Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gunks Routes: Gaston (5.8-)

(Photo:  Past the pro-less start on Gaston (5.8-).)

Maryana and I were looking for something new to do on a beautiful Saturday in April, and it seemed like if we wanted something out of the ordinary our timing couldn't be better, since we might not have any choice in the matter.  We arrived at the West Trapps lot in the morning to find it was already nearly full, even though the temperature was still in the low 40's.  As we walked down the carriage road it seemed like all the usual suspect climbs were occupied.  It was the perfect occasion for us to jump on something unpopular, something obscure.

When we passed the connector trail I looked up at the cliff and saw the expected sights.  Climbers were on Arch (5.5).  Climbers were on Strictly From Nowhere (5.7).  But as usual no one was on the no-star climbs nearby: Calisthenic (5.7), Gorilla My Dreams (5.7), or Gaston (5.8-).  And no one was on Splashtic (5.10a), a climb which gets a star from Dick Williams but which seems always unoccupied because the first pitch is 5.10 and the second is 5.9 R.

I was intrigued by Splashtic, because it seemed from the description that the crux is really one move, early in the first pitch.  Looking it over on Saturday, I thought it looked doable and protectable.  Maybe this was a good 5.10 candidate for me?  I wasn't interested in the R-rated second pitch (although it sure looks exciting...) but I figured we could descend from the threaded anchor atop pitch one or continue with the upper pitches of another climb.

I was also interested in Gaston, because it has a reputation for being underappreciated and somewhat tricky for its 5.8- grade.  I'd heard the upper pitches, which are just 5.5, were also good.

Maryana thought Gaston was a better choice for a warm-up than Splashtic so we were set. 

Dick's guidebook describes the first pitch as going up a ramp and then moving right past a bulge.  Then thin climbing left past two pins was supposed to be the crux.

For me the crux of pitch one was the lack of pro low on the pitch.  There is nothing for at least fifteen feet or more.  I went up the easy ramp and then expected to find something.  But I didn't.

Then another move up and left onto a ledge.  Still pretty easy climbing, but I was still looking in vain for some placements.

Finally I found gear, but it was to the left of the route.  The climbing clearly went to the right through the bulge.  I had two pieces but they were off-line. 

After trying out a couple of different approaches I committed to the surprisingly thin holds and got through the bulge. 

Then I think I got another piece, something micro, before moving up and left to an angle piton.  (Dick mentions two pins but I guess one has since disappeared.)  I don't remember these supposed crux face moves as tricky.  There was nothing as thin as the move at the bolt on Wonderland (5.8-), for instance.  All I really remember was wishing I had more confidence in the gear. But once I clipped the pin it seemed everything would be okay.  The rest of the way I felt both the climbing and the gear were casual enough. 

At the end of the pitch I felt like in retrospect there was JUST enough pro.  And the climbing was nice; it was clean and interesting.  Maryana pointed out that I'd missed the key placement.  There is a place right below the bulge where a runner could be threaded.  You can see it in the above photo over to the right of where I have a sling connected to the blue rope.  I had pro at the same height but off to the left.  It would have been better-- I would have felt better-- if I'd found this placement. 

(Photo:  Maryana at the final overhangs on the 5.5 pitch two of Gaston.)

The next surprise on Gaston was that the threaded anchor atop pitch one was gone.  I built a gear anchor and brought Maryana up.  We had been thinking we'd rap after pitch one and go do something else, but now we were forced to do at least one more pitch.

Maryana led pitch two and it turned out to be very nice.  We both enjoyed it.  While pitch one features interesting face climbing, pitch two is more typical Gunks terrain, with good features in a huge corner system and plentiful horizontals, leading up and left to some final overhangs with jugs. 

One we reached the GT Ledge we had an easy walk over to the bolted rappel route to our left.  But I thought it was a waste not to finish the climb.  We'd come this far.  Would we ever bother to come to this spot again?  Might as well do pitch three.  It looked like a short romp up to a roof.  Why not do it?

(Photo: Most of the way through the 5.5 pitch three of Gaston.)

I led the pitch in about five minutes.  I'm glad we did it.  It reminds me of the top pitch of Minty.  It is a little harder and the move out to the roof is a bit more exposed.  But it is very similar, featuring a nice corner and then another juggy overhang.  Good fun.

I think Gaston is definitely underrated at no stars.  It has a lot of quality climbing.  Each pitch is worthwhile.  The rock is good.  It is clean.  It should have at least a star.  I think if the two 5.5 pitches were not guarded by the tricky pitch one this climb would be extremely popular with new leaders. 

As it is it should be more popular with moderate leaders of all levels of experience. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Gunks Routes: Birdie Party (Pitch 1 5.8+) & Mother's Day Party (Pitch 1 5.10b)

(Photo: Matt starting up the first pitch of Birdie Party (5.8+).)

After Matt and I finished climbing Anguish the other week, we rapped down to find our original objective, Birdie Party, wide open.

I've been really wanting to lead it.

I followed my friend Nani up the first part of pitch one (to a bolted anchor about 80 feet up, directly above the start) two years ago. We stopped there, but Williams describes the pitch as continuing from this first set of chains to an intimidating hand traverse over a big pointy flake, going all the way to a another set of bolts and chains atop the first pitch of MF.   The face climbing up to the first set of chains is 5.8; the crux traverse is 5.8+.

In 2010 when Nani led it I was a little shocked because I'd never seen her lead something this challenging.  The climbing was well within her abilities-- she is and was a better climber than I am-- but she has never gotten totally comfortable with trad leading.  She prefers sport to trad; if she ever really embraced placing her own gear she'd be ripping it up in no time and I could spend the rest of my days following her up climbs I'll never be good enough to lead.

On the day she led Birdie Party she was thinking she would stop at the first set of bolts and then I would handle the scary traverse.  As it turned out, the first part of the pitch, up to the initial set of chains, was challenge enough for both of us.  She handled the lead with a cool head and placed plenty of gear, but this pitch has placements that are spaced far enough apart that many times a thoughtful move has to be undertaken above the last piece.  By the time Nani reached the chains I was thankful I wasn't the one on the sharp end.  And by the time I followed her up to the chains I wasn't so sure I wanted to lead the traverse.

It was a moot point, anyway, because Nani had already decided that the traverse scared the crap out of her.  She did not want to follow it.  So we were in agreement and we bailed from the first anchor.

Ever since then I've wanted to go back, and over the past year as I've improved I've been eager to lead that traverse and maybe tackle pitch two, which features a 5.10b roof, as well.

(Photo: Matt about halfway through the first pitch of Birdie Party, at the right-facing corner.)

So last Friday after my mini-disappointment on pitch one of Anguish I wanted to do this one right.

I ended up feeling pretty good about it.

The first few moves are a little hairy. You have to boulder up to a good edge right off the deck, and then you can place a small Alien or the equivalent to protect the next move. After that, you reach a little ledge and move five or six feet to the right. These moves are easy but you can't protect them. By the time you start moving across the ledge you are back in ground fall range.

Once you are through this opening bit, the pro is very good the rest of the way, straight up to the chains. But as I remembered from two years ago, the 5.8 moves are consistently thoughtful and often above the pro. The going is steep but each time you gain a good horizontal you can stick in a piece and relax/shake out a bit. The climbing is excellent, and (unsurprisingly) similar to Higher Stannard, the superb climb just to the left. Things ease off a bit as you go higher, passing a shallow right facing corner. As I passed this corner last Friday, with the first set of chains nearly in my reach, I started to eye the big scary flake.

(Photo: Matt doing the awesome traverse at the end of the first pitch of Birdie Party.)

I was a little nervous, but I soon learned there was no need for concern.  The moves up to the flake are easy, and the pro for the traverse is great.  I looped a double-length runner around the point of the flake (it seemed solid...) and got a #2 Camalot further to the right, underneath the flake just about where it merges with the wall.  And then for the rest of the traverse a perfect horizontal crack (pictured above) takes gear anywhere you want to place it.  The climbing is airy and super-fun but, I thought, very reasonable.  The early part of the pitch, close to the ground, is actually more difficult, in my opinion. 

What a great pitch!  I may have to revise my thoughts about the best 5.8 in the Gunks.  Birdie Party is certainly one of the best.  So many great moves, and variety:  challenging face climbing plus an exciting traverse. 

As I waited for Matt to join me at the belay I kept looking up at the 5.10b roof that is the crux of pitch two.  I thought maybe I could give it a go-- so long as I could get pro at the lip of the roof.  I also thought maybe we could instead do pitch two of MF, which I led last November but which Matt had never done.  But ultimately I was seduced by the easy opportunity to throw a toprope over Mother's Day Party, a 5.10b just to the left of the MF bolts.  It was too convenient not to do it.  And besides, I'd never toproped any of the 5.10's at the Mac Wall, which was another big hole I needed to fill in my climbing resume.  Toproping at the Mac Wall, what could be more traditional for the Gunkie of today?

I enjoyed Mother's Day Party.  I wasn't really paying attention to the potential gear placements, but the two cruxes were both pretty brief.  I almost felt like leading it would be reasonable.  Climbing on toprope will fool you like that; in retrospect I am pretty sure the final crux moves are rather far from the gear.  I think if I tried to lead it I'd be scared silly at the finishing moves.

On toprope I got up the initial corner and face up to a little ledge without a problem.  This part of the route almost touches MF.  Next comes the first crux, which comes right off the little ledge.  It isn't so bad.  One thin move using a right-facing flake gets you to a great jug.

Then it gets steep as you work up an orange face to a little rooflet, where the leader might find his or her final gear.  The pumpy finishing moves (second crux) up and right through the big corner take you to the chains.  I blew the footwork at the final hard move and took a fall, then went right back up and realized to my chagrin that I would have sent the route on my first try if I'd just bothered to look around at the holds for about one second longer. 

Like me, Matt took one fall when it was his turn, but his error came at a different time.  He blew the first crux and then cruised through the second.

What would it really take for me to feel ready to lead a 5.10 route like Mother's Day Party? 

Part of it, I'm sure, is confidence.  But there's more.  I'd have to be faster, so I wouldn't flame out in the cruxes.  And I'd need to be prepared to commit to the 5.10 moves.  The hard moves on Mother's Day Party aren't mysterious.  But they require moving with dynamic pushes, with momentum.  I need to get more practiced at doing those kinds of moves on lead.  I'm not sure how to acquire the practice I need without walking up to a few of these 5.10 climbs and just going for it, trying them out.    

Friday, April 20, 2012

Those Pesky Gunks Sevens!

(Photo: That's me in the yellow/green jacket past the crux on Thin Slabs Direct (5.7+).)

In my last post I discussed (and expressed skepticism about) several supposed 5.8 sandbags in the Trapps.

Then on Friday of last week, climbing with a new partner Matt, I was reminded of some other sandbags that are not so easily dismissed.

These climbs are like landmines for the unsuspecting leader. They promise smooth, moderate sailing but instead deliver moments of puzzlement and sketchitude.

I speak, of course, of those bewildering oddites otherwise known as Gunks 5.7's.

Last Friday Matt and I were hoping to jump on Birdie Party, but we found it occupied. Matt suggested we do Anguish instead since it was open and neither of us had done it. It seemed like a good idea to me.  I intended to link the first two pitches in one and take us all the way up to the GT Ledge. Matt would take the crux 5.8 pitch to the top.  I thought the first two pitches looked pretty easy, except for the new crux of the first pitch that Dick Williams described in his 2004 guidebook. Instead of the traditional route, which moved to the right over a flake/corner at 5.4, Dick now recommends a roof escape to the left at 5.7-.

I thought I remembered a thread on where folks had complained that this roof escape felt much harder than 5.7.  (I can't find such a thread now, so maybe it never existed.)  But I wasn't worried.  I thought it might feel like a 5.8, but so what?  I'd be fine.  How bad could it be?

Then I got up there under the roof and found out.

I had pro in the corner but it was all the way at the back.  I tried to get something in the little flaring notch at the lip of the roof but I couldn't get anything on my rack to stick. 

Then I started to pull over the roof, looking for holds, but whatever holds there were seemed very far away.

So I retreated a bit to a stance and thought it over.  Dick said escape left, I realized.  He didn't say to pull the roof directly.

Going back up, I tried to follow Dick's orders and escape left.  I got a hold of some small crimps and moved around the outside arete.  But this put me at a really pumpy stance and the next move up was far from certain.  Plus my pro was over to the right and back in the corner.  I didn't like this at all.  I retreated again.

Three or four times I tried to make my escape but on each occasion I didn't like the move or the potential fall so I came back.  And then, defeated, I finally said "screw it" and finished the pitch the 5.4 way. 

What a way to start a new climbing partnership!  Bailing on a 5.7-.

Matt led the 5.8 pitch three of Anguish and it is really very good.  It has some nice crux moves up to the overhang; then the overhang itself is a bit easier.  The rest of the way is even more casual but the gear is a little thin.  The topout requires a few easy slab moves above your pro.

I wouldn't bother to repeat pitches one and two of Anguish-- the quality moments are few, even if you include the part I skipped-- but if I were descending from another climb using the nearby Three Pines rappel route I would definitely consider running up the third pitch of Anguish again.  The pitch begins on the GT Ledge right around the corner from the bolted anchor, and once you top out it's an easy walk just a few yards over to the bolts on top of the cliff for the descent.

Later in the day, after I'd redeemed myself a bit and led some harder climbs, I mentioned how embarrassed I was to have begun the day by chickening out on a 5.7-.  Matt responded that he'd taken a fall at the tricky crux move of Baskerville Terrace (5.7) just a few weeks before-- and this right after a successful lead of Roseland (5.9)!  So I didn't have to feel too bad.  He knew what I was going through.

Those pesky sevens!

There sure seem to be a lot of "problem" sevens at the Gunks, no?  I've certainly had more 5.7 difficulties than 5.8 difficulties.  I've never bailed on a 5.8 lead.  But here I abandoned Anguish pitch one, and I also remember a couple of seasons ago trying the opening move to Trapped Like a Rat (5.7) and then abandoning that one too.  And don't even get me started on that stupid grease-pole-of-a-sandbag Laurel.  Come to think of it, I once bailed on a 5.8:  Drunkard's Delight (5.8-), but that route too was until recently considered a 5.7+! 

We finished our day last Friday with perhaps the mother of all 5.7 sandbags: Thin Slabs Direct. 

Matt led the 5.7 variation to pitch one, and wouldn't you know it, as he approached the end of the vertical crack that marks the early part of the route, I heard him muttering "Why is this so tricky??" 

And then "Watch me here!" 

But he sketched through the hard part and then took the lead all the way to the GT Ledge. 

When it was my turn to follow I was kind of shocked at how thin the first two steps off the ground were.  I wasn't sure I could even get started on the pitch.  But we all know that no matter how hard the first move is, it doesn't count as part of the difficulty rating in the Gunks.  Once I got my feet on the wall and my hands in the crack, I thought the climbing was enjoyable and, yes, kind of stiff for 5.7.

When I got near the top of the crack I saw what Matt had been concerned about.  The hands were good, but the feet were smeary.  I knew with one more reach the angle would ease off; the harder variation start would be over.  As I smeared and reached up with the security of the toprope, I thought: "nice lead!"

And:  "5.7??"

Once I got to the GT Ledge I had to confront the Thin Slabs Direct finish, which is supposedly 5.7+.  This variation has the distinction of being the only "direct" finish I can think of that is actually substantially less direct than the regular route.  It is in fact the very antithesis of "direct."  The whole point of the variation is to force the leader to traverse to the right for fifteen to twenty feet out of the way, over a terrifying drop, with slippery hands and no real footholds to speak of. 

I first attempted this pitch in 2009.  Before I got to the Direct finish, I led Sente, onsight, to start the climb.  This was my first 5.9 lead ever, which made me very proud.  Then I joined Thin Slabs up to the GT Ledge and promptly got thoroughly humbled by Thin Slabs Direct.  I remember being so pumped as I attempted it.  I found it very difficult to let go with one hand long enough to clip the three ancient pitons that line the traverse; forget about even attempting to place my own gear.  Eventually, after going out and back a few times and taking a hang in the middle, I got to the end of the traverse and managed to pull my body inelegantly onto the shelf on the main face of the cliff.  Lying there on the shelf, I was grateful I had survived the climb, but I knew it was no victory. 

I wrote a little self-deprecating piece about the experience at the time on (see my post at the bottom of the page).  Until last Friday I hadn't been back.

And this time, climbing Thin Slabs Direct felt... well... tough for 5.7, that's for sure.  And it was still scary, there's no doubt about that.  But mostly climbing it again made me realize how much I've improved.  If you hang off that shelf in just the right way it isn't so pumpy.  There are footholds to be found, they just aren't very big.  And if you turn your body sideways, just so, your feet can really help you, and the clipping isn't so hard.  A little technique will get you there. 

This time, once I committed to the traverse I moved right through it, coming around the corner without a hitch.  It was a great way to end the day, and it nearly erased the bad feelings I got from pitch one of Anguish.

But still, after it was over, there was no escaping one conclusion:  Thin Slabs, with both variations, is a freaking HARD 5.7.  I mean really, what is it with those Gunks sevens?