch with a big cam. And it sounds like a sure path to an ugly injury if you fail to stick the grab! This same person also said that throwing for the good hold is the method for “idiots.”

And maybe it is. But when I look back on it, my big regret is that I didn’t just let go and throw for it. I wish I’d had the guts to do it once. I really want to go back and try it. It would be great fall practice, with zero consequences. And I’ll probably nail the dyno, I just have this feeling about it.

A couple weeks ago I was belaying Adrian on Retribution and saw an older guy walk up and solo Double Clutch, going up the harder direct start straight up to the cleft. This guy was not the most svelte specimen; let’s just say it’s probably been several years since the prime of his climbing career. I imagined he was an old-school hero of mine whom I failed to recognize. From my position I couldn’t see exactly what he did. But I was watching as he made the crux reach and the key, it seemed to me, was the dynamic nature of his movement, the momentum he had as he just flowed through the move, secure in the knowledge his little, unroped push would go just the right distance to the horizontal. He certainly didn’t use a heel hook or any knee trickery.

I’m not endorsing his soloing, necessarily. That’s a different subject. But the confidence, the dynamic movement-- these I need to copy. They are the first things that desert the skittish leader. Going back to Double Clutch and forcing myself to go for it might be really helpful.

On August 20, I was out with Gail and decided for some reason to try Jean. This was late in our climbing day. We’d already done a bunch of pitches and I was feeling tired. I had started to propose that we do something easy, maybe a classic 5.5 or 5.6 to warm down, but then somehow I ended up bringing up this hard roof problem climb and Gail, being the supportive person that she is, encouraged me to give it a try.

And so I found myself standing beneath Jean, racked up and ready to go. As I headed upward, I quickly knew that I wasn’t at my best. About halfway up there is this one dicey move left to the shallow corner that is followed to the roof. I had good pro for this move but I went back and forth a couple times before I could commit to it. I was climbing scared, feeling weak.

Then at the roof, I found an irregular pocket that formed the only handhold directly under the overhang. I wanted to stick a piece into this pod, but I found it impossible. I couldn’t reach the pocket without grabbing it, and once I grabbed it I couldn’t stick anything in. Up and down I went, exploring, looking for other gear at the roof level, even pawing around above the roof, but finding none.

I’d been unsure about whether I could do this climb before I even tried it. But I had assumed I’d find protection at the roof. Instead I’d only found a piece a few feet below. I don’t mean to dwell on my accident from nearly two years ago, but it’s hard not to think about it when you are faced with the prospect of blowing it right above a roof, with the only pro being a few feet below the overhang. I’ve seen that exact movie before. It ends in a big, swinging fall, and a broken ankle. I’m trying my best not to go there again.

Holding on there, examining the roof on Jean, I wasn’t willing to continue without more pro. So I stepped down to my last piece and asked Gail to take.

So much for the onsight.

Once I decided to hang on the rope, I looked around for other pieces to place, but all I could work out was a good .5 Camalot in the crack running sideways through the underside of the roof. This piece was higher than my last one, which was a good thing, but it was off-line and to the right. I had to extend the runner on the piece, making it not that much better than the piece below.

Thinking it over, I decided I just didn’t have a good feeling about the way Jean was going. So for the first time in my checkered climbing career, I decided to bail on the lead. I didn’t even try to pull the roof.

I knew Gail hadn’t signed up to lead Jean either, so I would have to lead up something else and traverse over to get my gear. Sixish seemed like the obvious choice. I hoped to traverse directly to the fixed anchor above Jean, but it turned out that Sixish comes around the corner onto the Jean face about ten feet above the Jean anchor. I ended up building a three-piece rig from which Gail could lower me to the gear I’d left behind. (This took forever; sorry, Gail.)

Once I recovered my gear I had to climb the Jean crux on toprope to get back up to my improvised traverse. I’m happy to say I got it done on the first try. It even made me wish I’d gone ahead and led it, because what makes the Jean crux difficult is the initial holds just above the roof, which aren‘t as positive as you‘d like them to be. Just above these is a great jug, and once you‘ve got the jug, you‘re not going to blow it. So it seems to me the fall on Jean wouldn‘t be so bad after all, since it would happen (if it happened) before the roof was pulled.

I later found out from an old thread on that there used to be a fixed Ball Nut at the pocket below the roof. I have neither Ball Nuts nor Ball Nut skillz, but I now think I could safely lead Jean, and probably not blow it. I would have to get a move on and not get pumped out in the moves up to the roof, place the pro I got last time, and then bust it up to the jug.

I started attempting these 5.9+ climbs in order to make the 5.9’s feel easier-- the way MF felt to the dad of my son’s friend. I don’t think the effort has so far been successful. But it has made me hungry. I am resolved to go back to these climbs this year and storm right up them. Whether it leads to success or failure, I won’t be happy until I throw for the horizontal on Double Clutch and try to pull the Jean roof on lead.