Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gunks Routes: MF (5.9)

(Photo: Approaching crux # 1 of MF (5.9) in the fog. Is there a climber up there?)

The weather gods have been joking around with me.

Thanksgiving weekend was stunning. We had record highs, in the sixties and seventies, and abundant sunshine. I had a full agenda of stuff going on. This was joyous, important, family stuff. Stuff that I wouldn't dream of missing, it goes without saying.

So there was no way I could go climbing over this beautiful weekend. But I had to take advantage of the warm-weather window somehow. It was killing me to let it just roll by; this could be our last good climbing weather until next Spring. Surely, I thought, there must be something I could do?

I decided to take a vacation day on Tuesday to go to the Gunks.

The only problem was that it was expected to rain. After reviewing the forecast, I decided to go for it anyway. It was going to be warm, and the rain wasn't supposed to come until the late afternoon. A pretty full day was possible, even likely, I told myself. And the weather report for the following days called for deteriorating conditions: more rain and then colder temperatures. My obsessed mind saw Tuesday as my final chance of the year.

Parker agreed to meet me. We'd climbed together once before, in early summer. Back then we were both leading similar climbs but since that time Parker had been climbing a lot, and it sounded like he'd been ripping it up. I was eager to see what he could do. I told him I wanted to climb MF, one of my big goals for 2011. He wanted to do Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a), which I was really excited about climbing (as a second) as well.

When I got up on Tuesday morning it was pretty gloomy out. During the drive up from the city I grew concerned about how foggy it was. The air felt damp. I worried that the cliffs would be coated in a slick, wet mist. It was an unpleasant experience I'd had before.

Then at the Sloatsburg rest stop, as I stood there pumping gas, I detected rain. Not just wet fog, but actual rain.

I paused to search the sky. Were these really drops of rain, falling from the heavens to the earth?

Yes, it was definitely raining.

It grew heavier as I stood there.

This wasn't supposed to happen! Not until later.

I was furious. I started yelling into the air. "Stop it! Stop raining!"

I'm sure I resembled a crazy person.

I got back in my car and started driving faster than before. I'm not sure why-- was I trying to outrun the rain? I kept hoping it wouldn't be like this in New Paltz.

The rain stopped, thankfully, before I got to Exit 18. I couldn't tell whether the cliffs had seen any precipitation. Actually, I couldn't tell whether the cliffs were even there. They were invisible, hidden by dense fog. This was not a good sign.

As I drove to the stairmaster parking lot I saw that the roads were wet. Also not a good sign. If the roads were wet, the rock was likely wet too.

Upon his arrival at the empty parking lot, Parker remarked that we seemed to be the only idiots intent on climbing. But since we were already at the cliffs, we decided we might as well go see if the rock was, by some miracle, dry.

We went straight up to the Mac Wall to look at MF. Described by Dick Williams as "THE standard for 5.9 in the Gunks," MF has a reputation as a tough climb. (As you might have guessed, the letters in the name stand for "Mother F**ker.") The first pitch has two cruxes, the first coming at an awkward, scary move around a corner, and the second involving some thin moves over a bulge. Pitch two has just one crux: a big roof.

I've been working up to MF all year-- all my climbing life, really. I knew on Tuesday as I stood before the route that this could be my last chance to climb it before the end of the season. But I was scared to try it if the rock was damp. Hell, I was scared to try it, period. Even in perfect conditions. Maybe in this iffy weather it was beyond scary. Maybe it was a stupid idea.

But Parker touched the rock and said he thought we were okay. It seemed dry to him. "Feel it," he said. "There's plenty of friction!"

I wanted this climb. Badly. I put my hand on the rock, and it appeared Parker was right. Even though we were surrounded by mist, the rock felt fine. I decided to do the climb. I could always bail if it started really raining. It's only gear, I figured. Who cares if I leave a piece or two behind? Don't I have a catchphrase that covers this situation?

Yes I do: Carpe Diem, bitches.

I tied in and headed upward.

The early going on pitch one is tricky. There is a steep bit right off the ground, and you have to make a few moves before you get any pro in. Maybe this part of the climb just seemed hard to me because I was a bundle of nerves. The conditions were making me jittery. I stepped off the route, back to the ground, just after I started because the fog suddenly turned to rain. But then in a minute it turned back to fog again.

I went back at it, placing two pieces at the first opportunity.

After the initial moves the pitch jogs left, then back right to the big overhang. I moved slowly, checking each foothold, fearful I'd pop off. I placed a ton of pro. As I approached crux one, it seemed much more intimidating and difficult than it did from the ground. It is steep there. It is pumpy to hold on. You can see the horn thingy that you need to grab as well as the foothold that will bring you around the corner, but it seems kind of improbable that this move will work out well.

On the bright side, the pro is great. There's a pin just where you want it and another piece can be put there to back it up. The fall is clean. The holds are good. You can stand there for a good long while, shaking out each hand in turn as you reflect on the life you've lived, and the leap you're about to take.

I hemmed and hawed there a long time, but in the end I found no real trick to the move. You just have to commit. Grab the horn, get your right foot on that hold, and go. And then it's about balance. Shift slowly to the right foot and keep inching to the right. The holds are further around the corner than you want them to be, but they exist, trust me!

(Photo: Having placed pro, I'm getting ready to move through the bulging crux # 2 on pitch one of MF (5.9).)

I spent even longer hemming and hawing over the second crux. I didn't want to blow it. My flash of MF was within reach, yet still so far away. Luckily there's a good stance below the bulge from which you can think over the moves as much as you like. Again the pro is good. There is a horizontal right below the bulge (quite slimy on Tuesday, but it took a cam), and an irregular pod/handhold up in the bulge in which I managed to seat a solid green Alien. This last placement made me feel really good. I clipped the piece direct and knew if I fell I wouldn't go far.

When I finally went for it the moves were not bad. The holds were small but positive, and before I knew it I had the jugs.

As I hit the chains I was thrilled. It had been a slow lead, a methodical lead, but it had been a successful onsight lead of MF. I was no longer breaking into 5.9. I felt solid in the grade. I couldn't ask for anything more.

Parker started following me up pitch one. I heard him say something about a nut.

"Did I place a crummy nut?" I asked.

"No!" he replied. "I said YOU'RE nuts! I can't believe you did this pitch. The rock feels so slimy!"

So much for Mr. "Go For It, There's Plenty of Friction!"

I tried to remind Parker that his enthusiasm is what got me to climb the route in the first place, but he wasn't accepting the blame. For some reason, he was convinced that I was the crazy one.

I have to say it didn't feel so slimy to me. By the time the pitch was over I'd forgotten all about the weather. I thought the rock was okay, and I really wanted to continue and do pitch two. Parker said if we kept going I'd be leading. He'd led the pitch before and he had no ambition to lead any longer, given the conditions.

(Photo: Examining the roof on pitch two of MF (5.9).)

Pitch two begins with easy moves directly to the right from the bolted anchor, around a small corner. Then it's straight up to the roof. Just beneath the roof is a pin. After clipping the pin I spent a lot of time experimenting and feeling around, trying to find some holds, any holds, that I could use to get up to the obvious horizontal that was out of reach a few feet above the roof.

It's tricky because you can't really see what's just over the roof, and there are no footholds right under the pin. So you paw around over your head, finding nothing. Then you paw around to your left, finding nothing. Then you retreat to the stance to the right of the pin, shake out, and get ready to do it all over again.

I found some really poor crimps around the pin, and kept trying to contrive a way to use them to reach the horizontal over the roof. But it wasn't working out.

After a while I looked at Parker, who was standing just a few feet to my left. I said "I'm about to have you take so I can hang on this stupid pin."

"Dude, your feet are, like, on a ledge," he replied.

"Yeah, but I'm getting frustrated."

I was tired of going back and forth. I wanted to rest and look it over. But just in time I finally found the crucial hold. I'm not going to spoil the details. It makes reaching the horizontal a breeze! And it's hiding right there, in front of your face.

As soon as I had that hold, I stepped right up to the horizontal and clipped the second pin. Then I placed a cam to back it up, even though I was already feeling the pump clock ticking away. Above me I could see the creaky little flake mentioned by Dick in his guidebook. It was the next hold. The path was obvious. It was time to go. A couple quick, pumpy moves and I was through the crux, standing at the big horizontal that heads left. Pitch two was basically in the bag.

Although I really enjoyed the crux, I didn't think the rest of the pitch was nearly as nice. The difficulty level decreases greatly and there's some questionable rock. After traversing left, the pitch follows an obvious corner to the GT Ledge, but it seems numerous other paths can be taken to the finish. It all goes through similar, moderate territory.

(Photo: Parker coming up the final bits of pitch two of MF (5.9).)

Parker reached me on the GT Ledge just as a real storm started to roll in. We could see the rain falling over New Paltz as we set up to rappel and by the time we got to the ground it had reached the cliff. Our climbing day was over after just two pitches.

Ah, but what a pair of pitches.

I realize this particular trip to the Gunks was a waste of a vacation day. I know I've been clinging to summer, to the climbing season. It's been good and I don't want it to end. I probably should have gotten out of bed on Tuesday, looked out the window, and called it off. That would have been the sensible thing to do.

But then I would have missed MF.

And MF I will cherish. It's so nice to have my last climbs of the season confirm that I've made progress. Maybe I'll still be able to squeeze one more milestone into the year. And maybe not. It doesn't matter. It's been a great year either way.


  1. Well done, sir!

    Tell Parker to be ready for a battle if he isn't yet familiar with Amber Waves. The old 9+ rating was wacky, and 10a doesn't even seem right to me. There's a section with moves that remind me a little of the crux of Insuhlation (yes, that Insuhlation) but with a long runout added in. And that's just the first half of the pitch.


  2. Thanks, Denis, I always appreciate your input. I haven't been on Amber Waves but Parker has. He has it planned out in detail, including the crux gear beta, so I think he knows what he's in for!

  3. In that case, you two will have fun.

    Maybe I'll see you up there. I'm going to brave the cold this weekend.


  4. Got this climb yesterday. I always look to your blog before I do a route I'm a little apprehensive about in hopes that you wrote up about it. I'm usually in luck, and it usually gives me the confidence to go for it. As it did with MF the night before. As I was waiting/deciding to give this a go yesterday, there was a party of 2 doing MF direct. I asked about it, and the one belaying, who just put up the direct, gave me some great beta and some encouraging words. The route went smooth, and the party before who helped me out gave me a 'good job'. I didn't realize until later that night that the guy helping me seemed to look like the guy in most of your pictures (from what I can see from your photos). Maybe it wasn't you (and I possibly just wrote a long winded story about someone else), maybe it was ( sunday June 12th at the Mac wall.. you were cruising all the hard crap).. Either way just wanted to say thanks for the great blog and giving me more confidence to go for routes I normally wouldn't go for. And if that was you yesterday, it's nice to read your blog and how you were apprehensive about MF, to seeing you cruise the Mac wall. Keep it up!


    1. Thanks so much, Ryan, for this comment. It means a lot to me. You did a great job on MF-- you cruised it! I was happy to watch. And I'm psyched that anyone likes to read my drivel. I enjoy writing it, and that's enough for me. That people actually might like it is a bonus! You keep it up and soon all the Mac Wall hard crap will be yours as well. Cheers.