Friday, November 11, 2011

Gunks Routes: Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a)

(Photo: Approaching the huge roof on Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a).)

This past weekend was just beautiful. It was autumn at its best in the Hudson Valley, with crisp mornings, followed by moderate temperatures and abundant sunshine.

In other words: perfect climbing weather!

I was psyched to get out for a day with Adrian, especially since this was quite likely going to be my last Gunks day of 2011. Two of the remaining three weekends in November are already booked up with family activities, and who knows what the weather will be like on my few remaining potential climbing days this month. Climbing in December is always a possibility, but a remote one. So this really could be it for the year.

As is the case every year, there is so much left undone.

But this has been a year of real accomplishment for me as a climber.

I got in better shape last winter and once the climbing season got under way I finally got my mojo back. I began to feel more like the climber I'd been in 2009, before I broke my ankle in a climbing accident. This new/old me felt solid, confident, and hungry for harder climbs.

As I've chronicled here on my blog, I started leading 5.9 climbs in the Gunks again. I led a whole bunch of them this year, for the most part with great success. My goal was to become solid in 5.9, with the idea that I could go anywhere in the world and jump on a 5.9 and be sure that it would be well within my comfort zone.

I can't say I've quite reached that goal. The kind of climbing the Gunks offers is just too limited for that. Certainly my four days of climbing in the Adirondacks this year demonstrated to me that I'm not a solid 5.9 leader if the climbing involves vertical cracks and jamming. I'm sure that if I went to Yosemite, to cite another example, and tried to lead a typical Tuolumne 5.9-- featuring long runout slabs and oceans of fragile knobs-- I'd have my ass handed to me there as well.

But I feel good about the progress I've made in the Gunks on its brutish overhangs and thin face climbs. I've tried to keep stepping forward while at the same time being reasonable. I am convinced that you can make progress, climb hard, and still be careful. So far it all seems like it's making sense, most of the time.

I had another goal this year that I have not talked about so much.

I wanted to lead at least one Gunks 5.10 before the year was over.

I didn't necessarily care if I sent it onsight. It didn't have to go perfectly. I could take a fall, I figured, so long as I protected the hard moves well and kept things in control. Even if the climbing proved too difficult for me, if in the end I felt I'd done things right and protected myself well, then I'd regard the climb as a success and something I could build upon.

All year I had certain candidates in mind, climbs that had a reputation for being soft for 5.10 and for having good pro at the crux, like The Dangler or Wegetables, to name just two possibilities.

But as the year wore on I started to think I'd never really do it. And why push? This year's goal was 5.9. Why not make 5.10 the goal for next year?

Then a few weeks ago I went out climbing with my eight-year-old son Nate. We were climbing with another dad/son duo I met through my kids' school. The dad used to be a regular Gunks hardman and his son, who is Nate's age, is also into climbing. I thought if we all went out together it might inspire my son to get a little more interested in climbing. (Alas, it didn't work out that way. Nate gamely tried a few climbs, mostly just to humor me, but he was not converted.)

We were climbing at Lost City. I'd never been there before. After all these years it was nice to finally go out there and check the place out! I didn't get to try any of the legendary climbs there, because I was too busy setting up 5.4's for my son. But I saw something that really inspired me: a fourteen-year-old boy attempting to lead Stannard's Roof.

The young man actually lives in my apartment building, though we'd never met before. (Small world!) He'd spent a few weeks this summer at a rock climbing camp in Maine and had recently led his first 5.9's in the Gunks. But today he'd elected to try Stannard's Roof, which upped the ante significantly. The route is reputed to go at "easy" 5.10, and though the roof is very large-- it requires getting truly horizontal for a couple body lengths-- the holds are quite positive, or so I am told.

The boy couldn't do it. He made several efforts, getting up into the roof, placing good pro, then climbing down and resting. He repeatedly got up to his high point, decided he couldn't hang on, and came back down. Eventually he downclimbed to a fixed anchor and retreated.

Watching him, I was impressed with his good sense. He didn't just run it out and go for it. He wanted to do it right and in control. And when he knew he wasn't going to make it, he backed down.

His effort on Stannard's Roof reawakened my desire to hop on a 5.10 of my own. This kid was doing EXACTLY what I should be doing. I resolved to find a 5.10 like this, with good pro and clean falls, and get up into it. Whether I succeeded or failed, I knew it would be good for me.

So when Adrian and I got out last weekend I was determined to find the right 5.10. Ultimately I decided on Beatle Brow Bulge. It seemed like one of the easier 5.10 climbs. It was historically rated 5.9+ until Dick Williams boosted its rating to 5.10a in his 2004 guidebook. It seemed to me like strenuous climbing, but juggy and unmysterious. I'd just have to hang in there and keep moving. And it looked like I'd find good pro out the roof, so that any fall would be into the air.

Most of all the route just looked awesome. The roof is HUGE.

(Photo: Grabbing the holds under the roof on Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a). The real business starts with the next step up.)

Dick Williams lists the climb as having a first pitch consisting of 50 feet of 5.3 climbing up to a stance beneath the roof. I didn't see any point in stopping half-way and decided in advance to just do the whole thing in one pitch.

As I approached the roof it seemed to get bigger and bigger. My main concern was where I would place pro. I wanted something in the roof, not below it. And I wanted the piece to be out several feet from the wall, so if I fell I wouldn't slam right into the cliff.

There is a big block that sticks out like a thumb below the roof level. This block has chalk all over it, although it is not a necessary handhold. (It is a very useful foothold once you're in the business.) It appears a # 2 Camalot would go nicely in the space between this block and the roof, but I decided against using this placement. I was worried about the rock quality. It appeared to me that this block may not be well attached to the cliff. The last thing I wanted was to send a death block the size of a microwave down on Adrian.

Instead I found a great spot for a yellow Alien. (A yellow Metolius or yellow C3 may also work.) The cam goes in just above the two crucial first handholds in the roof; the spot is right above where my right hand is in the above photo. I was able to place this cam before committing to the roof, and it gave me great peace of mind as I started the moves.

(Photo: Getting into the roof! My right foot is on the thumb/death block that I avoided placing pro behind.)

One step up and I was really into it, fully horizontal beneath the big ceiling. The hands and feet were great, but it was strenuous. Immediately I reached over my head and placed a perfect red Camalot at the lip of the roof. I wanted to extend it with a runner but I knew the clock was ticking and I had to get moving. So I just clipped it direct, hoping it was close enough to the lip that it wouldn't create too much drag. (It worked out fine.)

Once I made that clip, everything was going to be okay. It was a piece off of which you could hang a truck, and below me was a totally clean fall into air. I could hear Adrian yelling his approval. "Yeah! Now go!"

And so I went, for once totally in the flow of the moves and not even thinking about the consequences of blowing it. The holds are great; there are no devious sequences. It's strictly a matter of hanging in there and continuing to move upward.

(Photo: getting over the big roof.)

Once I was over the roof, the pumpiness of the route really set in. It was still quite steep and after I moved up and placed more pro I started to worry that I might pop off. I stepped up again and placed another cam, then tried to shake out a little.

I decided maybe I should take a hang, just to be safe.

"Adrian, can you take?" I shouted.

But Adrian wasn't having it. He didn't pull in the ropes.

"Really??" he yelled. "It looks like you're almost there! Don't you want to keep going?"

"I'm just so pumped!" I shouted back.

(Photo: In the final pumpy territory on Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a).)

But then I looked up and I realized he was right. The angle eased in another two moves. I could do this.

I got back to moving and in another couple steps got to a real rest stance. I was so grateful that Adrian hadn't let me take a hang. Instead of noble failure, I had sweet, sweet success. I had done it. I had led my first (alleged) 5.10 trad route in the Gunks, onsight. It was an amazing feeling.

I finished the climb as Dick Williams suggests, heading to the right as soon as I was level with a tree ledge with an anchor. We were using doubles, but it appeared to us that you could reach the ground from this first station with a single 60 meter rope. There is another station at the next ledge, up another 30 feet or so through dirty, low-angled territory. This higher station is attached to a much bigger tree, but you'd need double ropes or maybe a single 70 meter to use it.

As I stood at the station waiting for Adrian to join me, I felt a great satisfaction with not just this one climb, but the whole year. I am so lucky to have gotten out to climb as much as I have, and to have made real progress over the course of the season. I may get another day or two on the rock before 2011 is over, but if the weather sucks for the rest of November I'll still be happy. I hope I can keep improving and make this climb not just a peak climb for one climbing year, but a preview of numerous 5.10's to come. This winter I'll have strong motivation to work to make this 5.10 just the first of many.


  1. No mention of my Nosedive redpoint? I guess there *is* an "I" in Team. Ha Ha.

  2. Oh ye of little faith! Have patience, my friend.

    In a future post your greatness will be justly celebrated, to your satisfaction I am sure.

    I have to milk each visit to the Gunks, getting a few posts out of each, or my millions of fans will have nothing to read.

  3. great story and congrats on the onsight.