Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Millbrook: Westward Ha! (5.7) & Cruise Control (5.9)

(Photo: Just above the final crux of Cruise Control (5.9). Photo by Christian Fracchia.)

Millbrook is a cliff with a fearsome reputation.

Unlike the other large cliffs at the Gunks, Millbrook has no easy access. A hike of at least three miles is required to approach the cliff. Once there, you have to rap in from above to get to the climbs. All of the climbs start from a narrow, sloping shelf popularly known as the "Death Ledge." Above this Death Ledge is a rotten band of rock; many of the climbing routes negotiate crumbly, loose territory for the first thirty to forty feet. And even if you survive the rotten band, you aren't out of the woods. The climbs at Millbrook are steep, difficult, and often poorly protected. 5.11 X is a common rating at Millbrook.

This is a serious cliff. You need to have a good idea of your limits before you go there. When you climb at Millbrook, you will likely be climbing alone. If something goes wrong, help is going to be hard to come by.

Does this sound like fun to you?

And yet the cliff has very attractive qualities as well. For starters, it is the highest, whitest, most impressive cliff at the Gunks. You might not notice it so much from New Paltz but if you spend any time in the area to the south, in Gardiner, for example, you can't help but feel its presence. We've rented a house on Bruynswick Road, which parallels the ridge, and every time I've driven down to this house from the north, following the road past all the major cliffs, I've been struck by how Millbrook looms over the area in the most appealing and inviting way. It is a beautiful, solemn place.

And there are great climbs at Millbrook. Not just hard man test-pieces (of which there are many), but also great moderates (or so I've been told). The introductory Millbrook route, right at the center of the cliff (next to the rappel tree), is Westward Ha!, a climb some consider to be the best 5.7 in the Gunks. Just to the right of Westward Ha! is a classic 5.9 called Cruise Control. Another reputed classic 5.9, Realm of the Fifth Class Climber, is down at the southern end of the cliff. And there are more, a handful of 5.7 to 5.9 climbs that I hear are well-protected and well worth doing, along with several world-class 5.10's and 5.11's that have reasonable pro.

Above all, Millbrook offers solitude, mystery, and the unknown, things which are in short supply at the other major cliffs at the Gunks. Millbrook provides a chance to get away from the same crowded routes you did yesterday and to step into what feels like a real alpine adventure.

Until this past weekend I'd never been climbing at Millbrook. I've been really wanting to go lately, intrigued by Christian Fracchia's website The White Cliff, which has wonderfully detailed topo photos of the whole cliff, along with updated route information that is more precise than what you'll find in any of the official guidebooks. I contacted Chris when I started thinking about climbing at Millbrook, and he gave me great advice about potential routes to climb and how best to reach them.

This past Sunday seemed like a good day to go. Clear skies and cool temperatures made for perfect conditions for hiking out to the cliff. Gail was willing to troop out there with me. I hoped we could knock off the two most obvious candidates, Westward Ha! (5.7) and Cruise Control (5.9), and still have time to maybe hit another moderate like The High Traverse (5.8 with the variation finish) or Realm of the Fifth Class Climber (5.9), mentioned above.

(Photo: On the trail to Millbrook, with Skytop visible in the distance.)

Dick Williams suggests in his guidebook that the hike out to Millbrook will take about an hour. For us the trip was uneventful but it took longer than that. We were slowed a bit by a lot of wetness on the trail, which I guess was a remnant of some heavy rain that fell a few nights before. The hike is perfectly pleasant, and I bet it is quite beautiful in late May/early June when the mountain laurel is in bloom.

(Photo: The rap tree is dead, Fred! What do we do now?)

Once we dead-ended into the Millbrook Mountain Trail and followed it to the cliff's edge, we had no trouble winding our way down to find the traditional rappel tree atop Westward Ha! Unfortunately, however, this tree is 100 percent deceased, as in dead, i.e. finished. This was a shock to us because everyone apparently still uses the dead tree! I don't know how long it has been this way but man, it is over and has been for a while. The tree is a black hulk. We briefly considered using it anyway, since it is such a huge tree, and it is unlikely to fail under body weight for quite a while. But it gave me the willies. I did not feel good about the idea of using it.

Looking around, we saw other rappel options, so it was easy for us not to use the dead tree. We found two trees that were decent-sized and very much alive, about 30 or 40 feet left (south) of the Westward Ha! rappel. These trees are also maybe 20 or 30 feet higher than the dead tree, but I was confident my 60 meter rope would still reach the Death Ledge, since I knew the rap from the dead tree was only 150-160 feet to the ledge.

(Photo: Rapping over the steepness that is Millbrook.)

I leaned out over the lip from our improvised rappel station to check the rap; it appeared to be a sheer drop to the ledge. It did not seem that there were any obstacles and I was more or less certain that the rope would reach. I also felt entirely sure that we would have no trouble climbing a 5.7 route to get off of the cliff. We would not be trapped down there. Still, I felt very nervous. It took a leap of faith to back my ass off the cliff and descend into the unknown. But this whole adventure was my idea, so I had to be the first one to go. I set up my rappel and off I went.

(Photo: The obvious corner of Westward Ha! (5.7).)

Once we both got down without incident, it was very easy to find the prominent corner ascended by Westward Ha! (5.7). And although the Death Ledge wasn't huge, the shelf was flat and wide enough at this part of the cliff for us to move around without fear that we were about to slip off of it and tumble to the talus some 70 or 80 feet below. (Nevertheless we stayed anchored while on the ledge.)

(Photo: Getting started on Westward Ha! (5.7).)

I had read that you could take any of several independent little lines up the first forty feet of the route to reach the prominent corner system. I could see that the path on the left looked the easiest, ascending blocky flakes all the way to the corner. But I guessed that this collection of flakes also contained a bunch of loose crap, giving this part of the route its reputation for bad rock. So I decided to go to the right, up a line that appeared to have obvious holds and solid rock, leading to a leftward traverse to the big corner.

(Photo: Gail coming up the right-hand start to Westward Ha!, which has nice climbing, good rock, and pretty good pro.)

I thought this part of the route had decent climbing, though the final moves left to the ledge seemed a bit thin to me for 5.7 and required the use of a fragile crimper hold. If this crimp breaks off, I think this start will be much harder than 5.7 in the future. Once I reached the tree at the base of the big corner I decided to stop and belay Gail from there. The short first pitch would cut down on drag and allow us to do the whole rest of the climb in one pitch.  Gail agreed that the right hand start was a little stiff for 5.7.

(Photo: In the final moves up the pretty white face at the top of Westward Ha! (5.7).)

We found the rest of Westward Ha! to be superb. The corner is sustained, with one fine move after another. A crack goes up the back of the corner for most of the way, so pro is frequently available, and you can jam if you wish, although there are plenty of edges so it isn't necessary.

From the top of the corner you emerge at the crux of the route, thin moves up an attractive white face. Again the pro is there and the moves are great, and then before you know it you're at the top.

Westward Ha! is a very very nice 5.7. I would not call it the best 5.7 in the Gunks, because to me it lacks the mind-blowing standout moments that you'll find on the very best climbs, like, say, Thin Slabs Direct or CCK. Westward Ha! doesn't really have any one outstanding moment or section, though the whole thing is quite good. I enjoyed it immensely and thought it was well worth the walk.  And I would do it again the same way, with the short pitch at the bottom, followed by a longer pitch with all of the great climbing in it.

Back on top of the cliff, it was already late for lunch. We had a bite and then rapped back down to check out Cruise Control (5.9). Like Westward Ha!, this climb is easy to find. If you continue walking right (north) just a short distance from Westward Ha!, maybe thirty feet or so, stepping over a boulder that is resting against the cliff face, you will quickly come to a spot below a small, left-facing corner in orange rock that leads up to a groove/shallow open book. The open book then trends up and right to a roof. This is Cruise Control.

It looked good to me. I had wondered earlier in the day if, when push came to shove, I would feel up to a 5.9 on Millbrook. Before we started Westward Ha!, I was so nervous, worrying about how the rock would feel, and about whether we were really equipped to deal with the climbing at this cliff. I did not want us to exceed our limits. But once we completed Westward Ha! these concerns melted away. The rock felt fine. The climbing was familiar. I knew I could handle leading a Gunks 5.9, and Cruise Control was supposed to be on the easy side of the grade. This was going to be no problem.

The first pitch was a great pleasure. The moves up the initial corner are nice, and the rock quality through the rotten band seemed fine to me. I can't remember any terrible looseness. Then the crux climbing comes at a technical sequence up the shallow open book. The left side of the book forms a beautiful layback flake with solid pro. By the time I was through this sequence I was already telling Gail how wonderful the pitch was, and I hadn't even reached the roof.

The overhang adds another cool dimension to the pitch. It is a solid 5.8+/5.9- affair, again with great gear. After you pull over it the pitch romps up easy territory to a pedestal where there are good cracks for a gear anchor. (You could also continue to the next shelf.)

(Photo: Pulling over the roof on pitch one of Cruise Control (5.9).)

As I prepared for pitch two, I thought the real business of the climb was over. The second pitch is 5.8, and I assumed the groove and roof on pitch one were the main attractions of the climb. I didn't expect much out of the second pitch.

Boy was I wrong. The second pitch of Cruise Control is amazing.

It starts up the obvious right-facing corner that rises above the belay ledge. But after 20 or 30 feet you need to traverse around the corner to the left and onto the face of the cliff. I placed a good nut while still in the corner but felt obligated to sling it really long to avoid the prospect of horrendous drag.

Peering around the corner, I could see good little footholds. But I was blind as to the hands, and the face above looked blank. Would there be any placements out there? Dick Williams rates this pitch as 5.8 G. That would seem to indicate that there must be pro out there, right?

Making the commitment and stepping out onto the face was spectacular. I found myself on a gorgeous white billboard beneath a small ceiling. The rock was solid and I could see the path up and left. The climbing here was easier than 5.8.

But there wasn't any pro. I spied a wide horizontal at the top of the billboard, at the overlap. I hoped my largest cam, a big blue Camalot, would fit. I moved up, easy does it, one exquisite move and then another. Staying focused. By the time I reached the overlap I was surely well into R-rated territory. A fall at that point would have been a long, sideways, swinging affair.

I tried to place the blue Camalot. It was tipped-out and biting into mud in the crack. Not good at all.

What to do? Maybe the blue cam would fit better if I moved it further to the left, off-line?

Looking around, I realized I'd fallen victim to tunnel vision. There was a vertical crack system just above me running upward, the continuation of the route. But in my fixation on the wide horizontal crack I hadn't even seen it.  I could get a great cam or nut right over my head. I threw a yellow Alien in the vertical crack and exhaled. 

Everything was going to be fine.

(Photo: Topping out on Cruise Control (5.9). Photo by Christian Fracchia.)

Just then, as I breathed a sigh of relief and looked upward, I saw a human head peek out from the top of the cliff.

"Chris, is that you?"

It was! I had told Fracchia I was headed out to Millbrook and he showed up (with his sheepdog) to see how I liked it and to snap a few photos.

While he got set up to shoot I climbed through the physical crux of the pitch, up the fun crack system through another overlap and on to the top. As I finished the climb Chris got the nice photos you see here.  Then we hung out and chatted while Gail climbed the pitch.  When she topped out she too was thrilled with the awesomeness of the second pitch of Cruise Control.

I think Cruise Control is one of the best moderate climbs in the Gunks. The first pitch is great, and the second is stupendous. If you are cool with the 5.9 climbing on pitch one then the runout on pitch two through easier territory shouldn't bother you too much. But I do think Dick's 5.8 G rating for the second pitch is misleading. It should be something like 5.8 G (5.6+ R).

When we finished Cruise Control it was already mid-afternoon and we figured that including time spent packing up and walking, it would be at least another hour and a half before we'd reach the car. We thought about trying to do one more pitch but decided to call it a day instead. This turned out to be the right call, as I was really drooping by the time we finished the hike back to civilization. After four pitches of climbing and three hours of hiking I was exhausted. Gail was still hiking strong.  I could barely keep up with her.  I need to toughen up, I think.

I was so satisfied with the climbing we did at Millbrook. Getting to the cliff may be inconvenient, but the isolation gives the place a special atmosphere and a solitude you just can't get at the other cliffs. On this beautiful Sunday, while the other cliffs were surely overrun with gumbies (and I mean no offense to all of you gumbies out there), Gail and I were the only people climbing at Millbrook all day.  

I hope it doesn't take me a year or more to go back. There are several other climbs I'm dying to try. Maybe I've got the Millbrook bug.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Single-Pitch Cragging in the Nears: Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d), Easter Time Too (5.8) & More

(Photo: Climber on Birdland (5.8). Taken from base of Grease Gun Groove (5.6).)

I'm back, baby.

The elbow seems okay. I've been to the Gunks twice in April and, knock on wood, I've had no problems.

My first time climbing outside since November was with a new partner, David. We had not met in person but we were familiar with one another from Gunks.com. We were both looking to shake off the rust of the off-season, so our day was filled with moderate classics in the Trapps, many of which I have written about before. It was so great to be outside climbing, I felt like a puppy in the park. I put up Son of Easy O (5.8) in one pitch for my first climb of the year. Climbing in the Gunks doesn't get much better than that, and I felt good, handling the cruxy bits somewhat deliberately but with ease. I also knocked off the two-move wonder Maria Direct without too much trouble, so that was my first 5.9 of the year. We then hit the second and third pitches of Maria (5.6+), Classic (5.7 and with a new pin!), Drunkard's Delight (5.8-), and I ended the day by leading the first pitch of Bloody Mary into the second pitch of Morning After (both 5.7). This was a really great rope-stretcher pitch. Good variety and I think the link-up makes for one of the best 5.7's in the Gunks.

What a great day. I was tentative at first but as our day went on I felt more comfortable with the rock and the gear. By the end I was climbing reasonably well, moving faster and with less gear-fiddling. It was great to meet and swap leads with David. I hope to do some more climbing with him this year. He was talking up Millbrook and I have my fingers crossed that maybe he'll show me around out there.

This past Sunday I got out to the Gunks again, this time with Gail. We decided to head over to the Nears.

It was a spring weekend so of course it was crowded. The cliff already had parties on several of the classics closest to the parking lot; we found climbers on Disneyland, Te Dum, and Birdland. But we kept walking and found Grease Gun Groove (5.6) open so I suggested we get on it.

(Photo: Gail heading up Grease Gun Groove (5.6).)

Gail decided that she wanted to lead it and she did a nice job with it. Of course the climb is well within her abilities. This is a good 5.6 lead. There is plenty of gear and a lot of good climbing. It is fairly continuous. The hardest move is the first one, right off the deck, so if you are at all worried about leading it, just get on it and see if you can get started. If you can get on the wall, you should be fine for the rest of it!

While I was standing there belaying Gail I started looking over at the climb next door, Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d). I had never had a single thought about this climb in my life but as I sized it up I got intrigued. It begins with an unprotected boulder problem but I thought I'd be fine there. And I could see the horizontal that protects the upper crux. It looked good, and from the ground it appeared that the crux was short. Why not try the route?

(Photo: Just past the opening boulder problem on Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d).)

I wish I could say I sent it onsight but it didn't work out that way. It is a good little route, though, and a safe 5.10 lead. The opening challenge is just to get off the ground and reach the first shelf. So although there isn't any gear for the move, a fall here is just a foot or two back to the ground. I thought the start was no harder than Maria Direct, so I'd put it about 5.9. (Swain says 5.8+.) After you grab the shelf you still have to make a couple of moves to get gear but these moves are easier.

(Photo: Just past the crux on Tulip Mussel Garden (5.10d).)

After the initial moves the climbing is enjoyable up to the stance below the crux. I was a little disconcerted by a flake/feature up the middle of the route that is surprisingly hollow. The flake really rings when you knock on it, and there's no choice but to climb on it and use it for gear. I tried not to worry about it too much. It probably isn't going anywhere.

And then the crux is just as well-protected as Dick says. There is a bomber slot for a Number 2 Camalot, and a good stance from which to place it. The crux is a short sequence of moves. I felt like I'd diagnosed the start of it perfectly. I had good footwork. All my gym bouldering seemed to be paying off. But then I just couldn't get the final move to the big jug. I went up and down several times, and then fell and hung a few times.

I was about to give up, but Gail suggested I try it one more time. And then I finally figured it out. One little bump with the left hand was all I was missing.

If I weren't a little weak from my month off maybe I would have sent it first go.... In any case Gail on top rope made it look incredibly easy. I'm sure if I bother to go back I can get it next time. I would definitely recommend Tulip Mussel Garden as a great option for anyone looking for a safe 5.10 lead with a short crux.

(Photo: Gail in the opening dihedral of Boston Tree Party (5.8).)

After we were done with Tulip Mussel Garden we decided to head way down the cliff to the Easter Time Too (5.8) area. Neither Gail nor I had ever done any of the climbs in this area, and it appeared from the guidebook that Dick uncovered several nice one-pitch climbs in this general area. We found a party on Easter Time Too when we arrived so we started with the group of climbs just to its left. We ended up doing just about all of the climbs in this little crag-within-a-crag and enjoyed them all quite a bit. It is a very pleasant neighborhood in which to spend an afternoon.

From left to right, we did:

As The Cliff Turns (5.9): This climb doesn't look like much from the ground but it has two pretty neat 5.9 cruxes. Good climbing up an arching corner takes you to the first crux, an unusual high-step move up the face. Then the finishing overhang is another solid challenge. You have to unlock the surprising sequence to get up to the roof and then a few jams help get you to the finishing jugs. I really enjoyed this one, fun climbing and well-protected.

Day Tripper (5.8): The interesting thing here is the chimney above the starting corner. I wasn't sure I was psyched to lead this one but afterwards I was glad we did it. It does require you to get your body into the chimney, but then one move later you get out again. I thought it qualified as fun. Then you move up right to a typical Gunks roof escape and easy climbing up a groove to the anchor. This climb is fine, though I doubt I would give it two stars as Dick does. There is a 5.10 direct finish variation out the roof... It might be worth coming back to try that one but it looks awfully hard to me!

Boston Tree Party (5.8): This one is more challenging than Day Tripper, both mentally and physically. Dick says it is a little scary until you get pro in during the initial 5.7 climbing up the open book. I found two micronuts that I liked right off the deck (though the first one later popped out!) but it is a little hairy as you step up right to the end of the roof. There is a critical placement in a vertical seam partway up to the roof and if you were to fall there before getting the piece in, it would be an ugly swing back to the open book and perhaps the ground. Once you turn the corner, the route involves steep 5.8 face climbing with pro that I found adequate but spaced. The wall here could stand to clean up a little more. I pulled on a pebble that came off and hit me in the eye while I was leading, and Gail pulled off at least a couple more. Also if you stay to the right of Day Tripper as the angle eases, the interesting moves continue to the ledge but the face gets dirtier and a bit lichenous. Despite these imperfections I thought this was nevertheless a really fun pitch. I enjoyed the open book and the steep face climbing. Gail thought the whole thing was kind of spicy and hard for 5.8. I'd say in the final analysis that I think 5.8 is a fair grade but I would not send a new 5.8 leader up this one. You'd want to be pretty confident in the grade.

(Photo: In the early bits of Easter Time Too (5.8).)

Easter Time Too (5.8): 80 feet of pure joy. This vertical crack system is obviously the main attraction of the area. Beautiful climbing up a natural line, great holds, great gear anywhere you want it. I didn't want this to end. If this climb were closer to the Uberfall it might be the most popular route in the Gunks. I thought it was a three-star experience. If only it were a little longer.

Good Friday Climb (5.9): Another great pitch. Blissful 5.9 climbing up an unimpeachable face. I was debating whether to lead this or toprope it from the Easter Time chains, but I looked over at Good Friday while I was being lowered from Easter Time and it appeared to me that there would be just barely enough pro, so I went for it. In the end I felt okay about the gear, but be warned that if you lead Good Friday Climb, you want to be proficient with micronuts and tiny cams, and don't pass up any placements. The climbing is really nice, whether on top rope or on lead. I might like to go back and continue up the cliff on this one. Sounds from the guidebook like an exciting (though dirty) 5.9+ roof on the third pitch.

At the end of the day I felt pretty good! The eights and nines all felt casual to me. I was very comfortable on the rock. I never would have predicted that I would try to tackle a 5.10d on my second climbing day of the season. And did I get a little bold all of a sudden? The boulder problem at the base of Tulip Mussel Garden, the scary bit at the bottom of Boston Tree Party, the thin gear on Good Friday Climb-- none of it was much of an issue. I seem to be in about the same place where I was last summer, easily handling the 5.9's and struggling on the 5.10's. I hope for big things this year. Maybe soon I'll start actually sending the 5.10's instead of flailing on them.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Elbonics Continued

I took almost the entire month of March off from climbing. It seemed like a lifetime.

I rested.

It was so boring I wanted to die. What do people do in the evenings?

I read a book.

It was okay. I considered reading another but that seemed like an admission of defeat.

Anyway I eventually, finally, got more information about my injury. I went back to the doctor to discuss the results of my MRI.

He told me I had "avulsed" my "palmaris longus" off of the "flexor wad."

When I stared back at him blankly he explained that this meant I had ripped a tendon entirely out of my elbow.

It seemed like terrible news to me but the doctor didn't seem to think so. In fact he sounded amused. He said he was rather intrigued by my injury because you don't usually see injuries to this particular tendon.

I was willing to indulge this idle chit-chat up to a point but all I really cared about was the bottom line. What did this mean?

"Oh it's good news!" The doctor said, at long last. "You don't need the palmaris longus. More than ten percent of people don't even have one! You'll be fine. Just treat it like a strain. Wait until the swelling goes down, and then you can go back to climbing."

What a relief.

The doctor sent me to physical therapy, and after my first session the therapist said he didn't see any reason why I couldn't return to the climbing gym. He said I should take it easy.

I promised I would take it nice and slow...

So I've been to Brooklyn Boulders four times in the past week. It is so good to be back. The elbow feels fine now. But I am trying to take it easy. And I am avoiding the crimpiest problems. I am relieved to find that I can still climb more or less the same as before, although I think I need to build my strength back up a little bit.

Tomorrow I am going back to the Gunks for the first time since November. I can't wait. I have many goals for the year, many 5.10 climbs I want to tackle. I have booked a trip to Squamish for early June, so I need to find a way to get in some practice climbing cracks and on granite. I also suddenly feel a strong desire to discover more of what Millbrook and Lost City have to offer.

So many goals, but for now I am just thrilled to be going climbing again.