Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Good Times in Never Never Land (5.10a), Battling the Balrog (5.10b), and more!

(Photo: Making the first crux move just off the deck on Absurdland (5.8).)

The day after Thanksgiving is often a great day in the Gunks. The weather is frequently cooperative, and the cliffs are always pretty empty.

This year we had a great time, climbing in shirtsleeves and light jackets, although it was a bit chilly when we first set out. Gail and I climbed in a party of three with Julia, a friend of Gail's with whom I hadn't climbed before. During the drive up, I found out that Julia is a lot like me, working through all the classic 5.9's in the Gunks and setting her sights on the 5.10's.  

I knew this might well be my last day of climbing in 2012, so I hoped to get on at least one 5.10.

But first we had to find a good warm-up climb. I suggested Absurdland (5.8), a great single-pitch route I hadn't been on in 2012. I had taken a brief hang at the second crux way back in 2009 when I led the climb onsight, and didn't go back until 2011, when I easily followed Maryana up it. I really enjoyed it last year and wanted to go back to send it on lead, which I was confident was well within my abilities nowadays.

The climb reminds me of the first pitch of Son of Easy O (5.8). In both climbs the first 20 feet contain steep, somewhat thin moves up a crack, and then both climbs ease off to beautiful, lower-angled face climbing. On Absurdland the two crux moves come pretty fast off the ground. Both moves are well-protected and maybe a little stiff for 5.8. (The climb has at times been rated an easy 5.9.)

I had no trouble with the cruxes this time around, though I could see why I took that hang back in 2009. The second crux is pumpy and if you aren't confident enough to move right away it is difficult to arrange a rest stance there. There is good pro right at your chin so my advice is that you just go for it! After that move it's all gravy.

(Photo: Julia starting up Gory Thumb (5.9).)

Absurdland ended up setting the agenda for the rest of the day. Everything else we did was nearby.

Julia picked Gory Thumb (5.9) for her first lead. I was glad she selected it because I'd never done it before. I had looked at it and rejected it because it seemed like a squeezed-in route (next to Raunchy and Wild Horses) without too much too offer. I thought the crux thin crack on the white face about 40 feet up would be over in one move, and that the rest of the climb would be a waste of time. Also I was concerned about the pro down low.

But Julia found a really good nut right after the start. (I struggled to remove it.) And I ended up enjoying the pitch. The initial moves are much easier than 5.9 but they are interesting. Up above, the crux is good and well-protected with small wires. You can finish as Julia did by continuing straight up above the crack to an easy fault, or you can contrive to prolong the real climbing by stepping left and making a couple of slab moves up to the ledge, which is what I did (at Gail's suggestion) as the second. Nice pitch. Maybe a touch easy for 5.9? Swain has it as 5.8+.

(Photo:  Thin moves right from the jump on Never Never Land (5.10a).)

After Gory Thumb it was my turn to lead again and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. My objective was so close, drawing me like a magnet.

Balrog! Balrog! Balrog!

This climb has been on my list all year, which might seem strange because no one thinks it is an "easy" 5.10. At 5.10b many call it a sandbag. The crux is very unusual, featuring a hanging, sloping corner. You have to find a way to reach up to the holds high in the corner (which plays out like a roof problem), and then find some way to get yourself onto the odd, sloping left wall of the corner. But even though this crux is challenging, it is short, and there is an awesome horizontal crack-- it resembles a mail slot-- for pro right at the crux roof. It is a clean fall into the air if you fail. I figured that even if the crux was too hard for me to onsight I should be able to protect it well.  

Why not go for it?

I dispensed with the easy early climbing quickly, placing very little gear. Then I found myself at a slab beneath the looming roof. In this slab was a perfect thin vertical seam. Up close, the crux roof looked much scarier than it did from the trail. There was a great-looking undercling hold in the roof and from there I figured I could reach the mail slot on the left side of the hanging corner and throw in a piece. But if I was wrong and fell reaching for the slot I might tumble awkwardly down the slab. I hesitated quite a bit, placing a nut in the seam, then thinking about the move, and then repeating the whole process.

I ended up placing four (!) nuts in the slab before I finally went for it.

I needn't have worried so much about reaching the mail slot. That part turned out to be no problem.  

But I struggled with the crux reach afterward, taking a few hangs before I figured the whole thing out. I had great gear. Ultimately I had two cams in the mail slot, a purple Camalot that was solid if a little shallow and a bombproof red Totem Basic (Alien clone). If you place two cams as I did, make sure to leave some room for your hand and a later toe!

(Photo:  Julia on Never Never Land (5.10a), before the crux.)

I was disappointed that I didn't onsight Balrog, but I'm pretty sure I can redpoint it in 2013, so long as I nail the reach after the mail slot to the great hold up in the corner. There is no magic to this reach, you just need the confidence that comes from knowing how bomber the hold is. The subsequent move to the left wall is strenuous, but I think I have it all worked out. I will not spell it all out but I will tell you the secret to my beta:

Sometimes, grasshopper, it is better to push than to pull. 

I'm not sure but I suspect I might be doing Balrog the hard way. Dick Williams says in his guidebook that the climb is especially rewarding if you can figure out the easier way to do it. After I got back down, Julia struggled with Balrog much as I did, and then Gail schooled the both of us by sailing up it like it was nothing.  I was belaying and couldn't quite tell what she did, but it looked very different from my solution. If you are searching for the especially rewarding easy way to do it I'd suggest you reach out to Gail.  She knows.  

Note:  If you are heading up Balrog in the near future, bring some new webbing. The two pieces of webbing that were tied to the belay tree there in late November 2012 were both feeling pretty brittle. We went ahead and used the station but in retrospect I wish we'd replaced the webbing.  

(Photo:  More of Never Never Land (5.10a), juuust beneath the crux.)

Julia was pissed off about Balrog, and she was on a mission for redemption. She decided to get it by leading Never Never Land (5.10a).

This was her first 5.10 lead and I was honored to witness it. Although Never Never Land has an easier rating than Balrog, I think Never Never Land is a much headier lead, with spaced pro and far more sustained climbing.  

Gail and Maryana have been pushing me to lead Never Never Land, but I have resisted, both because this kind of thin face climbing isn't my favorite thing and also because in the summer of 2011 I toproped it with Gail and (to my enduring shame) I couldn't do the crux move AT ALL. It was a very hot, slimy day, and at the time, in those conditions, I couldn't imagine doing the move cleanly. The crux crimpers were so greasy, the footholds nonexistent. On that day I fell several times and then gave up, French-freeing the move by pulling on the draw at the bolt.    

This time around I was excited to follow Julia up Never Never Land so I could check it out in better conditions without having to lead the climb. I'm afraid that watching her did not make me want to jump on the sharp end.  There is a repeated pattern of hard moves above gear that lead to the stances where one can get pro. A fall at any one of these difficult moves would not be horrible, but would send you for a ride. There are one or two such moves before the crux. Then the crux move just after the bolt is well-protected, but you have to run it out to the piton at the next horizontal, which is quite a ways away. Right before the piton is another hard move. After the piton it eases off a touch and the final moves have better pro but it isn't easy by any stretch. The thin face moves continue all the way to the chain anchors.

(Photo:  Julia just past the crux of Never Never Land (5.10a). Big crimpin'! Way to go!)

Julia did a great job, handling the whole thing with a calm intensity. There were some tense moments, but she made it to the top without a fall, elated. When it was my turn, I was pleased to send it on toprope. Still I worry about leading it, as there are at least three places where I can see myself falling off if things don't go just right. Whether on lead or on toprope, I should really do more of this type of thin face climbing. All the way up I kept telling myself (and others!) that I hated the climb, but by the time I reached the chains I had to admit I loved it just a little.

We ended our day with a warm-down. I led Cakewalk (5.7), another nearby classic that usually sees action only on its first pitch, which ends at a bolted chain anchor. On my last and only previous trip up Cakewalk I'd gotten lost and wandered into some much more difficult and poorly-protected climbing, from which I'd thankfully emerged unscathed. This time I made sure to go left immediately after the tree and it was nothing but joy. Some nice face climbing wanders up to the obvious, huge right-facing corner. Dick describes the first part of the pitch as a little run out but I found plenty of pro. Then the burly moves up the corner were great fun. Before I knew it I'd reached the chains. The climb, like 2012, was over much too soon.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Gunks Routes: Grim-Ace Face (5.9+)

When I met up with Marat to climb on Veterans Day, I had to face facts. The season would soon be over.

2012 had been a good year. I kept trying the odd 5.10 here and there, and sometimes I succeeded. And over the course of the year I managed to hit most of the high-quality 5.9's in the Gunks that I'd previously missed.

As I drove up to meet Marat, I had in mind a 5.9 with a three-star rating but a reputation for runouts and loose rock: Grim-Ace Face (5.9+). Because of its fearsome reputation I'd previously been too intimidated to try the route.  I was also reluctant because the third, crux pitch carried that dreaded plus sign after the grade. 5.9+ is a notorious, feared grade in the Gunks. My luck on previous attempts at 5.9+ had been decidedly mixed.

But here we were, late in the year, and I was feeling pretty solid on every 5.9 I tried. It seemed like the pro would be good for the crux pitch.  The guidebook said there was a piton at the roof, and I hadn't heard any rumors of poor pro there.  There were reputed to be runouts on Grim-Ace Face, as I mentioned above, but these were supposed to be on the first pitch, which is 5.8. I figured we could take a look and if the climbing looked reasonable we could do it. I could always abandon the first pitch if it seemed too hairy, and if I wanted to chicken out of the 5.9+ roof on pitch three we could just rap or find a different route on which to finish.

Marat had never done the route either.  He was game to check it out.

We strolled over from the parking lot to give it a look-see. It was hard to tell what to make of the pitch from below. The route sits just to the right of the more popular routes Strictly From Nowhere (5.7) and Shockley's Ceiling (5.6).  Looking it over, I saw no obvious line, but I thought I could make out the crux bulge described in Dick Williams' guidebook, as well as the block above that he suggests you sling for pro. The climbing didn't look bad, and Dick's statement that the pitch is "necky, but not at the crux" gave me some comfort. I figured the runout bit would be a good deal easier than 5.8.

I decided to do it.

The first pitch was a little tense for me. The 5.8 crux comes early, and you get good pro right where you pull over the steep bit. Then you get no placements for quite a while, and the climbing isn't really so much easier than the crux. I thought it was around 5.7. After a few moves without pro I got to the block mentioned by Dick, but I couldn't find a way to sling it securely. I had a triple sling on my harness but the left side of the block is embedded in the dirt, so I couldn't sling the whole thing. I used a single sling instead, putting it around just the right side of the block. The sling was held in place by a protruding pebble. I didn't like it at all, but it was the best pro I could manage.

After one more 5.7-ish move there was bomber pro to the left.  If I'd blown that move and the sling popped off the block, I would have gone for a pretty good ride.  I wouldn't have hit the ground but I would have hit something.  Luckily I did not blow the move and after that it was smooth sailing to the ledge.

In retrospect I think this pitch has some nice face climbing, but nothing spectacular.  Most of the excitement it offers comes from the runout.  I don't know that I would do this pitch again.  Maybe you can do a better job slinging that block than I did, in which case the pitch still has some moves above pro but there isn't anything to get overly worried about.

It was clear where to go for pitch two.  I placed a directional and moved to the right once I reached the ledge, setting up the belay below the obvious roof with a fixed cam beneath it.  This was Marat's lead, and as he set off I reminded him that people describe this pitch as having a lot of loose rock on it.  He cruised it, pulling right over the roof and quickly progressing to the GT Ledge.

I really enjoyed climbing this pitch as the second.  It is rated 5.8+ but I thought the roof was a little stiff for that grade.  It has an unusual move, harder I think than the 5.9- roof on the Blackout or the supposed 5.9 roof on the direct finish to Birdland, just to name two points of comparison.  And then after the roof there are a few more steep moves before it becomes casual again.  Very nice, and the pro is good.

I did not think the rock was so bad.  There are some loose blocks below the crux roof, but they are easily avoided.  Here and there you might find some suspect flakes, but overall I thought the rock quality was fine, or no worse than many other routes, anyway.  Certainly the rock feels solid anywhere you need it.  Maybe this pitch has cleaned up a bit over time?

From the GT Ledge it seemed clear again where to go for pitch three.  To the left a big roof loomed over us with an obvious shallow corner just above.  The pitch begins with a hand traverse under this roof to a position under the corner.  I was afraid this hand traverse might be a hidden crux, pumpy and difficult, but to my relief it was an easy walk over to the spot beneath the crux.  I plugged in a good cam and looked upward.

I didn't see the piton promised by the guidebook.  (I never did find it.  I presume it is long gone.)  I could see a finger-sized horizontal up there, just beneath the corner.  It looked like I could get a good piece in this crack.  But if I reached way up there I'd be pretty much committed to the roof, as I'd be almost fully horizontal.  I decided the pro looked good so I made the stretch and before I knew it I was fully in it, hanging there at the little horizontal, my tippy toes still on the rock below.  I was really extended out and the pump clock started immediately.  I quickly got a yellow Alien in the slot but I couldn't really see it.  It seemed good.  It needed to be good because it was all I was going to get.

It was time to move.  I'm happy to report that the rest of the crux felt pretty straightforward, and maybe I got a little lucky.  (Marat said I made it look deceptively easy.) I turned my body the correct way and got the sequence just right.  I moved up once, twice and then with the third hold I could get my feet up over the roof and I was in position to place another piece. The very exciting crux was over.  I let out a little whoop and relaxed.

Grim-Ace Face traditionally finished by its own independent line (and you can still see this line drawn in the guidebook), but in the description Dick Williams now suggests you finish after the crux roof by moving a little left to join the final portion of Shockley's Ceiling to the top.  I followed this advice and it is a very nice way to finish, with quality climbing and a nice little 5.6 roof to cap off the whole adventure.

I liked Grim-Ace Face, although I really don't think I would describe it as a three-star classic.  It has its highlights. The second pitch crux is very good and the roof on pitch three is outstanding.  I would not recommend the first pitch unless you are comfortable with a bit of a runout in the 5.7 to 5.8 range.  If you are just breaking into 5.8 I predict the first pitch of Grim-Ace Face will be a very scary lead for you.

I felt good about how it all went.  Even though my pro was sub-optimal on pitch one I kept it together just fine, and then I managed the hardest part of the route without too much difficulty.  It was nice to cruise through what many people seem to consider a testpiece for 5.9.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gunks Routes: Something Interesting (5.7+) & The Dangler (5.10a)

(Photo: Mid-route, placing the most important piece of gear on the Dangler (5.10a).)

I usually try to climb on Veterans Day. My office is closed. Since many people don't get the holiday off the cliffs are usually empty.

This year I was supposed to climb with Gail but she had a very busy weekend and on Sunday night she backed out, telling me she was exhausted. She already had a solution figured out for me, however. She proposed I get together with another climber she knew named Marat. We'd never climbed together but we'd met briefly once at the cliff. From our brief conversation that day I gathered Marat was an experienced climber. He seemed fine to me, and if a person as careful as Gail was willing to climb with him then so was I.

Marat and I ended up having a great day together. We started with Grim-Ace Face, a pretty excellent 5.9+. But more on that later. I want to talk now about what we did afterwards.

I felt comfortable with Marat after our first few pitches, so I confessed to him a little dream of mine. I told him I wanted to climb the Dangler.

Now, I say that I "confessed" to Marat because I had this fear in the back of my mind that he would react to my little dream with scorn. You see, some very experienced and well-respected climbers think of the Dangler as a joke. They say it is too short, consisting of just three or four challenging moves. They claim it is contrived. They say it doesn't deserve the 5.10(a) rating Dick Williams bestowed upon it in 2004. (The rating has, no doubt, been adjusted upwards over the years.  Todd Swain put it at 5.9 in his 1995 guidebook, and back in the 1980's the Dangler was listed (as a variation to Three Pines) in Richard DuMais' coffee-table book Shawangunk Rock Climbing as a "strenuous" 5.8.)

(Photo: The Dangler in the '80's. Taken from Richard DuMais' Shawangunk Rock Climbing (1985).  You tell me, does that look like a 5.8?)

The elites' disdain for the Dangler is likely enhanced by the fact that the route presents such an attractive photo opportunity. The old-schoolers see groups of three or more climbers camping out on the GT Ledge, taking photos and whooping it up while everybody gets a turn on this little climb... it just doesn't fit with their idea of the trad experience.

Personally, I wasn't concerned about any of that. I wanted to try the climb because it looked exciting. Who wouldn't be excited by a perfect horizontal crack at the edge of a long roof, 150 feet above the ground?

The Dangler has been on my "easy" 5.10 list all year.  For some reason I was sure I'd have no trouble climbing it. I thought that so long as I could place good pro I would be fine.

(Photo: Getting started on the Dangler.)

It turned out that Marat, like me, had never done the Dangler. And he was more than willing to follow me up it.  But first we had to get up there. We decided that Marat would lead the neighboring climb Something Interesting (5.7+) up to the GT Ledge.  Then we'd be perfectly positioned for the Dangler.

This was my first time on Something Interesting in a while, but I have led it twice before. It is a great route. The long first pitch follows an obvious slanting vertical crack up the face, all the way from the ground to the GT Ledge. As is typical of Gunks face climbs, the crack provides holds and pro, but no real crack climbing is required. The first time I led the pitch, back in 2009, I thought it was totally cruiser. I must have really been feeling good because I couldn't even tell where the crux was supposed to be. The second time I led the climb I remember feeling tired.  On that occasion I remember the crux very clearly at a bulge about 40 feet up.  But on that day the whole thing felt like the crux, with several good hard moves amid the general steepness.

This time around, following Marat, I just had fun with it. I don't have much to say about it except that it is very enjoyable, with lots of nice moves. It is a sustained, long, high quality pitch.

I should add here that the second pitch of Something Interesting, which goes from the GT Ledge to the top of the cliff, is also well worth doing. It doesn't have the sustained quality of the earlier climbing, but the opening moves up to a pin and around a corner to the right are good. The easy traverse left that follows and the jug haul up the final corner are also nice. It seems that most people skip this pitch nowadays, which I think is a shame. If you reach the GT Ledge and you're not up for the Dangler, why not continue with Something Interesting instead of going down? Or better yet, move around the corner to your left and do the awesome final pitch of Anguish (5.8).

(Photo: Moving out. You can see here where I messed up a little. The rope is caught around my right leg, but I am unaware of it.)

Once Marat and I were both on the GT Ledge, I moved the belay over to the right and took a good look at the Dangler. Stepping up to the horizontal crack, I placed two good cams. Then I tested out the pose I'd be adopting for the rest of the climb: I reached out and lifted myself off the ledge, getting fully horizontal and locking my left heel into the crack. It felt secure but strenuous, and having gotten the feel for it I stepped down again.

Marat suggested I could get up there, place another piece a little further out, and then step down again before really committing. Seemed like a great idea to me so I did it. Then I looked over my gear-- the cams seemed secure. I could see that more good gear would be available as I moved out the crack. I told Marat I thought we were in good shape.

"You have a three-piece anchor!" he said.

Okay, when you put it that way.... 

I realized all of a sudden that I had an audience. A party of three had done the route before us and they had paused in their descent to watch us. This made me nervous.  I tried to ignore them. (Later they sent me all of the great photos you see here, for which I am eternally grateful. They were from California, visiting the Gunks for the week.)

It was time to go.

I'd never been on the route but of course I already knew what to do. It is hard to climb regularly in the Gunks without seeing some people do the Dangler. I had seen climbers moving out almost to the end of the crack and releasing their feet, pivoting to the right, then hooking their right foot around the final shelf and doing a pull up on good holds to get back into a standing position. 

I'd also seen people protect the route rather poorly, which is completely unnecessary. The climb is extremely well-protected if you place the gear that is available. I think some people find it too strenuous to place the gear once they get fully horizontal, however, so they just run it out from the initial placements. It seems to me that doing this risks a swinging fall back into the face of the cliff, which is something I'd much rather avoid.

(Photo: In the final heel hook, getting ready for the pull up.)

When I got fully out there I didn't find it too hard to place the necessary gear. I got a great # 2 Camalot. The heel hooks were solid and I also found some useful holds for the right foot under the roof. You really need just one piece out there, and a number of different sizes would probably work. It took a little bit of hanging in there, but I was able to reach over my head and place the piece (see the photo at the top of this post).  I felt really safe once I had that bomber yellow Camalot in place.

Then I let my feet release from the wall so I could swing into the pivot.

And something went terribly wrong. I found myself tangled in the rope. It was disorienting. For a second I thought I must have clipped the wrong strand. I told myself not to panic and to hang on!

It turned out my leg had simply caught the trailing strand of rope. Everything would be okay if I could just get disentangled without falling off. As I waited, hanging in there by my fingertips, Marat whipped the strand to get it loose and in a few moments I was free again. I was now at a disadvantage, however, because I was motionless, in a dead hang over the abyss.  My feet were attached to nothing and time was ticking away. I needed to throw my right foot over my head and hook it on the shelf, without any swinging momentum to help me.

I could hear the crowd of onlookers cheering me on. (Thanks, guys!) 

Somehow I managed it. I threw my foot over the lip and made the pull-up to get out. Despite the rope snafu I got the onsight. I Dangled-- and Tangled-- and emerged victorious.

(Photo: Finishing up.)

After I got through the crux I kept on going to the chains at the top of the cliff. I didn't think Marat would have any trouble following the route. If you feel your second might need coaching it would probably be wise to build a belay right after the crux or on the next ledge up instead of proceeding to the top.

In retrospect I wish I'd stayed near the crux so I could enjoy the show and take some photos of Marat on the route. He got through it just fine but I could hear some meaningful grunting going on! It would have been fun to watch.

(Photo: Looking back at Marat from just after the crux.)

Having done the Dangler I now say this to you: ignore the haters. This is a great route. The movement is unusual for the Gunks. The climb is not contrived; it follows a perfect natural line. And the pro is excellent. Yes the crux is short, but don't many Gunks classics have short cruxes?

Above all the Dangler is just an exciting good time. I had a big smile on my face for the better part of a week after doing it. I totally scraped up the back of my right leg doing the heel hook and I did not care. It was worth it. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Climbing in the Far Trapps: Footloose (5.8), Fancy Free (5.8+), Casanova (5.9-) & More

(Photo: Past the sketchy bit on Wegetables (5.10a).

It seems like a long time ago, but actually only a few weeks have passed since we enjoyed plentiful groceries, steady electrical power, ample gasoline, and dryness.

And warmth. It was October, a time of beautiful high-season climbing in the Gunks.

I was fortunate enough to climb on one of these gorgeous fall Sundays with Gail.

I reckoned it was going to be crowded so I suggested we walk all the way down to the far end of the Trapps. It seemed like a good day to attack Wegetables (5.10a), a climb I was determined to send in 2012. I had bailed on the lead a year ago but now I was hoping to get it clean. And I figured that once we trooped down to the end of the cliff we'd find lots of other climbs we could check out.

Gail had spent hardly any time down there so she was more than willing.

The walk down the carriage road was beautiful. The leaves were just barely past peak, a chorus of oranges and yellows. The temperature was perfect, neither too cold nor too warm. I decided to hit Wegetables right away. I didn't want to chicken out after struggling through some 5.8.

So we racked up and I went right at it. The bottom part remains a little pucker-inducing for my taste, with a reachy opening move and then this tiny vertical seam the only option for protecting the low crux. I did okay with the pro, or the best I could do, anyway. I thought my nuts were more attractive than Adrian's were last year (COUGH... that's what she said, COUGH). I still did not want to fall on them. But no worries, I was confident in my beta from last time, so the moves were not a problem.

(Photo:  Gail working through the opening move on Wegetables.)

I tried to psych myself up to power straight through the upper crux roofs, but I fiddled a bit too long with a cam and ended up taking a hang. I was really pissed off when I realized I'd chickened out just below the last overhang. I had thought there were still two to go. I could have made it.

I rested a minute, then punched through to the top. I'll get it next time.

After Wegetables we took the opportunity to toprope the route next door, Tennish Anyone? (5.10c), a fun short climb. It has an interesting move over a little roof to a horizontal and then a pumpy traverse. I think I could maybe lead it, but during the hard traverse it would be strenuous to place gear. The climb is interesting in that the crux horizontal is just above a little overhang. I thought it would be easier to keep my feet below the overhang, but I struggled in the traverse and had to take. Gail, by contrast, got her feet up above the lip and crab-crawled through the traverse. She made it look much easier.

We were having a good time and there was nobody around so we decided to keep on going in the same area. We did the two obscure no-star climbs Footloose (5.8) and Fancy Free (5.8+). Both of these climbs have short first pitches to fixed anchors. Dick doesn't recommend continuing with the lichen-choked second pitches.

(Photo:  Contemplating the awkward move into the bulge on Footloose (5.8).)

I thought Footloose was kind of a waste of time. It has one awkward move up to a little bulge. After that it is a cruise, nice enough but nothing terribly interesting. And the fixed rap station is just a bush. It is alive but it is impossible to judge its strength. I didn't want to use it, so we traversed left over to the Wegetables/Tennish tree. (Even this tree is a bit small for my taste-- we backed it up with a cam the first time we used it.) You could traverse even further. The ledge widens until you find yourself walking off.

While Footloose isn't so hot, Fancy Free is quite worthwhile. Good climbing up a corner leads to an intimidating traverse out a horizontal seam. The handholds for the traverse are tiny crimps and the feet are just smears. It is just a couple of moves to better footholds but the traverse still gave me pause, since even assuming my blue Alien out there was bomber, I was still risking a fall back into the corner. I probably smeared out the traverse for one step too many, making it a touch harder for myself. Gail found a good foothold a couple of steps out that I missed-- if I'd found it I likely would have placed another piece.

I will definitely repeat Fancy Free next time I'm out there. It deserves a star. If only it were longer.

(Photo:  Gail working through the first steep bit on Art's Route (5.9).)

We continued our spree of short climbs with Art's Route (5.9). I struggled a bit when I led this earlier this year, but this time around it went off without a hitch. The upper roof crux is all about footwork, forget what I said last time. I really like this little pitch; both cruxes are unique and challenging. I used a knee again to get through the initial mantel, but then Gail discovered some holds on the left wall that I'd completely ignored, which made it possible for her to do the first crux without any mantel at all. It's so often instructive to watch other climbers. To me one of the beauties of climbing is that every problem has multiple solutions. Sometimes the different solutions work for different body types-- and sometimes your partner just finds a hold that makes you look like a moron.

We still had some time left and I thought it would be fun to check out another obscure Far Trapps no-star special. We looked around a bit and came up with two candidates: Counter Strike (5.9) and Casanova (5.9-). Counter Strike looked like it might be fun, but only for the crux traverse, for which both Swain and Williams recommend multiple big cams.

We decided to try Casanova instead. This was a good decision. We both really liked it.

The climb follows an non-obvious line. Dick's description helps. But Dick makes the climbing sound more difficult than it is. He talks about "intricate route finding," but I thought it was pretty clear where to go. Easy climbing leads up to the right side of a small overhang, then after moving a few feet right you head pretty much straight up the face, wandering just a little left or right to keep the face climbing at 5.7. It is pretty apparent where you are going, because the face is slightly cleaner when you are on the right path. You do have to look around, though, and there is no chalk highway there to help you along. This is high-quality classic Gunks face climbing, with good moves between horizontals.

(Photo:  Gail at the crux of Casanova (5.9-).)

And then the crux turned out to be a little different than I expected. You move up into some overhangs beneath a larger roof, and then traverse left a few feet to escape the ceiling. I thought it would be nothing but steep jugs but once I got fully into it I was surprised to discover that the holds for the moves left are sandy slopers. The pro is very good but I still went up and down a few times before I fully committed to the slopers and got through it. Exciting!

Be warned that after the crux you find yourself in extremely lichenous territory (as you can see in the photo above), with lots of loose rock. The little ledge beneath the crux also has a bunch of loose stones on it, so be careful. In addition, take note that this pitch is over 100 feet. Dick says you need two ropes to descend, but we moved left to belay at the Emilio tree and Gail's 70 meter single rope just made it to the ground.  

Our day was winding down so we decided to head back towards the Uberfall. As we walked out, we looked for a good pitch with which to finish our day. Gail suggested Apoplexy (5.9), and though I wasn't sure I had another 5.9 in me I decided to just go for it. I was psyched when it felt pretty casual. Such a joy. I took my time with it, savoring the moves all the way to the top. In the spring of 2011 this was a milestone lead for me, but now it is just a normal climb, well within my limits. It is a good feeling.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fun Times in Lost City

(Photo:  Wriggling into a hole after I dropped my shoe in The Corridor in Lost City.)

A few Sundays ago, Maryana and I were to meet up in the Gunks. I'd been not climbing for a few weeks because everyone in my family was occupied with moving back into our renovated apartment. But I hadn't forgotten climbing, far from it! I was eager-- you might even say desperate-- to get back out there.

The forecast was iffy. Maryana was already up in the Gunks climbing the day before. She was able to climb for most of the day but around 5:00 p.m. the skies opened up. It began pouring with a vengeance. And once it started, it came on heavily, continuing into the evening without any prospect of slowing down.

Maryana sent me a text saying we might want to call it off. But I checked the forecast and it looked okay to me. The rain was supposed to stop overnight. The only question was whether it would be clear enough in the morning for the cliffs to get some sun. If the cliffs get air and light they dry off very quickly. But sometimes after a rainy night a wet fog will hang over the cliffs in the morning, making it impossible to climb until the afternoon. Often as not this doesn't happen, though, and you can get a full day in.

I was willing to take the chance if Maryana was. She was planning to stay overnight anyhow, so she agreed.

But the texts kept coming.

7:30 p.m.: "Still raining."

11:45 p.m.: "Still raining..."

As I caught the bus at Port Authority the next morning it seemed like things just might be all right. It was cloudy but there was no rain.  By the time the bus reached New Paltz, however, it seemed quite damp and foggy indeed. Maryana and I lingered over breakfast in town, hoping it might brighten up a little. But the conditions remained unchanged. We decided we might as well go up and check out the wet cliffs.

Sure enough, as we came up the hill to the steel bridge we could see that both the Trapps and the Nears were engulfed in a thick cloud. But we could also see that it seemed much clearer just a little higher over towards Minnewaska.

That settled it. We decided to head up to Lost City.

Now before you nit-pickers get all indignant over the fact that I am talking about Lost City, I wish to remind you of something: there is no rule that you can't talk about Lost City. To the contrary, Lost City is frequently talked about. Climbers have long spread the word about their exploits at Lost City on the internet. Climbing personalities as esteemed as Russ Clune and Jim Lawyer have both posted about it, as have others and yet others.

What you're NOT supposed to do is publish a guidebook about Lost City. And I won't be doing that. So no worries.

I don't think there is anything to fear in talking about the climbs at Lost City. The traffic there will never be that high, because there are only a handful of climbs that go at a grade easier than hard 5.10. And most of the climbs are more difficult than that. The place is a paradise for people who like to get a workout on single-pitch steep face climbs in the 5.11 to 5.12 range. The community of people who do this is relatively small. So never fear, the cliff will never be overrun with newbies who don't know what they are doing. It won't turn into another Uberfall or Peterskill. There just isn't that much climbing at Lost City for newbies to do.

But back to the subject.

On my first trip to Lost City last autumn, I didn't climb much of anything. I went with the dad of one of my son's friends. We brought our two boys along. The day was really for the kids. I only climbed one pitch, an easy corner that I led in order to set it up for the boys. But it was exciting just to be there and check out the possibilities. I really wanted to go back some time and do some of the climbs I looked at, like the huge 5.10 ceiling known as Stannard's Roof.

(Photo:  My son Nate climbing at Lost City in the fall of 2011.  I'm sorry to say he hasn't worn these climbing shoes a single time since then!)

Apart from that first occasion, I had been to Lost City just one other time, in early January of 2012. This was one of those bizarre, unseasonably warm days last winter when you could climb like it was October. Maryana, Adrian and I had thrown ropes over some climbs in and around a little canyon known as The Corridor. At the time I was feeling kind of out of shape and I didn't get up any of the climbs we tried cleanly. On Texas Flake (5.10+) I messed up an early move that was probably 5.9, but I did manage to salvage some pride by blundering through the crux on my first try. It took me a couple of tries before I got the low crux roof of Gold Streaks (5.11-) but the upper crux on a steep face went well. I really struggled with another 5.11+ called Red Wall and I got absolutely nowhere on a hard face climb called Caffeine and Nicotine (5.12).

When Maryana and I returned to Lost City the other week we just wanted to find something that was dry enough to climb. We didn't really care what it was. We walked along the cliff looking for climbable rock and in the process I saw a lot of Lost City for the first time. The cliff goes on for a while; it is bigger than I realized. We looked at the Wishbone roof (5.10 and soaking wet) and the famous Persistent (5.11+ and also quite wet). Maryana showed me the Lost City Crack (5.10). This is supposed to be one of the easier 5.10 climbs at Lost City, and it follows a vertical crack so the pro is good. It looks fantastic. Unfortunately it too was soaked.

(Photo:  Starting up Texas Flake (5.10+) in January 2012.)

Eventually we found that the only climbs that were dry enough to attempt were the ones we'd done before. The driest climb we found was the Texas Flake, so we did it first. This is a good 5.10, with nice moves throughout and a one-move reachy crux. We did it on top rope, like last time, but when I climbed it this time I tried to pay attention to whether there would be enough pro for me to come back and lead it some day.

This time I got through the first crux, a hardish 5.9 move, with no problems. But I couldn't immediately work out exactly how I'd solved the upper 5.10 crux the last time around and ultimately I took a hang. Then I figured out how to set my feet so I could make the reach, getting it on the second try. (Maryana got through the whole thing without a fall, I think, but she approached the crux in a way I thought must be much harder, using a terrible intermediate hold.) Now that I have the beta I feel sure I could send it on lead. The pro looks good to me. Placements seem available all along the flake down low, and it appears there are good slots protecting each of the crux moves. My only worry is that it might be a little run out during the easier climbing above the second crux.

(Photo:  Further up Texas Flake.)

After Texas Flake we went over to Gold Streaks. Now this is a pitch that I think I will never lead. The initial overhang problem is well-protected, but the steep face above appears to me to have very few protection opportunities. It is super-steep and unrelenting for a long long way, a real endurance test with good holds but some big moves.

It is a great top rope problem, made harder for Maryana and me by the one spot of wetness: a puddle of water right where we needed to slap our hands to escape the overhang. We both slipped off of this crucial shelf a few times, but eventually we were able to stick the grab despite the wetness.

(Photo:  Maryana starting up Gold Streaks (5.11-) back in January.)

I felt good about Gold Streaks because I ended up sending it bottom-to-top twice, doing it once via the left-hand start and once coming in from the right (much harder in my opinion-- Maryana and I each solved it in different ways, although she showed me a dropped knee trick that became a key part of my solution).

I enjoyed working Gold Streaks so much, it made me question my habit of coming to the Gunks and climbing new trad climbs all the time. I could see how people get really strong by working out on these hard top rope climbs. It still isn't my first choice, but I should maybe do it a little more often. It is fun.

(Photo:  About to climb through the first crux on Gold Streaks.)

By the time we finished with Gold Streaks the sun had come out, and the cliff was drying out to some degree. We took a look around and saw that a route across The Corridor from the Texas Flake called Forbidden Zone (5.11) appeared to be dry enough to climb.

This one was new for me so I was psyched to check it out. Maryana started working it first and struggled with the first crux, a super-steep bit through a bulge with big reaches. You might recall that Maryana is still coming off of a bicycle accident that broke some bones in her back, forcing her to take off more than a month from climbing. I couldn't believe how well she was climbing given all the time off.  Watching her sail up Texas Flake and figuring out Gold Streaks, I was amazed. So when she struggled with Forbidden Zone, I thought there was no way I was going to get up it.

But I surprised myself by getting through the bulge on my first try, helped no doubt by watching Maryana figure out most of the moves. There is a great rest stance after the bulge, and then another fun crux up a corner to the finishing jugs. I blew the sequence in the second crux, falling a few times. I couldn't find the hidden holds in the corner. Once I finally saw them, I figured it out.

After Maryana took another crack at Forbidden Zone, I went for the top rope send and got it! What a great pitch. Steep, sustained, with many great moves through the bulge, and then the devious corner awaits. I don't know about leading it. I didn't really suss out the pro, as the climbing is well above my leading level, for sure. And while the feeling of working it all out on top rope didn't match the thrill of, say, on-sighting CCK Direct on lead, it was still a fun climb and a really fun day.

I know I will be back.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Gunks Routes: Commando Rave (5.9) & Dat-Mantel (5.10b)

(Photo: Maryana starting the crux section of Commando Rave (5.9).)
Last Sunday was a gorgeous day, with highs in the mid- to-upper sixties. In other words: sending weather. High season, baby!
I was meeting up with Maryana for the first time in a while. She had been forced to take an eight-week break from climbing because of a cycling accident in the city, which had left her with several fractures in her back. This was a heartbreaking blow for her, coming as it did right in the middle of a great climbing year. Before the accident Maryana had led some truly impressive Gunks 5.10's (like Birdcage, for example). But now she had to rebuild. I was climbing with her on only her second weekend back in the climbing game.
We started with a nice warm-up. I led both pitches of Son of Bitchy Virgin (5.6) in one, running it all the way to the GT ledge. I'd never done the first pitch before. It is okay, but after the initial 5.5 overhang there isn't really much to recommend it. I think the second pitch is quite nice, but it is better approached via the Immaculate Conception variation.
After our warm-up Maryana did an excellent job leading Dry Heaves, a challenging 5.8. Then I got down to business with one of those 5.9's I still hadn't gotten around to: Commando Rave.
Dick Williams suggests in his guide book that Commando Rave is a polarizing climb. He says some love it and some hate it. I guess the hate springs from the lack of pro before the crux. The climb begins with some nice moves up a seam. Then comes an unprotected thirty-foot (!) traverse, but really this traverse is so easy it is barely fifth class. For most of it you are basically walking on a sidewalk. And about two-thirds of the way across I actually got a big blue Camalot in the crack at my feet. After that the rest of the way was well-protected.
The crux is really fun. You angle up and right through some overhangs to a left-facing corner. The hardest bit comes as you reach the end of the roof at the corner. You have to hang in to place a bomber piece, and then it takes a balance move out right to escape the corner and reach up to the good hold.
Once through the crux the belay tree is just a couple of moves away. Commando Rave is good, featuring a solid 5.9 crux. It is a quality quick tick, and totally worth doing. It isn't amazing, and it certainly isn't bad. I really can't imagine loving or hating it.
(Photo: Heading up to the big roof on Dat-Mantel (5.10b).)
I felt pretty good about Commando Rave, and afterwards thought I might get another quick tick, this time of a 5.10. I jumped right on the nearby Dat-Mantel.
This was a climb I'd aborted leading with Gail. On that occasion I was just getting up to the roof when I realized I needed some big gear I'd already used below, and then it started raining. After abandoning the lead I sent it pretty easily on toprope on the first try. Pissed to have found it so easy, I resolved then to try to come back and get the redpoint on lead before 2012 was out.
(Photo: Getting ready to attack the roof on Dat-Mantel.)
This time, on lead, I wouldn't say it went easily, exactly. I fumbled about a bit before figuring out how to reach the bomber horizontal above the roof. Then I was psyched to place two good cams above the roof, one for each of our double ropes.
I got set to throw a heel and pivot over the roof....
And it worked out. It took a few tries. It wasn't pretty. I remember standing right up over the roof when I did it on top rope. On lead, by contrast, I ended up basically pushing my whole leg and hip into the rock before I could pull myself over the roof. But I never weighted the rope, and I made it! I'll gladly call it a victory and put it in the bank.
Dat-Mantel is a good introductory 5.10.  The crux is short and the pro is great.  You should be careful as you figure out how to reach the horizontal over the roof.  There is good pro at the back, where the roof meets the wall, but until you can plug that horizontal over your head a fall will send you down onto the slab.  It wouldn't be a dangerous fall, but it would be unpleasant.  Once you get your fingers in the horizontal, however, there are great placements left and right, and you can try the roof move over and over again without falling onto the rope. 
After Dat-Mantel my day was as good as done.  With a new 5.9 onsight to my credit plus a successful 5.10,  I was content to coast. Maryana proved herself to be the comeback kid, leading two more hard 5.8's: the wonderful first pitches of both Carbs & Caffeine and Airy Aria. I then got to end our day by combining the beautiful second and third pitches of Airy Aria into one lead, a fitting finish to a glorious day of climbing.
I love sending season.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Rated R in the Gunks: The Blackout (5.9-), Ape Call (5.8) & Raubenheimer Special (5.7)

Last Monday (Labor Day) was the third consecutive half-day of climbing in the Gunks for Gail and me. We arrived at the cliffs early and without much of a plan. We had talked about maybe doing Apoplexy (5.9) or Retribution (5.10b). But we hadn't discussed a warm-up route.

As we walked into the Trapps I suddenly thought of The Blackout (5.9-), a climb that Gail had introduced me to last year. This climb sits right in the middle of a very popular part of the cliff, near Jackie (5.5), Betty (5.3), Baby (5.6), Son of Easy O (5.8), and others. But no one is ever on it. Last year I had tried the first two pitches (which are both 5.8), combining them in one lead. I got a bit befuddled at the overhang on the traditional second pitch. I stepped up and down several times before committing to the move, getting worn out and then taking a hang during the traverse that came afterwards. I knew I could go back now and do better. And I thought it might be worth looking at the third pitch, which has a G-rated 5.9- roof crux but some allegedly R-rated climbing off the belay ledge up to the roof.

This time around I combined the first two pitches again. They are both very good. The first pitch starts with a fun bulge right off the ground and then, moving a little to the right, presents lower-angled thin face moves up to a ledge beneath the second pitch overhang and traverse. On Monday I brought my red C3 with me because I remembered that last year I found a funky sideways placement for it in a seam to protect the thin face moves.

Everything went well on the first pitch. I found the seam and the funky red C3 placement and danced up to the ledge, enjoying the climbing and feeling good. But Gail insisted that I went too far to the right. She was sure that last year I'd found a different seam, a different funky red C3 placement, and different thin face moves up to the ledge.

Was she right? Who knows? Either way there is pro for the moves and fun 5.8 climbing.

I continued straight into the traditional second pitch, without any hesitation this time around. This is in my opinion the best part of the climb. Once you pull the overhang a balancy move up and right to a pin presents the crux. Then a pumpy traverse right with good holds brings you to yet more steep climbing straight up on jugs to the belay ledge. The pro is good throughout. Save your red and yellow Camalots for the traverse, you'll be glad to have them. This is a really nice sequence. It looks very intimidating from below, but it's all there.

After Gail joined me atop pitch two I walked over to have a look at the R-rated beginning to The Blackout's third pitch. I could see why it is rated R. There is a bolt just over the lip of the overhang but no obvious pro on the face beneath the roof. Any fall before clipping the bolt would send the leader straight down to the ledge. Dick Williams says this unprotected face is 5.8.

As I looked it over, though, it appeared far easier than 5.8 to me. I decided to make a few moves up to evaluate the climbing and see if I could finagle any placements. I figured I wouldn't do anything that I couldn't reverse until I was sure about continuing.

It turned out to be really easy. Maybe I've just been climbing a lot lately and my view is skewed, but I really didn't think it was harder than 5.6 getting up to the bolt. There is this one little reach to the good hold under the roof. I placed a worthless nut over to the left before making this move. The nut immediately popped out but it didn't matter. I knew there was no way I was going to fall off the move, so I wasn't worried. Once I had the good hold in hand I clipped the bolt and it was well-protected and juggy the whole rest of the way. I thought the roof was straightforward and easier than 5.9.

I like The Blackout. The first two pitches are really nice, and different from each other. I am sure I will do them again. I'd feel comfortable going back to do the third pitch as well, but I don't know that I will bother. It just isn't interesting enough. There are much better roof pitches in the Gunks.

Once we got down to the ground I decided maybe I should take a look at another R-rated climb I'd never considered before: Ape Call (5.8).

(Photo: Gail about to make the crux slab moves on the first pitch of Ape Call (5.8).)

Ape Call is just around the corner to the left of The Blackout. The first pitch begins with an R-rated slab. The second pitch ends with a huge roof. Both pitches are 5.8. I've always been attracted to the roof but scared away by the protection rating on the slab. But after my experience on The Blackout, I thought maybe I could check out Ape Call the same way. I could take it one step at a time, not doing anything irreversible, and just climb back down if I thought it was too risky.

It turns out the first moves are no big deal. You quickly find yourself at a stance just a couple of moves from the top of the slab. At just above waist level is a small horizontal seam, with two narrow pockets that take tiny gear. I fiddled with these pockets for a while and got a black Alien to the left, and a purple C3 to the right. I think I got them both well set. I gave these cams some hard tugs, and while there is only so much you can tell from this kind of gear testing, they didn't budge. I thought they were good.

(Photo: Bomber, dude! The crux gear on Ape Call (5.8).)

Then I evaluated the move. Above me was an obvious hold. I figured that if this hold was positive, I could make the one step up and over pretty easily and then place better gear above the lip of the slab. If I reached up and didn't like it, I could still step down and bail.

I stepped up and tested it once, and wasn't sure I liked it, so I stepped down.

Then I stepped up and tried it again and it felt really good. That was all I needed. One step up, plus an easy-does-it step to the right, and I was in good shape. I could reach up and place a perfect cam in the corner above the slab.

(Photo: Gail attacking the huge roof on the traditional pitch two of Ape Call (5.8).)

I really enjoyed the slab. And the rest of Ape Call is better than good-- it is awesome. I ran the two pitches together in one. The remainder of the traditional pitch one has some steep moves up the corner above the slab. Then mellow climbing takes you further up the corner system to the roof. Once beneath the overhang you have to move left to get the good handholds below the lip of the roof. Here you should be careful, because there are several loose blocks that are covered in chalk along the way. Negotiate the traverse left, and then the fun really begins. Move back right, getting fully horizontal under the big roof, grab the jugs in the notch and go!

Ape Call is a great route. It has one of the best 5.8 roofs in the Gunks. And if I am right about the gear then I don't think the start is really R-rated. I would lead it again.

Having done these two R-rated routes, I just had to check out Raubenheimer Special (5.7), another R-rated climb that is in the same area, between Ape Call and The Blackout. I had to do it. It was sitting right there. I'd never been on it before, but Gail had led it and she said it was no big deal. How could I not complete the R-rated trilogy?

Raubenheimer's turned out to be the scariest route of the three, in my opinion. It is a clean route, with good low-angled climbing up an arete and face. But the crux thin move, about 25 feet up, comes above a ledge you will hit if you fail. There really isn't anything much you can do about it. I worked a nut into a shallow placement in a seam to the right, and maybe this nut was good. But the actual climbing is a ways over to the left at the arete, and if you blow the move I don't think the nut will keep you from an ankle-tweaker of a fall. And after stepping up at the crux you need to place a piece in the horizontal over your head from a rather fragile stance. The climbing is rated just 5.7, but I felt I was in much more jeopardy on this route than on the other two. I felt the moves were less secure, less certain. I'm not sorry I did it once but I don't know if I will ever go back.

In writing this post I don't want to encourage you to do something stupid. Please don't go climb one of these routes just because of whatever I may say about them. You have to make your own judgment about the risks.

Really the key insight I gained from climbing these routes is that the decision to climb an R-rated route involves the same sort of thinking that governs every other step you take as a trad leader.

You don't protect every move when you lead, even when the opportunities are there. You need to conserve gear and slings. With every step as a leader you evaluate whether you need to place some protection, or whether you can go a little further. The distance to your last pro figures into the equation, of course, but so too does the difficulty of the terrain. If you're sure you are not going to fall you will be much more inclined to keep running it out a little longer. And so if you are climbing a route with a 5.9 crux, for example, you are going to be making sure you protect the 5.9 moves. And you will be less inclined to place pro during the stretches of 5.6 or 5.7 between the cruxes. You will enter R-rated territory frequently, by choice, when the climbing is beneath your limit. You have to, or you will run out of gear.

The analysis when negotiating an R-rated route is thus similar to any G or PG route. You have to ask yourself with every move whether you are confident you can continue without pro. The only real difference is that if the answer is no, you don't have the option to place a piece. You have to be prepared either to make the move and take a risk, or to bail. If you find yourself unable to do either one, you've made a big mistake.

After I finished Ape Call, Gail asked me how I was feeling while leading the slab. I had to say I just felt good. I wondered aloud about whether courting danger added to the experience, or even represented the heart of the experience of climbing. I'm sure for some people it does.

I have never thought that risking injury was at the core of climbing for me. But it can be hard to know for sure. I like to push my limits. And I surely feed off of the adrenaline rush I get from powering through a tough sequence. If I am, either consciously or unconsciously, flirting with danger because it gives me an even bigger rush, then I think I am in an unhealthy place and need to reevaluate what I am doing.

But I like to think I am not in such a place. I enjoyed The Blackout and Ape Call because I evaluated them carefully and continued with the climbing when I was sure it would be okay. I solved both puzzles and felt satisfied physically and intellectually. On Raubenheimer Special, by contrast, when I felt for a fleeting moment that maybe-- just maybe-- I was taking too big a risk, it didn't give me a rush or make me feel good. It actually made me feel a little sick. It was not a feeling I wanted more of.

Labor Day weekend ended my summer with a bang. I hope to get in a few more 5.10 leads before the end of 2012. The autumn, aka Gunks sending season, will soon be upon us. Even if I don't succeed on any new 5.10's, I feel like I've had some good progress this year. The 5.9's all feel pretty good and occasionally I hit a 5.10 just right. My climbing has improved a lot, I think, and I hope to stay healthy through the fall and winter so I can again take it to the next level.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Gunks Routes: Yellow Belly (5.8), Birdland Direct (5.9) & Alphonse (5.8)

(Photo: Gail checking out the interesting roof problem on pitch one of Yellow Belly (5.8).)

Last Sunday Gail and I started early with a plan that we would head to the Near Trapps for a half day of climbing. I had numerous routes in mind as candidates for us. I was considering Criss Cross Direct, a 5.10a with a well-protected crux right off the ground. But first I thought we should check out one of the great 5.8 climbs in the Nears that I had never done. Specifically I was thinking of Broken Sling or Yellow Belly.

Gail wasn't too keen on doing Broken Sling. She had done it before and remembered the traverse at the beginning of pitch two as really scary. So that one was out. When we got to the cliff we decided to look at Yellow Belly, which she'd never tried, instead.

Yellow Belly gets two stars from Dick Williams, but no one seems to do it. I think this is mostly because the crux of pitch two involves getting in and out of an awkward alcove. It sounded like fun to me, or at least like something different than the usual thing.

When we got to the base I saw another reason why the climb might be unpopular. There is a tree not far off the deck that looks like it might be in the way. (It isn't.) The tree obscures the view of the climb from below, making the climb easy to pass over. I walked back and forth between Alphonse and Yellow Ridge a couple of times before deciding we were looking at the correct start for Yellow Belly.

Straightforward climbing at a low angle (sling the tree for your first pro!) leads up to the crux roof on pitch one. And this roof is a puzzler. It can be easily avoided on the right but I encourage you to tackle it directly. The difficulty is that you have to get into a hanging right-facing corner over the roof. There is a layback hold in the corner but nowhere to place your feet for the layback, since there is nothing but air below the left side of the corner. It took me a while but I finally figured something out and it was a really cool move. It was definitely not your standard jug haul.

Once above the roof, I was surprised to see a big off-width crack going up the corner. This off-width is too wide to protect with gear. I didn't recall any mention of an off-width in the guidebook so I decided that I was supposed to move left to the outside nose/arete, where I built a belay. Later I saw that Dick does say something about going up a corner/crack to the nose, so maybe I skipped a vital part of pitch. I'm still not quite clear on where the route actually goes. I enjoyed pitch one nonetheless and looked forward to pitch two.

I could see the alcove looming above. But first we had to deal with another crux early in the second pitch. A slabby low-angled face leads up from the belay stance. You have two choices: go up the face close to the nose, or move left to a right-facing corner with a tiny seam at the back. Neither option looks easy. I thought I remembered Dick saying something about staying close to the nose. So I decided to climb over to the right. But there isn't any pro over there, so first I placed a tiny nut in the seam at the left and then moved back right to do the face-climbing. One or two thin moves gained me easier blocky ground up to the alcove. Gail thought I would have been better off not placing the off-line pro to the left, but I can't really say.

And then at the alcove itself I learned why the climb is named Yellow Belly. I had to do a full-on belly flop to get into the alcove. I found myself lying totally prone on a block. The crux for me was the transition from this belly flop to something resembling a standing position. It was very squirmy and cramped but the pro was good so I think it counts as fun! Gail certainly seemed to find my situation amusing. For me the exit from the alcove was easier than getting into it. The exit is a standard Gunks roof escape, moving left with good hands and poor feet, then taking the leap of faith and swinging out and around the outside corner onto the face.

As I placed a piece in a convenient slot at the left exit to the alcove, I thought the climb was all but over.  But I was mistaken. After I climbed up another twenty feet or so, with the top of the cliff almost in reach, I was suddenly immobilized. I couldn't move because the rope was stuck somewhere down below.

I tried to shake it loose, but it wouldn't budge.

When it fully sank in that I couldn't get the rope free I started screaming obscenities. I envisioned us wasting our whole day with an epic.

Then I calmed down and took stock of the situation. I couldn't move up but I could move down. I decided to downclimb to see if I could shake the rope free from a lower position. As I moved down, the slack in the rope increased, so I built a two-piece anchor to give myself a top rope as I approached the point where the rope was stuck. This worked out pretty well. The downclimbing was easy enough and eventually I could flick the rope out of the slot where it was stuck, at the exit to the alcove. I'm not sure if my gear placement had anything to do with creating the problem, and I could never really see exactly where the rope got stuck, but beware: if your rope feeds out the left side the alcove on Yellow Belly it might get snagged.

Once I had the rope moving again I reached as far to the right as I could and placed an Alien in a horizontal over the alcove so that I could direct the rope away from feeding back into the same slot. Then I was able to finish the climb without it getting stuck again.

Yellow Belly has weird moves, route-finding issues, challenging pro, an awkward alcove, and rope-eating potential. Doesn't sound so great, does it? But I liked it a lot. I thought the three cruxes were all very different and enjoyable. I'd go back again to tackle the off-width and to try to manage the rope better at the exit to the alcove.

After we finally got done with Yellow Belly, Gail suggested Birdland, a route with no complications, just wonderful climbing. I hadn't done it this year so I was fine with it. I also thought it would be fun to check out the 5.9 variation on pitch two, a direct finish through the roof at the very top of the cliff.

I have previously argued that Birdland is the best 5.8 in the Gunks. I still feel that way. The first pitch has beautiful face climbing, although the little pebble toehold at the crux is looking pretty polished. This just ups the excitement a little bit. You must have faith in the polished toe pebble.

And then the second pitch is totally different, with some thin facey action right off the belay, and then great overhanging moves into the exit corner.

The 5.9 finish is well worth doing. It is superior to the easy traverse right that finishes the traditional 5.8 pitch two. I found this final roof to be very straightforward, with jug holds everywhere and good pro. I couldn't find any 5.9 on it; in fact I think the 5.8 moves into the corner beneath the roof are harder. If you're up there and not worn out, why not give it a try? It is a good "easy" 5.9 lead. It makes an already amazing climb just a little bit better.

When we got back to our packs our half-day of climbing was basically over. We had wasted a lot of time on Yellow Belly and we needed to head home soon. Clearly there wasn't time for me to try a 5.10.  But Gail and I were both eager to climb just a little more. Luckily Alphonse (5.8) was just sitting there, wide open, so we decided to do it. It is a decent choice if you are in a hurry because it can be done in one pitch and the 5.8 crux is just one move; the rest is delightful 5.6. I tried to do it like Hans Florine, moving very quickly but in control. I aimed to protect it only when strictly necessary.

I can't say I succeeded in my first effort at speed climbing. Once the route started traversing I still took my time and placed several pieces for the safety of both myself and Gail. I created terrible drag. The route basically makes a u-turn through the crux, so the drag is hard to avoid unless you really run it out through the traverse.

We returned to the house an hour late. I guess I am no Hans Florine.