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.

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