Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gunks Routes: Broken Sling (5.8) & Bird Cage (5.10b)

September 25 was one of those incredible autumn days in the Gunks. We enjoyed perfect temperatures, fresh air, grippy rock... Who could ask for anything more?

I was climbing with a new partner named Michael. I met him on the Internet. He was looking for someone to climb with on a Tuesday and I had the opportunity to take a day off so I jumped in. We had a really nice day together in the Near Trapps, doing what for me were some new routes and some old favorites. Michael let me do most of the leading, which is always a bonus (though of course I'm also happy to follow sometimes)!

We warmed up on an old favorite: Te Dum. I elected to do the direct variation, which goes straight up a corner to the nice face with a crack, rather than starting several feet to the left and traversing to the crack later. I enjoyed this (5.6) direct start and then after rejoining the regular route the face with the crack surprised me, as it always does. I always forget about this good face climbing which comes before the crux move around the tree. And after the crux the easy climbing up a slab to the finish is a pleasure. Te Dum is a very nice route. Definitely do it in one pitch.

Once we walked back around I proposed we do a climb I've been thinking about for years but have never quite gotten up the nerve to do: Broken Sling (5.8).

This climb is known as a test piece at its grade. The bouldery opening move has always frightened me. It looks like an ankle-breaker. I've also heard that the second pitch has a traverse that is hard to protect. Despite these real concerns I've been wanting to do it. I've been pretty confident the climbing would go fine, and it is a three-star climb, after all. You can't pass up a three star 5.8 forever.

Michael was fine with it so I was in business.

(Photo: The bouldery, polished start to Broken Sling (5.8). Look for the footholds-- they do exist!)

I think the first pitch is great. It just keeps coming at you with challenging moves. I felt it was hard for 5.8, but well-protected. The leader has to make just one or two moves off the ground before he or she can grab the initial shelf and place a bomber yellow Camalot to the left. It is a little strenuous to place the cam but you really should do it because the next move, which gets you to a standing position under the roof, is no gimme. After these initial moves the crux is over but the roof which comes next is a good 5.8 challenge... as is the climbing up a crack to the right which follows, and the final moves up onto the slab on which you build a belay. It is all challenging. I kept waiting for the pitch to ease off but it just keeps on going all the way to the belay stance.

I reckon the second is at greater risk of injury in a fall than the leader on the opening moves, since even with a top rope the second might crater with just a little slack or rope stretch. I tried to keep it very tight on Michael as he began the pitch, but he was fine on the moves so we had no worries.

(Photo: Michael working out the final awkward move to the belay ledge on pitch one of Broken Sling.)

While pitch one of Broken Sling is a sandbag, pitch two is just kinda scary.

The climbing is nice and completely different from pitch one. You make a delicate traverse right for 15-20 feet, then more thin moves take you up to a ceiling, where you traverse back left to a great roof problem which finishes the pitch.

The pro is the issue. The initial traverse provides little reliable gear. I actually got three pieces in but I didn't have 100 percent faith in any of them. Maybe my blue Alien was good. Maybe my sideways-placed small nut was solid but I did not want to test these pieces. The pink Tricam in a flaring pocket? Fuhgeddaboudit. My anxiety increased as I moved up to the ceiling, because there is no pro at all-- good or bad-- for these interesting moves after the traverse.

Once you reach the ceiling there's bomber gear and then two steps left take you to the notch, where there is gear galore. A few burly moves through the overhang and you're done.

I really enjoyed Broken Sling and I'd probably do it again. But it is not a climb for the new 5.8 leader. You want to feel really solid in the grade. It is necky.

After we were done with Broken Sling Michael said he was interested in leading Birdland so we went over there next. This is one of the most popular climbs in the Gunks, and it is regularly used to set up the harder climbs around the corner, so even on a Tuesday I expected we might find people there.

Sure enough there was a party of three on the route. They seemed to be moving quickly so I thought maybe while we waited I'd lead the next-door Farewell to Arms (5.8), another test piece at the grade. I have followed it once but never led it. The pin that protects the low traverse recently fell out, and I wondered, as I looked it over, whether there are placements to compensate for the missing pin.

But then my attention turned to the other climb that starts in the same location: Bird Cage (5.10b).

This climb follows a beautiful natural line, going up the crack at the back of the open book to the left of Birdland. Then a thin traverse out right (some call this the crux) under a huge ceiling takes you to a notch where you surmount the gigantic overhang (the other crux).

Bird Cage was one of the 5.10's on my list. It looked so appealing, irresistible even. I had to get on it.

(Photo: Michael working up the 5.9 corner on Bird Cage (5.10b).)

I thought the initial 5.9 corner was amazing. It is technical, continuous and challenging, but there is always gear nearby and if you have patience the moves present themselves. About halfway up I stopped at a mini-stance, thinking I was through the hard moves, and reflected upon how much I was enjoying myself. Then the business resumed again and it got a bit harder still. Thankfully the corner eases off before you reach the overhang so you can cozy up to the top of the corner, scope out the traverse and get plenty of rest before embarking on the crux of the route.

I got two good cams at the top of the corner and surveyed what was to come. There is a junky old pin a few feet out on the traverse and then a pair of fixed wires at the back of the roof right where you pull over it. The nuts looked good to me. It appeared I had two options for the traverse out to the notch in the roof. I could use some tiny crimps up high, or instead some tiny undercling holds a little lower. It seemed like you'd have to get your feet up pretty high to use the underclings. I couldn't tell how it was going to work out until I committed. But after clipping the pin I checked out the high crimps, and I did not care for them, not one bit.

So I stepped down, swallowed deeply and committed to the underclings. I tried to place my toes very carefully, put my weight on the left-hand jug, reach over and shift to the undercling. And it worked. Just a step or two went by and I found myself at the mid-point of the roof, under the cleft, at some small but positive crimps and some good little edges for my toes. I carefully clipped both of the nuts, took another breath and reached out to the cleft at the lip of the roof...

And it was on, baby! What a great roof. I don't want to give it away but this is a fantastic sequence. Your body needs to be facing in one direction to get started and then the other to finish. There are bomber holds.

I fired through it and I had my second Gunks 5.10b onsight of September! It was so satisfying. Crouching at the cramped stance above the roof, I placed a cam and felt like a million bucks. Just a month ago I was out of practice and wondering if I would get anywhere at all with my 5.10 list during the remainder of 2013, but here I was now, seemingly in pretty good form on Bird Cage. Sending season had really started to come through for me.

(Photo: Michael eying the traverse on Bird Cage.)

After I came down to belay Michael I was talking to some folks at the base who suggested that there is an easier way to get to the roof, by moving out onto the face about ten feet below the overhang and heading to the right, following a seam to the roof.

Michael struggled a bit with Bird Cage and eventually gave up on the difficult traverse, and when I went up to clean the gear I got to try this face variation. I do think it is easier, and the moves up at the seam are thin and interesting. I wish I'd thought to check out the gear but I didn't. Anyway, although this variation is good I don't think it gives you the full challenge of the real Bird Cage. Being right up against that roof and figuring out the traverse is a key part of the whole experience of the climb, I think.

We ended our day by doing both pitches of Birdland (5.8). This route is always such a pleasure, especially the fun, continuous face climbing on pitch one.

(Photo: Michael leading past the first tough bit on Birdland (5.8+).)

Michael was rolling along on the first pitch, but hesitated at the crux move. He was fiddling with his gear when a stranger walked up the path and stopped to watch. The man stood there as Michael and I discussed the gear. I turned around to look when the stranger said "you want a yellow Alien there for the crux."

It was Dick Williams! I recognized the guidebook author/Gunks climber extraordinaire immediately. I'd seen him before but never had the opportunity to say hello. I confess I was a star-struck nerd. I told him it was an honor to meet him and talked to him about Bird Cage. He stayed another minute then moved along. I was grateful he left, for Michael's sake. The last thing I'd need if I were nervous at the crux and fiddling with gear is to have Dick Williams watching me.

I led pitch two of Birdland and I think I may have just been tired, but I enjoyed it less than I have in the past. The moves right off the belay felt dicey to me, and every time I wanted to place gear I found junky rock all over the place. The crux move up into the hanging corner near the top is great, though, and I opted for the 5.8 finish to the right, which I now think is much nicer than the direct 5.9 roof finish. The moves to the right and over the top are fun.

(Photo: Topping out on Birdland.)

This was a stellar day for me. I felt as though suddenly things have come together a little bit. The favorable temperatures have undoubtedly played a part. I think the other key element has been patience. On Bird Cage, and a few weeks ago on Feast of Fools, I tried to milk rests, think ahead, and really focus on my technique. Rather than just climbing I've tried to be very conscious of my decision-making process and not stumble into mistakes. Maybe this new mental fortitude has played a role in my success?

Or maybe it's just that I ditched the gear sling after my fiasco on Stannard's Roof.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Gunks Routes: Proctoscope (5.9+), Feast of Fools (5.10b) & No Glow (5.9)

(Photo: Below the roof on the first pitch of Feast of Fools (5.10b).)

What a difference two weeks can make.

During Labor Day weekend I felt a little rusty and out of shape, trudging up climbs in a sticky summer stupor.

But this past Sunday was like another world. The weather was absolutely perfect and I felt almost like myself again.

I drove up early from NYC and picked Gail up at her house in Gardiner. We didn't have much of a plan. In the time since Labor Day I'd made it to the gym a few times. I felt okay, certainly better than when I got back from summer vacation, but I couldn't say I was back to climbing my best. Nevertheless the night before we met up I suggested to Gail that I might be game to check out one of the Gunks 5.10's on my list, like Feast of Fools (5.10b) or even 10,000 Restless Virgins (5.10d).

It's easy to be brave in an email.

When I got to Gail's house the temperatures were still in the 40's (!) but by the time we got to the cliff and hiked up the Stairmaster it had warmed up. I was comfortable all day in just a tee shirt with no jacket. On the carriage road we could see lots of people streaming into the Trapps, but when we got to the Arrow wall we found ourselves surprisingly alone.

What a fine situation to be in: we had glorious clear weather and some of the best moderate climbs in existence right in front of us, all of them empty. We decided to warm up with a few of routes on this wall. Gail led the first pitch of Arrow (this first pitch is 5.6) and then I led our next three pitches, knocking off the upper pitches of Arrow (5.8), Annie Oh! (5.8) and Three Doves (5.8+).

The combination of cool temperatures and the white, marble-like rock of the Arrow wall was magical. Chalk was almost unnecessary.

Arrow is always a pleasure, and the bolts make it a totally mellow experience.

I was curious about Annie Oh! because I hadn't been on the climb since the scary loose block in the middle of the pitch fell out last November. I can't say its absence has changed the climb much. As I climbed the pitch I wasn't even sure where the block had fallen out from. One somewhat scary feature remains on the pitch, a flake/overlap that seems to be attached but which rings quite hollow. There is an old fixed Alien underneath it. You need to place pro underneath and climb atop this feature to do the route; if it ever comes off it could be ugly. Despite this one concern I love the second pitch of Annie Oh!; it has so many great moves on it, all the way to the very last one up a seemingly blank notch.

The top pitch of Three Doves is also fantastic. It is a step up in difficulty from Annie Oh! and it too has a strong hold on my affections. I love the delicate face moves to the roof and then the traverse right is exciting. I thought about moving left instead of right to finish through the 5.9+ ceiling of Hawkeye, just for a change, but it was only my second time on Three Doves and I was enjoying it so much I decided to carry on and finish it the regular way.

By the time we descended from Three Doves the wall had become very crowded. It seemed that every route suddenly had a party on it. (There was a leader on Annie Oh! climbing in bare feet!) We decided to return to the ground to see if Feast of Fools was available. I tried not to get my hopes up. I'd been looking to hop on Feast of Fools all year but because it has a bolted anchor atop its first pitch it always seems to have a huge group of top ropers hogging it. I assumed today would be no different, but who knew, I thought, we might get lucky.

It turned out no one was climbing Feast of Fools but there was a man at its base belaying his partner up the first pitch of Proctoscope (5.9+), around the corner. He said he was planning to lead Feast in a minute when his partner finished Proctoscope, but that if I wanted it now I could have it. His politeness overwhelmed me, so much so that I felt guilty about taking advantage. 

Gail suggested I might like Proctoscope. (She'd been on it before.) I'd been curious about it, but it was not on my immediate tick list. I thought I had read that it was hard to protect. But when I looked up I could see that the man we were speaking with had several placements through the steep crux face. He had sewn it up. It looked quite safe. The climb would shortly be available. His partner appeared poised to finish up pretty soon.

I decided to give Proctoscope a try.

The first pitch is technical and challenging. The early going is easy, up a six-inch off-width that you can't protect without a Big Bro or some really big cams. But there are jugs in the off-width, so it really isn't a big deal. Once you get your first gear in, maybe twenty feet up, the pitch is very well protected from that point on. After the off-width you step left to a similarly easy chimney which leads to the business of the pitch, the steep orange face beneath a ceiling.

I really liked the steep orange face, and I did a good job on it.... until I didn't.

As of this writing there are two fixed pieces on the face, a piton right at the start, and later a fixed wire up near the ceiling, at the crux move. I clipped the piton and made the first thin, easy-does-it move upward. Then I plugged a cam in an obvious side-pull hold, being careful not to make the hold impossible to use. So far, so good. Gently stepping up again, I was already level with the fixed wire. It appeared I was one move away from a good hold, a jug up and left. If I could get up to that hold I might be done with the hard stuff. I'd just have to do a few easy moves up and left, skirting the ceiling and reaching the bolted anchor.

Only one thing stood between me and the onsight. The handholds were terrible. These are the "small, rounded holds" mentioned in Dick Williams' guidebook description for Proctoscope. I had a great foothold but I was barely holding on to a shallow crimp with my right hand. My left hand was on a sloper I considered basically useless. I was sure I'd fall if I released my right hand, so I carefully reached down with my left hand, got a draw and clipped the fixed nut. Then, feeling very tense and still gripping like mad with the right hand, I slowly clipped the rope to the draw.

Whew! Now I needed to move. I saw no good footholds, but I thought maybe I could step on this one indentation. I started to step up to grab the good shelf, but my toe slipped and whoosh, just like that, I was off. I had taken a fall on the fixed nut.

One move away from the jug. I was angry that I'd blown it. In my anger I rushed right back up there, got out of sequence and immediately fell again.

I recharged and tried to be more patient. And the third time it worked out. I didn't over-grip with the right hand, and I searched around to find a slightly better hold for the left. Once I found one I was able to bump up to the jug, and the difficulties were over.

This is a high quality pitch. I regret screwing it up. The fixed wire really helps. Placing your own gear there at the crux would increase the difficulty. It would be very tempting to just run it out to the next move.

We were planning on doing the 5.8 pitch two of Proctoscope so I stayed at the bolts and brought Gail up. When I arrived the man we'd met earlier had finished with pitch one of Feast of Fools and had his rope up on the chains for the other people in his party. And while I was standing there another pair, two young women, rapped in from a tree on the GT ledge. They were hoping to set up their rope to top rope Feast after the other party finished. When Gail arrived we had four people and three ropes on this one anchor. it was kind of a mess, but it was just another Sunday in the Gunks.

We waited while the other pair at the anchor sorted out their plans and then I led pitch two. I liked it. It is worth doing at least once. It features a fun roof problem, directly above the belay. The roof is well-protected and there is another nice move to get established above the roof. After that it has easy and not very interesting climbing going left to avoid the larger ceiling and head up to the GT Ledge.

We took a quick look at the third pitch of Proctoscope, which diagonals up the huge arching corner just left of the upper pitch of Nurse's Aid. This 5.8 pitch trends left until it reaches the top of cliff right next to Arrow. It is not recommended by the guidebook. It looked not-so-awful to us, but Gail's husband Mitch came out to meet us as we finished pitch two-- he has just begun climbing again after a lengthy battle with a wrist injury-- so we rapped down from the Arrow bolts to meet him. The Arrow wall was still packed with people, which worked out to our benefit. Janette Pazer of the famous Family Climbing group was there with some friends. They had the first pitch of Annie Oh! set up and they kindly allowed Mitch and Gail to take a run up their rope.

While Mitch and Gail were over on Annie Oh!, I staked out the base of Feast of Fools. The young women with whom we'd shared the bolted belay station were almost done with the route. By the time they cleared out, Mitch was free for me. I was all set to go. Mitch belayed me for my onsight attempt on Feast of Fools.

(Photo: Confronting the starting moves on Feast of Fools (5.10b).)

I'd been excited about this pitch for a long time. It looks intimidating, with a big roof providing the first crux and a second crux at a small overhang and steep corner above. I'd made a point of never top-roping it, hoping to "save" it for the onsight. And now the time at last had come. But as I started up I found the first few moves to be surprisingly mysterious. The sun was soon to go behind the cliff, but at this moment it was beating down on me. I felt hot, for the first time all day. I was nervous. I wondered, "do I really want to do this?"

The answer: I did, in the worst way.

After a minute I settled down and made a move up, then soon found myself beneath the first roof, which is really a big pancake flake stuck in the cliff. I had thought this wouldn't be so bad, since you don't really pull the roof but rather go around it, escaping to the right.

But the holds underneath are tiny crimps and it felt very committing to reach out to the big flake. I placed an Alien in the corner and cowered there for a bit. Then I made a reach to the right (see the photo at the top of this post), because I thought I needed to move over there before grabbing the flake. And it was strenuous to hang out there. The holds were tiny. Placing another piece there would be difficult.

I retreated back to the corner, and asked Mitch if I was going the right way. Did I need to go out there to the right?

"I think you do," he replied. "And I think when you go for it and just grab the big flake it will all make sense and you'll feel fine."

But it didn't seem like it would feel fine. It felt awkward and scary. I moved out again, placing another Alien. Then I retreated again.

Then I finally went for it and it turned out Mitch was right. As soon as I reached out and grabbed the pancake flake everything was fine. Moving right was easy, and then I was over the roof in no time. Crux number one was done with.

The second crux of Feast of Fools is famous for being protected by two old pins. As I stood at the rest stance beneath the pins I could see that it appeared one of them had been replaced. It looked brand new. I was thrilled.

But when I tried to move up and clip the pins I found it very difficult. The stance there is very steep and the holds are poor.

(Photo: At the second crux on Feast of Fools, at the pins.)

The first time I went up to the pins, I couldn't find the draws on my harness. So I climbed back down and moved my stuff around. The second time I went up, it was all I could do to hang a draw on the pin. I was afraid I'd fall if I tried to attach the draw to the rope. So I retreated to the stance again. After resting a bit more I went back up and clipped the rope. Then I retreated once again, and repeated the whole process with the second pin. I climbed up and down at least four or five times.

I am grateful that Mitch and Gail are patient people. I really made this pitch into a lengthy process. But I didn't want to blow it. I was determined.

It was finally time to fire through the moves.

When I went for it I found out I had already done the hardest bit, four or five times. Hanging on at the pins is the crux! I had the moves to the pins all worked out now, and once I reached up above the pins, there were no problems. The holds improved and in just a few moves the pitch was over. It hadn't been all that pretty but I had my onsight of Feast of Fools. It felt good.

It is a really good pitch, with two nice cruxes. It seems to me the hardest parts are not the cruxes themselves, but rather placing protection for the cruxes. And at both cruxes you can hang in there, get the gear you need, and then take a step back to rest before moving on. In this way Feast of Fools is easier than Proctoscope. There was no way I was down-climbing to rest after clipping the fixed wire at the crux on Proctoscope. I had to keep climbing or take a fall.

(Photo: Gail making it look easy while following pitch one of Feast of Fools, at the pancake flake.)

It would have been nice to do pitch two of Feast of Fools-- it is supposed to be a really good 5.10a pitch-- but we'll have to come back for that. Mitch was heading out, and the anchor above pitch one was still in heavy use from multiple parties. We didn't really want to be stuck there in a traffic jam again.

Instead we went to do No Glow (5.9). Gail wanted a nice casual lead and the first pitch is 5.4. I was happy to do the second pitch, as it is a pretty mellow 5.9 that I've led before.

(Photo: Gail in the unprotected early going of No Glow.)

I enjoyed No Glow, as usual, but just below the top I got scared when I placed my hand on a feature, not realizing it was actually a detached block. This block is just two moves from the top, a little bit to the right as you come up. It is about three feet wide, and is Texas-shaped. When I barely touched this block it shifted. I really thought it might come off. It scared the crap out of me.

(Photo: Yes, that is the block. Photo stolen from

I was also a little bit more unnerved than usual by the sickle-shaped flake/block that sits above and to the right of the crux move. Everybody yards on this block to get over the crux. But it is just sitting on a tiny shelf. When we rapped down No Glow last Sunday I took a closer look at this sickle-shaped flake/block and I realized for the first time that only its left edge is sitting on the shelf. The right side is actually quite a bit wider than the shelf on which it sits and it's just hanging there in space.

I don't want to overreact. There are many loose blocks all over the place, and these particular features on No Glow have existed there for many years. No one has died yet. But twice this year in Yosemite climbers have died after loose blocks were pulled off of popular trade routes. Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean we should ignore obvious risks. I think these two features on No Glow are ticking time bombs. I'm done with that route.

If you climb it, please don't touch that block near the top. (It is easily avoided.) I think just a little shove would send it right down the cliff.

Anyway, nothing bad happened so it didn't put too much of a damper on our wonderful day. I left the Gunks feeling thrilled to have gotten a 5.10 onsight for once. It was a great start to autumn. I hope this fall will be a real sending season.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Revisiting My First 5.9's: Bonnie's Roof, Ants' Line & Directissima

This post will eventually describe the climbing I did on Labor Day weekend with my old pal Parker.

But first I want to talk about what I did this summer.

You will recall that I spent a disappointing, rainy week in New Paltz at the end of June/beginning of July.

In the time since then I have been silent. 

It has been a wonderful couple of months. I've had exciting travels and adventures.

Unfortunately these exciting travels and adventures did not include rock climbing. 

Hence my silence. But I think you, my rock climbing audience, deserve a little taste of what my summer has been about.

I went to New Hampshire twice, and even reached the top of Cannon Cliff. I was in the area on daddy duty, shuttling my two kids to and from summer camp. Climbing was not on the agenda. So although we went to the top of Cannon, we did not scale the cliff via a classic route like Moby Grape (5.8). Instead we took the Aerial Tramway.

(Photo: View down Cannon Mountain from the Tramway on a somewhat foggy day.)

While we were in Franconia Notch State Park we also took in the sights of the Flume Gorge. This natural rock channel is nice, though not nearly as nice as the rock climbing that is available just up the road. The hike through the gorge is fun, I guess. I recommend it if you are in Franconia Notch and by some cruel turn of fate you are not allowed to go rock climbing.

(Photo: The Flume Gorge in Franconia Notch State Park, NH.)

After I dropped the kids at camp, my wife Robin and I found ourselves for the first time in many years with two weekends completely free of the children, during which we could do whatever we wanted. This was my big opportunity. I could have gone climbing. But it didn't feel right. It seemed more appropriate for us to do things Robin and I would both want to do, as a couple.

(Photo: Montauk Point.)

So we went to the beach on the first weekend, and went hiking in the Adirondacks on the second.

(Photo: Avalanche Pass.)

On our first day in the Adirondacks we did a long day hike from Adirondack Loj past Marcy Dam and on to Avalanche Pass. The hike then continued up from Avalanche Pass to reach the summits of Mt. Iroquois and Mt. Algonquin (the second-highest mountain in New York) before returning to the Adirondack Loj via the trail past Wright Peak. Our route covered more than fourteen miles of wilderness. Much of it was quite rugged and wet. The trail from Avalanche Pass up to the saddle between Iroquois and Algonquin was especially steep and slippery. For much of its length, this segment of the trail required rock-hopping up a running stream. We enjoyed the challenge, and the views got better and better as we progressed, with numerous waterfalls along the way and Mt. Marcy gradually appearing behind the summit of Mt. Colden.

(Photo: Mt. Marcy just starting to peek out from behind Mt. Colden.)

While we were hiking Robin and I passed by quite a few rock climbs. In Avalanche Pass there is a lot of climbing, notably a 5.9 on Mt. Colden called California Flake. When we went through the pass this climb was soaking wet-- it has been a rainy year-- but still I wished I could hop on it. As we continued through the pass we got a great view of the Trap Dike, a long scramble up a huge gully on Mt. Colden. This is also a popular ice route in the winter. The Trap Dike is much bigger than I'd previously realized. It is truly impressive. Even though it is an easy climb, barely fifth-class, I'd love to come back to do it.

From the summit of Mt. Iroquois we had a good partial view of Wallface, the largest cliff in New York. For years I've been itching to do the classic Wallface route Diagonal (5.8), but I've never found the time to do it. It can't be tackled from NYC in a single day. At a bare minimum you'd have to set aside a weekend to get up to the region, hike in, and do the climb. Staring at Wallface from above, seeing the cliff in real life for the first time, I was awestruck. It appeared not just huge, but ominous and spooky. I got chills just looking at it.

(Photo: Wallface Mountain, seen from the summit of Mt. Iroquois.)

On our second day in the Adirondacks, Robin and I did an easier hike up the trail past the peaks known as the Three Brothers to the summit of Big Slide Mountain. (This was about eight miles round trip.) Along the way we got a glimpse of the rock climbing routes on the summit cone of Big Slide Mountain. There are just a few routes (and keep in mind I have not tried them!) but this location features incredible views of the entire Great Range. I would consider returning here for the climbing, as limited as it is, because the setting is especially scenic. As Robin and I discovered, this is a great hike even if you don't partake of the rock climbing at the end. The trail was quite muddy during our visit, which was not a problem except that Robin wasn't wearing her hiking boots. After the long hike the day before, her ankles were sore and it was too painful for her to wear her boots on our second day. So she negotiated the mud in her Converse sneakers. It worked out fine, but I wouldn't recommend Converse All-Stars for hiking, or for much of anything, really. Robin's pair went straight into the trash as soon as we finished the hike.

(Photo: View of the Great Range from the part of Big Slide where the rock climbing begins.)

When our children returned to our custody in mid-August we took off on our biggest adventure of the summer: we flew to London and then sailed off on a ten-day cruise to the fjords of Norway.

This was a family trip with Robin's parents, sisters and nephews. A cruise was not our preference; it was imposed on us. We've never been attracted to the cruise lifestyle and we both expected to feel stifled by the whole environment. I didn't like the idea of being constrained to follow the cruise's schedule, and any cruise, by its very nature, makes it impractical for me to incorporate my two sports-- climbing and cycling-- into the vacation. So we went into the whole cruise thing with low expectations.

(Photo: Kayaking with my daughter at the head of the beautiful Geirangerfjorden, Norway.)

Despite ourselves, we loved the cruise. The ship was pretty swanky, the scenery incredible. Norway is the most beautiful place I've ever been. We sailed by gorgeous fjords, kayaked beneath huge waterfalls, hiked past mirror-like lakes to beautiful blue glaciers, and danced our hearts out every night in the ship's disco.

(Photo: Cruising the Innvikfjorden, Norway.)

(Photo: Aurlandsfjorden at sunrise.)

After the cruise was over we spent a few nights in London. We had wonderful weather and had fun seeing the Tower of London, the Tate Modern, and Buckingham Palace, among other sites.

(Photo: The Tower Bridge in London.)

All of these travels were wonderful, but I'm sad to say that even while I was off seeing the world and having a great time, my obsessed mind never strayed too far from all the climbing I was missing.

I couldn't wait to get back at it. We were due to return home just before Labor Day weekend. I prayed the weather would cooperate. I had a partner lined up: my old buddy Parker, the man who'd braved the rain to belay me when I finally got up the sac to lead MF (5.9). I hadn't climbed with him in nearly two years, but he sent me a message while I was abroad saying he was coming up to the Gunks from Virginia for Labor Day weekend. He asked if I could meet him on Saturday.

Could I?? Hell yes!

The forecast was iffy. It was supposed to be muggy and in the 80's. There was a 40 percent chance of thundershowers.

Ultimately we got pretty lucky. It didn't rain until after 5:00. And the crummy forecast kept the hordes at bay. We had our pick of climbs, even though it was a holiday weekend.

Without meaning to, I ended up revisiting several of the first 5.9's I ever climbed at the Gunks, back in 2009.

I drove up to meet Parker in New Paltz with no big ambitions to fulfill. I hadn't been climbing outside in nearly two months and hadn't seen a climbing gym in weeks. After my cruise vacation I felt fat and out of shape. I had no idea how I'd do once we actually got down to climbing.

Still I didn't want to defeat myself by not even trying, so when we met at the parking lot I volunteered for the first lead and suggested a climb: Bonnie's Roof. I thought it would be a good choice because it is a pretty casual 5.9 with a very well-protected crux. I was pretty sure it would be no problem for me and that it would build confidence. And I thought that if by some miracle I was really feeling good I could run the first pitch right into the Bonnie's Direct finish (also rated 5.9), doing both pitches in one.

Also Bonnie's is one of my favorites and I hadn't been on it this year. Why not give it a go?

Well, it went fine, but it didn't feel all that casual. It was so humid out that I was quickly bathed in sweat. I chalked my hands repeatedly but they still felt slippery. I started placing pro very frequently-- Bonnie's Roof allows placements at will-- and soon I gave up the thought of running both pitches together.

Even though I scaled back my plans I wasn't too worried about the pitch, since the crux protects so well. I remembered my first time on the route, four years ago. It was one of the best days ever: I successfully led CCK (5.7+) onsight and then Bonnie's. Both of them were big deals to me at the time. On that day, while I was still on the ground getting set to start climbing Bonnie's, I remember that a passing stranger suggested to me that I bring the blue #3 Camalot for the crux. On that occasion I had committed, getting fully into the steep bit at the roof before realizing it was time for the blue cam. When I suddenly remembered the stranger's advice, I slammed the piece in and clipped it, then desperately pulled up on the great handholds while my right foot flailed about, trying to get established on the right side of the corner above the roof. Finally I was able to get the foot on the wall and stand up. What a great feeling that was... and of course it was all so unnecessary!

This time, in 2013, I placed the blue cam from below. You can reach right up and slot it behind the point at the end of the roof, before you step up into the steepness. There is no need to desperately plug and go. And with a little footwork the moves are not an issue. It is still a great feeling to get over the roof, and then the rest of the pitch is very casual.

I built a belay at the end of pitch one, wishing I had brought a knife to cut all the junky slings off of the fixed station there. I don't know why this station exists. It is too high up for top-roping and no one raps from it. The slings are all old and faded and it is hard to tell what the newer bits are attached to. I have never used this station without backing it up. If I go up there any time soon I plan to chop it. 

Parker made quick work of the Bonnie's Roof Direct finish. I wasn't sure how it would feel to me on this greasy day but I remembered it feeling surprisingly easy last year. This time I think I puzzled over the first move for longer than I did when I led it last year. Chalk it up to my being out of practice. When I finally made the move, slotting my hand in the vertical crack and moving my feet up until I could reach the jugs, it went well and the pitch was over within seconds. I wished I'd led it.

Once we got back to the ground, we saw the cliff was starting to get a little crowded. People were lining up for Ursula (5.5) and there was another party headed up Bonnie's. But I was shocked to see no one on Ants' Line (5.9). If this climb was available I had to do it. Ants' Line is one of those climbs that gets toproped to death, because it has a bolted anchor at the end of the pitch and there is a 5.7 way to reach the bolts (via Sleepwalk). Thus it is seldom open. I hadn't managed to get on it in three years.

Ants' Line was my very first 5.9 lead. It is a first 5.9 for many people because it follows a vertical crack up a corner which eats gear. There is no mysterious crux move but it builds in steepness as it progresses. It requires endurance and good corner technique.

I think I did a pretty good job on this one in 2009. I placed a ton of gear and got tired, but I hung on to the finish. It was another one of those magical days in which it seemed like a whole world was opening up. I led my first 5.8's (Arrow and Airy Aria) earlier in the same day, and when those climbs went really well, I decided to go for it on Ants' Line. The corner looked so inviting. After Ants' Line went down, I felt like I'd become a totally different climber in a single day. Maybe I ascribed too much significance to this one 5.9 lead-- maybe this overconfidence led in some way to my broken ankle on Insuhlation (5.9) later that same year.

In 2013 I hoped it would be just another 5.9, well within my limits. I hoped to prove to myself I wasn't as rusty and out of shape as I felt.

I think I probably did a better job on Ants' Line in 2009 than I did this time. My hands were so greasy in the humid conditions, I started rushing because I just wanted it over with. Aware that I was getting tired, I didn't execute the moves with much finesse. Still I hung on and completed the pitch. It remains a great climb, and one I will hop on again-- if I ever see it open.

It was Parker's turn and he decided to lead Teeny Face (5.10a) in one pitch. This is one I'd like to lead some time myself. The crux is pretty short, just a couple of crimpy sequences that lead to jugs. I top roped it once with Maryana and really enjoyed it. Following Parker, I liked it very much again. He looked solid negotiating the steep moves up the orange face. The lead looked reasonably well protected to me, although you do make the crux moves above the (bomber) gear. On my turn, the moves seemed harder than I remembered. I got through it, but on one of the crimps I could easily have blown it.

I was starting to feel pretty worn out. Was it the heat? I had planned to lead Obstacle Delusion (5.9) next but after we finished Teeny Face I decided I didn't have to prove anything to anyone and that we might as well dial it back a bit.

I suggested we do Modern Times (5.8+). But when we walked over to it another climber was just starting up.

(Photo: You're in the wrong place, my friend! A climber snookered by the tree into going off-route on Modern Times (5.8+).)

Standing there at the base of Modern Times, Parker and I noticed that, miracle of miracles, the entire High Exposure buttress was empty. Parker mentioned that he'd never done Directissima (5.9). This seemed like a great option for us. I told him I would lead the short 5.8 first pitch, and then he could lead the second, crux pitch and run it together with the glorious 5.6 pitch to the GT Ledge.

This was yet another 5.9 climb that I first attempted in 2009. In retrospect, I don't think I was really ready to lead it at that time. Back then I couldn't figure out the crux move. I ended up falling on the fixed pin at the crux, then hanging, and finally pulling on the draw attached to the pin to reach the next hold. I have since gone back and led it clean. The climb remains one of my favorites. The first two pitches are both odd and little frightening, with tenuous traverses. Then the payoff comes with the beautiful 5.6 climbing up the point of the arete, with great views on either side of you due to your position on a buttress sticking out from the face of the long cliff.

Pitch one of Directissima is a little bit intimidating right off the ground. But I'd led it twice before so with Parker I had little hesitation as I stepped right up into the layback position on the smeary, angled ramp. Once you step up the climbing is easy, with good pro, until you reach the crux move, traversing past the point of the buttress, reaching around a bulge to a big jug. It is a balancy maneuver with poor footholds. There is good pro to your left but the ground feels awfully close. Once you brace yourself and make the reach over, you scamper up and right to a belay ledge next to an obvious, chalked-up finger rail that heads left.

(Photo: Parker at the crux of Directissima (5.9).)

Parker was taking the crux pitch so now I could just sit back and watch. The traditional second pitch of Directissima is only 25 feet long. It traverses straight left for fifteen feet on the narrow finger rail across a steep face, and then a reachy crux move past the pin takes you to a little ledge. The first challenge is getting yourself to commit to the finger rail. It is kind of scary. But once you're in it the finger locks are very good and you can (and should!) get a couple of placements (yellow Alien/Metolius) along the way.

Parker hesitated at first, right at the start of the pitch, but once he moved out onto the face he made it look easy. He is over six feet tall so the crux reach required no special technique from him. He breezed right out to the pin and then moved up to the ledge in no time. Then at my urging he continued, doing the nice 5.6 pitch to the GT Ledge as well. When I followed it went well. I found the traverse to be more comfortable than I remembered and I dispatched the crux move with surprising ease-- I don't want to wreck it for you so I won't say exactly how. But it isn't actually all that reachy if you do it right. I've actually solved it in two different ways.

Once I joined Parker at the GT Ledge it seemed almost churlish not to finish with the crux pitch of High Exposure (5.6+). The climb was just sitting there open, with no one on it and no one waiting. How often does that happen? It had been a few years since I was last on the climb-- if I'm not mistaken I think my last time was when I followed Liz up the pitch in 2010-- and while there may have been a time when I never wanted to do it again, the climb made for a great last pitch of my day with Parker. It was just interesting enough for my rusty bones and brain. With no worries and the humidity finally seeming to lift a little, I started to fully relax and just enjoy myself for the first time all day.

(Photo: The classic top-out shot on High Exposure (5.6+).)

As we descended to the ground, debating whether we should do another climb or call it quits, we could hear the sound of thunder in the distance, heralding not just an incoming storm but with it a change of weather. It was time to declare summer over and go home.

It was sort of a lost summer for me, climbing-wise, with no climbing achievements to savor. Whether I can get in shape for any big accomplishments in the fall remains an open question. So far 2013 has been a year in which I've grown increasingly comfortable trying to climb 5.10's in the Gunks, but I still have precious few sends to my credit on such climbs. I do have climbing time mapped out for the autumn, including a couple of days in the 'Dacks in late September, and with some hard work and a little luck I hope I can translate these days into something that feels like progress.