Saturday, March 24, 2012

Modern Times (5.8+) and the Alleged Gunks Sandbag

(Photo: Holy bird poop, Batman!! That block on the High E ledge is really coated with guano at the moment.)

After beginning our day with the amazing double whammy of Erect Direction to CCK Direct, Dana and I started walking down the cliff. Dana was thinking about leading Obstacle Delusion (5.9).

But we didn't make it to Obstacle Delusion. Our journey was cut short at the High E buttress when Dana asked me an innocent question.

"You've done Modern Times, right?"

I had to admit that I had not.

It was a big hole in my climbing resume. Honestly, how can any self-respecting Gunks blogger NOT have climbed Modern Times (5.8+)?

It just never seemed like the right moment, I guess. On October 25, 2009, I had driven to the Gunks determined to climb Modern Times with Nani. But the climb was soaking wet after the previous night's heavy rain, so we went and did Insuhlation (5.9) instead. And you know, dear reader, how that worked out.

Since then I had never made Modern Times a priority. I figured I'd get around to it some day, but whenever I thought about doing it the climb was occupied, or I was with someone who'd done it recently, or (I may as well admit it) it seemed a little too scary.

So there we were, Dana and I, on this beautiful Saturday, standing before the climb. And it was wide open. Dana said I had to do it, and that having just led CCK Direct I would be absolutely fine.

This was just the encouragement I needed.

Dana was up to lead pitch one if I wanted him to. But it was old hat for him so he offered both pitches to me. I was more than willing to lead them both. As I set off on the 5.7 pitch one, I felt a little bit tingly all over. This was a big deal, and we'd just sort of stumbled into it. It hadn't even occurred to me that we might climb Modern Times today, on March 17, right at the start of the season.

Does any other climb have such a reputation for high quality, and for difficulty beyond its grade?

From the ground, it certainly looks terrifying. A gigantic arch guards the top of the cliff. The climber must exit to the right through the roofs at the top of the arch. The moves look huge. And these moves are above big air. It is a sheer drop of hundreds of feet to the ground.

I'd heard all the tips and the rumors. I knew not to get suckered into wasting my energy going up to the distinctive sideways tree that sits above the initial overhang. It was better, I'd heard, to stay low and move to the right. I was also aware that some kind of secret rest supposedly existed in the middle of the overhangs. I had been told, as well, that short people couldn't grab the final shelf without cutting their feet loose. Finally, I recalled hearing something about the finishing mantle being difficult, but couldn't quite remember the details. Would I find it easier to mantle up if I hand-traversed far to the right along the final ledge? Or was there some hidden pebble for my toe that I was supposed to look for?

These issues could wait, since I first had to dispense with pitch 1.

I found this pitch to be kind of humdrum. The climbing is clean and pleasant in much the same way that the 5.4 pitch one of No Glow is clean and pleasant. Which is to say it is rather unremarkable. And it seemed a bit soft to me for 5.7. The little ceiling at the end of the pitch, which I suppose is the crux, is easier in my opinion than the one on first pitch of the neighboring climb The Last Will Be First (5.6). Nothing wrong with the pitch, but nothing to write home about either.

(Photo: I asked Dana to get a photo of me on Modern Times, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt: a blurry shot of the overhang, sans climber. Now I have no proof I actually climbed it!)

Here's another dark secret about Modern Times: pitch two isn't the greatest either, at least until you get to the overhang. All the climbing up until the crux is pretty easy, and the pro isn't optimal. You start up a right-facing corner. I got in a little nut near the bottom. You could put gear at the top of the corner as well, but I chose not to because I didn't want unnecessary drag as I moved to the right. Then as the climb moves towards the top of the arch you ascend a massive left-facing flake, which turns out to be less a flake than a big stack of blocks leaning against the face of the cliff. These blocks probably aren't going anywhere (they are quite large), but still I wasn't thrilled about the idea of placing any pieces in between them, instead finding the few placements I could in the wall to the left and behind the blocks.

If I arrived at the crux wondering what the fuss was all about, my doubts were immediately dispelled by a glance at the next sequence.

The path upward is easy to spot-- I don't know why anyone is suckered into going up to the tree. Probably these tree-huggers know they are making a mistake, but don't wish to confront the alternative: committing to the correct path by leaning waaaaay out over an empty expanse to the first holds, which takes quite the gut check.

I certainly hesitated a bit, though less than I did at the crux of CCK Direct. The pro is great. I placed pieces (with extended slings) in both the undercling crack under the roof and out by the first of the roof holds before I committed to the moves.

And once I leaned out to the first hold, it was on! A quick couple of moves on jugs led to the mid-point, where I was able to place another dynamite cam-- you have a big horizontal and a vertical crack to work with here.

I think this is the "secret rest" spot, and I may even have unlocked the secret by propping up a left foot on a high hold and dropping my knee while I placed a cam. But I didn't stop afterwards to try to contrive a real rest, because it was just one more move to the final overhang. The end was near and there was no reason to wait.

Moving up to the final shelf, I saw absolutely no need to cut the feet-- the footholds were great throughout, actually. And there was no trick to the mantle either, as far as I could tell. There is a great little horizontal crack for a high step at any number of locations. Get your weight over the high foot and push up, people!

I hope that by attempting to dispel a few myths about Modern Times I don't make it sound like the climb is not wonderful. To the contrary, the crux sequence consists of four or five of the most exhilarating moves the Gunks has to offer. I found the crux absolutely thrilling. Once I successfully mantled up to the shelf, I let out the biggest yell ever.

And the shelf onto which you emerge is perhaps the best belay spot in the Gunks. You are still 20 or 30 feet from the top, and you can keep going and belay above in the trees if you like. If you have any doubt about your partner's ability to climb through the roofs, however, you'd be advised to belay from the shelf so you can coach your partner on the art of prussik ascending when he or she falls off and can't get back on.

I had no such doubts about Gunks institution Dana Bartlett, of course, but I couldn't resist building a belay and having a seat on this perfect little park bench in the sky. Sitting there, I could reflect on the scenery and the sensational climbs we'd already knocked off on this great early season Saturday.

(Photo: Looking down pitch one of Carbs and Caffeine, which is either 5.8 or 5.9-, depending on who you believe.)

As I sat there reflecting, I decided that Modern Times is not a sandbag at 5.8+. I came to the conclusion that it was easier for me than CCK Direct so I guessed the 5.8+ was about right. The crux of Modern Times also features the type of climbing (overhanging jugs) that we gym climbers of today are accustomed to, so really the rating should be uncontroversial. I think the only reason people consider it such a sandbag is its rather incredible position and exposure, which don't exactly make the moves more difficult but which certainly add to the overall challenge.

I actually think I experienced two bigger 5.8 sandbags in the very same weekend I climbed Modern Times.

The first was Dirty Gerdie, the supposed 5.8+ that ascends the middle of the face of Gerdie Block. I had put a toprope over this climb twice before, the last time two years ago. This year's attempt (on my wet Friday in the Gunks with Franz) was the first time I ever managed to climb it cleanly on the first try. It is tough to get the first crux move, which involves matching a foot to one hand while trying to reach ever-so-slowly with the other hand up a featureless face for an invisible, tiny crimp. The next move, smearing the feet on nothing at all while locking off and reaching for a jug, is no picnic either.

5.8+? My ass.

The second 5.8 sandbag of the weekend was the first pitch of Carbs and Caffeine, which Dick simply calls plain old 5.8-- no plus sign. I led it later in the day with Dana after Modern Times. It was my first time doing the pitch and if you take a look at the picture above (click on it to enlarge) you may notice that I placed a rather large number of protective pieces. This was because I thought it was hard and that I might slip off, pretty much the whole way up! The entire pitch involves off-vertical thin face climbing, and I felt insecure, especially at the crux finishing moves, where the hands are not so positive and the footholds are the tiniest indentations. The protection crack at the crux takes only micronuts; I managed to slot two of them. Luckily I didn't slip and test the nuts, but I thought they were good.

I felt sandbagged by Carbs and Caffeine, maybe even more so than by Dirty Gerdie. When I found out that Swain calls it 5.9- I felt somewhat vindicated.

But maybe I was wrong about both Dirty Gerdie and Carbs and Caffeine. Maybe these climbs just involve specific skills that I'm less comfortable with. The foot/hand match that I employed on Dirty Gerdie, for example, is a popular solution to many Gunks climbs with long reaches between good edges, and the entry level for this move seems to be 5.8. (Think of both Arrow and Three Doves.) You won't find this move much in a gym, which adds to its unfamiliarity for today's climbers. To the experienced Gunkie maybe it isn't a big deal at all.

And of course the same can be said for less-than-vertical thin face climbing. You won't find anything like it in a gym, so it's no surprise a climber like me feels insecure doing it. When I lowered to the ground and watched Dana follow my lead of Carbs and Caffeine I learned that slabby climbing can feel more slippery than it really is. I could see just how much of his shoe was in contact with the rock in the places where I thought I was standing on nothing. Maybe I wasn't as close to sliding off as I feared I was.

It all depends on what you're used to. But Modern Times? We're all used to the type of climbing you'll find on that one. It's really exciting, but it's no sandbag.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gunks Routes: CCK Direct (5.9)

(Photo: A free soloist-- obviously not me!-- on the famous white billboard face of CCK in August 2011.)

One year ago in mid-March I was more fit than I'd been in a long time. But I was still tentative on the rock as the year began. I remember stumbling my way up Te Dum (5.7) for my first climb of the 2011 season, with the rock and the gear both feeling mysterious to me after the long, snowy winter.

I hoped this year would be different. I'd grown so much as a climber over the course of 2011. And this year we didn't really have much of a winter. There was no huge layoff between climbing days.

I was encouraged about my prospects when I got out to climb on February 1. On that day I felt fine, romping up several moderates on what might turn out to be my last day in the Gunks with Adrian. (In an act of unspeakable betrayal he moved back to Vancouver at the end of February.)

I didn't push any limits that day but the rock felt good, the gear familiar. Was it possible that maybe I could begin this season where I left off last year, and not regress several grades?

I got the chance to find out for sure on Saturday, March 17, when I went climbing in the Gunks with Dana Bartlett.

Dana and I had never met in person before, but we had corresponded by email. I was already familiar with him from his regular contributions to and I knew him to be a strong climber of long experience. I hoped we'd have a good time together and that I might learn a thing or two.

I was feeling good on Saturday morning, having climbed a bit the day before. It had been a crummy day on Friday, starting with rain, then fog and wet rock, finally drying out and becoming nice in the late afternoon. I was out with my friend Franz, who has climbed inside for years but who has almost no outdoor experience. Because the weather was so poor we mostly toproped in the Uberfall, but despite the very limited nature of our climbing day I still took some confidence from the fact that I felt so natural on the routes we did. My footwork was solid; I was climbing well.

I decided I should just pick a landmark climb and go for it on Saturday with Dana. I quickly settled on CCK Direct, one of the ultraclassic three-star 5.9 climbs I never got around to in 2011.

When I proposed it to Dana in the parking lot he was enthusiastic, saying that from what he knew about my recent climbing history, I'd be fine on it. This was just the kind of encouragement I needed! We gathered up our stuff and headed off down the carriage road.

We set up at the base of Erect Direction (pitch one is 5.8) and I led upward. I thought back to 2009, when I'd had one of my best-ever days at the Gunks with Liz, onsighting both the regular non-direct CCK (5.7+) and Bonnie's Roof (5.9). I'd begun that day too with Erect Direction, figuring it was good to start with a 5.8-- an easier warm-up would inevitably still feel difficult and might only lead me to question myself. When Erect Direction went well that day in 2009 it had set the stage for further success and I hoped it would do the same for me again on Saturday.

I think of the first pitch of Erect Direction as a solid 5.8. It doesn't have any particularly hard moves on it but it is steep and continuous. It has many thoughtful sections and is quite pumpy for a good two-thirds of the way to the GT Ledge. It is to my mind a slightly easier version of the classic 5.8 testpiece Double Crack. It is a high quality pitch, a destination in its own right with good pro despite a few loose blocks.

It went down like butter on Saturday, making me even more primed for CCK Direct.

(Photo: The one and only Dana Bartlett, topping out on the 5.8 pitch one of Erect Direction.)

There was no need to consult the guidebook about CCK Direct. It seemed clear to me where to go. The opening overhang, which Dick rates as 5.8 PG/R, was my main concern. The last thing I wanted to do was to start the day by going splat on the GT Ledge. I'd followed Adrian up this part of the route in 2010, however, and I thought the moves were pretty straightforward. (On that occasion Adrian had finished on the standard 5.7+ CCK, so I hadn't previewed any more of the Direct version.) The pro was a little bit down and to the left as you pulled the first roof, but it wasn't that bad, I thought.

Before setting off I asked Dana if he had any advice, and he said that I should save my blue # 3 Camalot for the end of the pitch, and that I'd be really happy to have it at the final crux overhang. This turned out to be very helpful information!

I was ready. I had the clever idea of leading up to the horizontal beneath the first overhang, placing a cam immediately to protect me while I leaned over, and then putting in another cam as far over to the right as I could reach. Then I back-cleaned the first cam and stepped down to move across to the actual moves.

This worked out well, but I probably should have put in two pieces when I leaned over instead of one. I later regretted having only a single piece between myself and the anchor when I did the first crux.

In any event I made it through the first overhang with no issues and breathed a sigh of relief.

I messed up heading into crux number two, the overhangs below the white billboard-like CCK face. I headed up a little too far to the left. I reached the bottom of the billboard, looked up and saw no holds, then looked to the right and saw all the chalk I'd neglected to follow. This caused me to panic for just a second.

I was getting pumped and there was no time to waste. I quickly downclimbed to my last cam, regrouped and headed back up the correct way. I'm sure this part of the pitch is really 5.7 or 5.8, but I made it harder for myself with my route-finding mistake. Luckily, once I pulled over the overhangs and found myself standing beneath the famous CCK crack, I could relax, clip a fixed tricam and shake it all out.

And then I had to shift gears from the jug-hauling overhangs to the exposed off-vertical thin climbing required by the CCK face. A few beautiful moves later, I was at the top of the crack, where one grunty pull got me above the billboard and below the huge roof at the top of the cliff.

The final challenge was still to come. To my surprise it turned out to be more mental than physical. It is so comfortable in that little alcove beneath the overhang, and the hold that takes you left to the exit notch is so small, you don't want to move! You can see a jug out further left and up, but it appears you have to step down and out left to get there. As you test the little hold over and over again, considering the move, it seems like you are taking a leap into the abyss. The footholds disappear. The exposure is insane.

I must have tested the hold a dozen times. I considered any alternative I could think of. There is chalk on some tiny horizontal cracks above, but I couldn't use them. Eventually I had to take the leap, step down and over, and trust I'd find whatever I needed when I got out there.

I needn't have been so worried. The pro was good. Once I finally made the step, I had the jug in a second. One more move up and I could slam in my blue Camalot. (Thank you Dana!) And then the biggest move of the pitch took me over the final overhanging block to the top.

What a way to start the season! I think CCK Direct may be the best pitch I have ever climbed. The good stuff just keeps coming and coming. After the steepness of two overhangs you have to deal with a totally new challenge, the thin sequence to get established in the perfect crack up that blank CCK face. The moves and the position are sublime. But it isn't over! The final crux notch puts the cherry on the cake.

Last fall I would have viewed this pitch as a fitting capper for the whole year. I'm so psyched to begin the 2012 season with such a great milestone.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Gunks Obscure Tour: Rock & Brew (Pitch 3, 5.8 R) & Uncle Rudy (Pitch 3, 5.7+)

(Photo: Just getting started on the 5.7 pitch 2 of Morning After.)

Another warm winter day. Nice to be climbing without a jacket, wearing just a couple of base layers on February 1, but I couldn't escape the global warming angst. It felt strange.

What a beautiful day! (We're all going to die.)

Actually, the day began with rain. It was coming down in a steady drizzle as we left the city, but we had faith in the forecast and by the time we arrived in New Paltz the rain was done. We warmed up on the Pebbles Boulder while we waited for everything to dry out. Then we headed for the Drunkard's area.

I had the idea that we could check out a few upper pitches on the Drunkard's Delight/Morning After wall. I'd done the first two pitches of both of these great 5.8- climbs. It seems that's all most people do. Most folks just rap from the GT Ledge and don't do any of the third pitches in the area. I had bucked the trend once before, climbing the 5.5 third pitch of Bloody Mary. I concluded few people must bother with it; it is dirty and uninteresting. I had to dig the dirt out of some cracks in order to place pro.

But despite this experience on Bloody Mary (the first two pitches are awesome, by the way), I had a feeling people were missing out on some good climbing above the GT Ledge on this wall. I'd read good things about the 5.8- final pitch of Morning After and I thought it would be fun to check it out. It was reputed to feature an unusual crux layback rail.

I was also intrigued by the third pitch of a nearby climb called Uncle Rudy (5.7+). The pitch receives no stars from Dick Williams, but he calls it "really nice."

(Photo: Oops, that's not Morning After! The 5.8 R third pitch of Rock and Brew.)

The first two pitches of Morning After went well. (I always especially enjoy the 5.7 face climbing on Pitch 2.) Once we reached the GT Ledge I was certain I spotted the correct third pitch. I hadn't consulted the guidebook, but I saw a right-facing flake system which I figured had to be the layback rail I'd heard about. And the rock was clean. It looked fun.

Adrian asked about a dirty corner system just to the left but I was firm in my (incorrect) beliefs.

He started up bulgy white rock. The climbing didn't look bad but he had to fight with a pine tree to make progress. He was actually grateful for the tree, however, since it was the only source of pro. he slung the tree twice.

Nice moves took him past the right-facing flakes. This part of the pitch actually had decent placements, and the climbing seemed reasonable.

Then Adrian arrived at the real problem. He reached another pine tree to find a blank slab above with with no pro leading to the top. A rap tree (which I believe is the Rusty Trifle tree) was off to the right, but traversing over was also lacking in protection opportunities. Adrian eventually chose to traverse to the rap tree rather than heading upward. He risked a pendulum if he fell, but he made it over to the tree and then brought me up.

By the time I reached the flakes I realized I'd steered Adrian wrong. The flake moves were fun, but they were very easy and unworthy of being described as an interesting layback sequence. Later I read the descriptions in Dick's book and realized my error: we had done the third pitch of Rock and Brew, which Dick rates as 5.8 R. Seems about right.

Of course, Adrian's choice to traverse to the Rusty Trifle tree left me with the same pendulum risk as a second. It served me right, but I didn't enjoy it. Putting my hands on the blank slab, I gingerly placed my feet on ledges covered in tufts of dirt and pine needles. I felt with each step that I might plunge through and go for a ride. But I made it over without incident and with some relief we rapped back to the GT Ledge.

If I'd been leading I probably would have put my cordalette around the top pine on Rock & Brew and bailed without risking the blank slab or the traverse.

In the final analysis, I'd say the pitch has a little decent climbing on it, but I don't recommend it.

Once we were back on the GT Ledge I got set to lead the third pitch of Uncle Rudy. This 5.7+ climb doesn't get done much because the first pitch is dirty and the second pitch is runout. But there seemed to be nothing wrong with pitch three and this time I knew I was in the right place. The start of the pitch is hard to miss, beneath a large right-facing corner system at the right edge of the Drunkard's wall. (It has the same start location as pitch two of Bloody Bush (5.6).)

This time our adventuresome spirits were rewarded. The final pitch of Uncle Rudy is great. I think it deserves at least one star. Maybe even two stars.

It has two nice cruxes, each one different from the other. The first comes as you climb up into the corner to a roof and then make a very airy (but juggy) exit out left. Then you head up and a little right to the second crux, a nice 5.7+ ceiling.

Clean rock, great exposure, interesting climbing, and an exciting finish. What more could you ask for? I think this is one of the better 5.7 pitches in the Gunks. And 5.7 is a grade that needs better representation at the Gunks.

I think this pitch will be high on my list to repeat whenever I end up on the GT Ledge in this part of the cliff.

(Photo: Past the low crux on Drunkard's Delight (5.8-).)

After we got down to the ground I finally led Drunkard's Delight for the first time. As I detailed in my prior post, I had bailed on the lead once before, in the immediate aftermath of my broken ankle, and followed it on a later date. After following Drunkard's I had decided it was a reasonable lead, but I just hadn't gotten around to it.

This time with Adrian I linked both of the first two pitches in one and had a blast. (I wouldn't recommend this if you feel your second is at all likely to fall on the opening moves.)

Then we ended the day on pitch three of Maria (5.6+ and another great third pitch option in this area). As I belayed Adrian it occurred to me that, given it was only February 1, I was feeling pretty good on the rock! The climbing felt reasonable and I wasn't too rusty with the gear. The day gave me hope that I could start the season strong and get on some ambitious climbs early in the year.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Gunks Routes: Double Chin (5.5)

(Photo: Not too far off the deck on Double Chin (5.5).)

I'm sorry I haven't been posting this winter. I've been busy cycling, trying to re-lose the few pounds I gained over the course of the summer and fall. And when I haven't been riding my bicycle I have been forced to answer the call of the DVR. You see, if I don't sit on the couch and watch television, the DVR will fill up and no new programs will be recorded. Thus I have no choice but to watch the so-called idiot box, sometimes for several hours at a time. It is a tedious chore, but somebody has to do it. All these episodes of Portlandia aren't going to watch themselves.

Even if I had enough free time in which to blog, I wouldn't have written much over the past few months. There just hasn't been much climbing upon which to report. It has been a strange winter, with the worst Catskill ice season in recent memory. Friends have gone to New Hampshire for full weekends of ice climbing, but I am selfishly saving for rock season the capital I would need to expend in order to take a full weekend away. The result is that I haven't made it out to do a single pitch of ice climbing all winter.

There has been some consolation: I have gotten in a few days of rock climbing here and there.

On New Year's Day I managed a trip to the Gunks with Adrian and Maryana.

I hadn't led a pitch in nearly a month. I wasn't surprised that I felt a bit rusty.

We had our pick of routes, doing Madame G's all the way to the top and then doing the first pitches of Snooky's Return (5.8) and Friends & Lovers (5.9).

Adrian led pitch one of Snooky's. Following him, I struggled over the crux. I remembered it seeming so much easier when I led it in 2010. On the other hand, the upper crux of Friends & Lovers seemed like nothing to me. I have yet to lead this route, although by now, having followed it three times, I find it pretty routine.

It was already growing late on this short winter day and I figured I needed to lead something, but I wasn't really feeling ambitious. I decided to try Double Chin (5.5). I'd been on the route once years before, near the beginning of my illustrious climbing career. My partner Greg had led the pitch, struggling for a while and stepping up and down repeatedly before finally pulling through the second crux at the very end of the route. When I'd lowered him to the ground he'd seemed defeated despite his success in leading the route.

"Do me a favor," Greg had said upon reaching the ground. "If you find that route easy, don't tell me."

I did think it was pretty easy, actually. And perfectly nice. There were two big roofs, but both of them were escaped to the left without too much trouble.

I later read the entry on Mountain Project, in which Double Chin was described as "a sandbag even by Gunks standards." (This description is now gone, but I'm pretty sure it used to be there.) Also I saw a thread on in which some people opined that the route is a real stinker.

These reactions didn't jibe with my pleasant memories of the route. On January 1 I figured it might be fun to get another look at Double Chin. If I liked the route the second time around, I could add it to the all-too-short list of fun but uncrowded climbs in the Uberfall area.

My verdict? It is fun, with two good cruxes. And yes, I think it is a little stiff for 5.5.

(Photo: In between the two roof cruxes on Double Chin (5.5).)

The first crux is actually the most technically advanced move on the route, in my opinion. As you approach roof number one, it is easy to step left to escape to the rounded outside corner. But then an absence of footholds makes the next move up the rounded corner seem improbably hard. A thin high step saves the day. I can't think of another 5.5 in the Gunks with a move like that.

(Photo: In the final crux of Double Chin (5.5).)

The second crux, at the final roof, is not really difficult at all, but it is committing and again unusual for the Gunks.

To the left of the roof is a wide vertical crack system. There are probably several ways to get through this part of the route but I found that wedging myself into the crack was the best way for me to move upward. It was good fun, with good holds and pro, and then with a move up a foot could be placed over the roof to the right and the route was over.

Maryana followed the route in her approach shoes (just to make me look bad, I think-- so competitive, that one!) and she seemed to find it pretty routine.

The second time up Double Chin confirmed for me that this is a high quality, unusual route. If you find yourself stuck in the Uberfall waiting for Bunny or Horseman you shouldn't hesitate to jump on it.