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.

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