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).
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 Gunks.com 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.