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.