(Photo: Gail showing off a little Moxie (5.9), approaching the good moves before the crux.)
This past Saturday was a fine day in the Gunks. A little warm (high 80's), but sunny. Gail and I expected the place to be a madhouse. So we decided to avoid the crowds by heading to the far side of the Near Trapps. Back in April, Gail and I had great fun in the Easter Time Too area, but we barely scratched the surface. We knew there were a ton of good climbs out there neither of us had tried before.
I hadn't been to the Gunks in a month. Although I'd had the great fortune to climb for four days in a row at the end of May/beginning of June in Squamish, by Saturday that trip seemed like ancient history. I was afraid I'd feel rusty in the Gunks. As we trooped out to the end of the Nears I suggested we start with a route that was somewhat familiar to me: The Main Line (5.8).
Gail has been leading a lot lately and I thought the second pitch of The Main Line would be good for her. She loves roofs and the Main Line roof crux, while burly, is short. I remembered the pro as rock solid. When I led this pitch two years ago I thought the pro was great.
On that day, back in 2011, I was climbing with Vass. I'd hoped to do the whole route but the first pitch of The Main Line was wet. We did the 5.8 first pitch of Ground Control, just to the right, instead. This pitch meets pitch one of The Main Line at its end, finishing at the same set of bolts. I didn't care for the first pitch of Ground Control; I found it awkward and not that much fun. But I loved the second pitch of The Main Line. And then our day came to an abrupt halt. After rapping back to the bolts, I started the second pitch of Ground Control (which is 5.9), but took a lead fall off of some wet holds and sprained a finger, ending our day early.
So on this past Saturday I thought Gail and I could knock off both pitches of The Main Line. I'd lead pitch one, and then Gail could tackle pitch two. And then maybe I'd get back on the second pitch of Ground Control and take care of that one as well.
When we got to The Main Line its corner it was dry so we did it.
I liked pitch one. It is rated 5.7 and I think that is fair. It has several nice, tricky moves on it. It ascends a left-facing corner. When the corner ends at a roof you step right to a slab, then move up to another left-facing corner, which leads you to the belay ledge with a bolted anchor. The larger, second corner is the crux of the pitch but it isn't a corner climb. The crux is getting to the good holds to the left of the corner.
I found the pro to be a little thin on pitch one. It wasn't a crisis, but at the cruxy moments I was often a bit above the gear. I couldn't get a piece right where I wanted it. If 5.7 is your leading limit this pitch might be a bit scary for you.
As we looked up at pitch two Gail wasn't really feeling like leading it. The roof is very intimidating. I'd been there before and thought I knew what to expect so I took the lead again. And the climbing went fine. This is an amazing pitch, with a steep, pumpy stance right beneath the huge overhang, and then one reachy 5.8 move to a jug and easier but still steep climbing up and right to the finish.
Although the climbing was no problem, the pro at the crux gave me fits. I remembered this great placement for a yellow Number 2 Camalot. Two years ago I got this odd but bomber placement right in the middle of the irregular pod above the lip of the roof. But not this time. I couldn't make it work. I tried over and over again. It drove me crazy, and I started to pump out. Eventually my leg started shaking like mad as I tried to force the yellow cam to fit. But it wouldn't go and Gail suggested I step down to rest.
I needed something there. I was confident in the move but the pro below the roof is several feet down and the fall down to the slab would be ugly if you blew it with only that lower piece for protection.
Finally I gave up on the yellow Camalot and got an Alien in one of the cracks on the side of the pod. I thought the piece was okay. It was going to have to do. I did the moves and finished the pitch, which was just as awesome as I remembered. But then when it was her turn Gail struggled with the crux move and when I pulled up on the rope, she was yanked sideways because she'd removed the cam from the pod and my next piece was up and to the right. She couldn't get the angle on the jug, ended up hanging and then couldn't get back on the rock. I lowered her to the belay and had to rap to her. She never got to do the pitch! I felt terrible. Next time I'll place another piece directly above the crux move.
When I rapped down to Gail the annoyances continued. I managed to feed the rope into a notch, getting it stuck. I had to traverse to the right from the bolts until I could yank it free.
It was turning into one of those days.
Back at the bolts, I took a look up at the second pitch of Ground Control. I wanted to do it, but I was already hot, sweaty, and dehydrated. I felt kind of worked over after what was supposed to be our warm-up climb! It seemed like we should go down, have a drink, and find something else.
We ended up doing a lot of fun climbing during the rest of our day, but after our little fiasco on The Main Line I never did feel like I was climbing my best.
We decided next to hit Mac-Reppy (5.11c), which is just left of The Main Line. I was not expecting to get the onsight. 5.11c is just a bit above my pay grade, so to speak. But the crux is one super-hard move at a huge roof, and the rest of the climb has a reputation for being a great 5.8, with a good upper crux involving stemming a corner to get around another huge roof.
I ended up aiding the 5.11 crux. There is a bunch of stiff, faded slings hanging at the crux roof and I imagine many folks bail from there when they get shut down. This station could use some new slings; I would not have felt comfortable using the stuff that is there, as it is pretty junky. But there's no need to bail, people! You can aid the hard bit and the rest of the climb is really nice.
I made a few token efforts at the move. I placed a bomber big nut in the side-pull above the roof and tried to figure out how on earth I would get my feet up into the corner. There is a jug wayyyyyy up there if you can figure out how to stand up and reach it. In retrospect I wish I had made a serious go of it and risked at least one fall. But in the moment I didn't want to waste any more of our day and so instead after a few exploratory attempts at the move I decided it wasn't happening. I pulled on the draw attached to my nut, placed another higher nut, extended a sling on it, and stepped into the sling while I pulled on the higher piece. This got me over the lip of the roof. I could then reach the jug and resume free climbing. I have no experience in this kind of French-free climbing and I found it simple enough. If I can do it then so, dear reader, can you.
The rest of the climb is very worthwhile. There are some really nice 5.8-ish face moves low, just off the ground, and then the upper 5.8 crux is great. Be aware that you have to fully commit to stemming way out at the upper crux roof and getting the first holds above the overhang before you can place gear. Once you are fully in it, though, the pro is great for the few 5.8 moves to the top. It is very exciting. If you are considering attempting the lower 5.11 crux then you shouldn't be too freaked out by the pro situation above.
After Mac-Reppy, we walked further down the cliff, considering and rejecting several candidates until we got to the very end of the Nears. There we found Up In Arms (5.9), a striking diagonal crack climb up an overhanging wall. The crack is jagged, and it widens from fingers to hands as you go up. And this being the Gunks, there are also horizontals to grab along the way. There is pro everywhere.
(Photo: Striking a pose on Up In Arms (5.9).)
This is a quality climb, really strenuous for 5.9 and very unusual for the Gunks. I admit I struggled in this steep section. I took a few hangs. I didn't jam much; mostly I threw in jams when I wanted to place gear. All I could think of was how thirsty and tired I felt, after just a few pitches. I realized that it was time to admit that the summer was really upon us. I might need to dial it back a bit on these hot days.
The diagonal crack system takes you left to a chimney, which is more of a gully, really. It is easy climbing up the gully and then the pitch gets weird again near the top of the gully as you hand traverse right using a little bit of stemming until finally you commit to the overhanging wall again for a move or two around a corner to the main face and the belay tree.
We decided to do pitch two, another very unusual, interesting pitch. This one is reputed to be 5.8. First you step across the gully to an arete below a roof. You have to figure out a way to move up and around the arete onto the face beneath the roof, and then pull over the roof to the right of a crack that runs straight out the underside. I enjoyed all of the climbing on this pitch, but it doesn't appear to get done very often. I didn't see any chalk and the holds above the roof were a little dirty. I felt supremely sandbagged at the roof. I made it over and I know I was hot and tired, but still, I believe I have enough experience to judge when a roof in the Gunks should be 5.8 and this is not such a roof! I thought it was hard 5.9, with big moves to so-so holds. (Gail employed a heel hook with a mantel, not exactly your average 5.8 maneuver.) The pro is good, though. The roof is a fitting capper to a very intriguing route. Up In Arms packs a ton of interesting challenges into two short pitches.
There is a belay tree with slings at the very top of Up In Arms but please don't use it. The slings are all old and crusty and the tree itself looks none too healthy. If I'd had a knife with me I would have cut the crappy tat off of that tree. There are other trees behind for the belay and you can walk off down Smede's Cove. The trail down a rocky drainage is easy to find and it only takes a few minutes.
(Photo: Negotiating the lower bits of Moxie (5.9).)
Once we returned to our packs we walked back the other way and decided to try Moxie (5.9). This is a short pitch but a good one. The climb follows a weakness up and right to a blank-looking corner. The crux is finding a way to move up into the corner and then around onto the face and the rap tree. I enjoyed the 5.7/5.8-ish climbing up to the crux corner and then felt stuck for a minute at the crux. It is a bit of a puzzler, as it seems there are no holds! Anyway there is good pro right there for you at your hip while you sort it all out. I don't want to reveal the solution; I'll just say that, as is typical in the Gunks, the answer to the corner isn't inside but outside. I was relieved to onsight this 5.9, after my struggles on Up In Arms.
With order thus restored to the universe, we made an attempt at another 5.9, our final route of the day: Cherokee, a single-pitch 5.9 that is afforded two stars by Dick Williams in his latest guidebook.
(Photo: Gail at the crux of Cherokee (5.9).)
Dick describes the crux, which goes up a shallow open book about 20 feet up, as being harder for shorter people. I disregarded this warning. He says that all the time, and whenever I hear someone say a climb is height-dependent I dismiss it as weak excuse-making. Real men use technique, they don't whine about reachy moves.
So I had no worries, until I went right up Cherokee and got completely shut down at the crux. It was a just reward for my hubris, but I really don't think height is the issue. It seemed to me the route requires you to use terrible footholds and a tiny two-finger undercling hold in order to reach up to the jug. I got a good brassie nut in the key hold. It did not block the hold. But the hold sucks; it is one pad deep! I kept trying to step up but then kept stepping down. I never took a fall but I just couldn't see this move working out. It felt like I was just going to slip right off. I think a tall person would have to make the same move.
Eventually I said screw it, grabbed the draw on the brassie and stepped up to the good hold. It was my second French-free lead of the day. I guess I really should have gone for it at least once and made the move or taken the fall. I knew my pro was good. Anyway, after I aided the crux the rest of the pitch was really quite nice, with lots of steep 5.8 moves up orange rock. There is some loose rock right after the crux, and a wedged block near the top that gave me the willies. And I thought it was kind of run out through the middle of the pitch. Gail, on top rope, was just as mystified by the crux move. She aided it too after deciding this was the sort of move that could make you rip a pulley or tendon.
I'd like to say that I'll go back to Cherokee on a cooler day when it feels less greasy. But I'm not sure I ever really want to go back and do that crux move. It does seem like an injury waiting to happen. Apart from that move it is a very good pitch, steep and consistent. It just keeps coming at you.
We still had hours of daylight to go but after Cherokee we were both whipped. We decided to call it a day. Another party walked up to Cherokee as we were packing up and as we left the leader was experiencing the exact same WTF mystery as we did at the crux, so I walked away feeling like at least I hadn't lost my mind.
I felt a little let down by my performance on the day. I've felt so good on every 5.9 I've tried in the Gunks for what seems like an eternity; I was surprised at how challenging I found the ones I tried on Saturday. But I came down with a mean head cold in the last couple of days so maybe I have an excuse. Or maybe I just need to stop sucking! Tomorrow is another day.