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.