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.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out (, you asshole). :)"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." You forgot to include "while pregnant." And I'll have you know that it was the crowd on the High E ledge that proved to be more helpful than our departed (I mean he just moved back to Canada!) climbing partner, Canadian Bacon.

  2. Note to readers: I checked with the author of the previous comment and she was kidding when she called me an asshole. Just in case you were worried!

    I should add that falling off at the crux of Modern Times is probably just as scary for the second as for the leader and that it isn't at all unusual for people to have trouble getting back on. I meant no disrespect to anyone in that situation.

  3. And now you know how to prussik! ha ha
    Miss you guys,
    Canadian Bacon

  4. I had nothing to do with it, I wasn't even there!