Sunday, October 20, 2013

Crack-A-Lackin' Adirondack-in' at Poke-O: Fastest Gun (5.10a)

Manny and I had a good day at the Spider's Web on our Friday in late September. That evening we were in Lake Placid, eating sushi and drinking sake. I felt tired. I'd driven five hours the night before after working all day. I arrived late, woke up early, and then climbed some hard routes.

I was tempted to put my head down right there at the dinner table.

But first we had to pick a climbing objective for the next day.

I knew just what I wanted to do. And I thought maybe it would be perfect for Manny too.

It was his first trip to the Adirondacks. In just a few days he'd seen many of the prime areas. He'd been to the Beer Walls, Pitchoff Chimney Cliff, and Hurricane Crag with Gail. He'd visited the Spider's Web with me.

But he hadn't yet been to Poke-O Moonshine. It is a major cliff with many many classic routes.

I'd been there once before but I needed to go back, for what seemed like a million reasons. I was most drawn to one climb in particular: Fastest Gun (5.10a).

I NEEDED to do Fastest Gun. I'd been dreaming of it all year. For many years, really.

I'd heard great things about the climb from Parker and others. It is a full-length route up Poke-O's main face, ascending over 500 feet in four pitches. Each pitch is reputed to be challenging, with all but the first one rated 5.10a in the Lawyer and Hass guidebook. The first pitch isn't 5.10, but it has something far scarier. It carries the dreaded 5.9+ rating, which so often portends doom.

I told Manny to take a look at the description for Fastest Gun in the guidebook. I hoped he would read about it and get psyched. Sure enough, as soon as he read the first sentence of the entry, which describes Fastest Gun as "perhaps the most sought-after climb at Poke-O, a real prize," he became excited. "Let's do that!" He said. "We should definitely do that one."

We were in business. Now we actually had to climb it.

I volunteered to lead pitches one and three. I thought it was the nice thing to do, since I had read that pitches two and four were the best ones. It also made sense that I do the 5.9+ pitch since it seemed like Manny was a stronger climber than me. If I did the (theoretically) easier first pitch then I'd only have to lead one 5.10 pitch while Manny would lead two.

Still, while it seemed (based on the ratings alone) that I was picking the easier pitches, I had concerns. I was a little apprehensive of the off-width crack that runs up the middle of pitch one. I had no experience with off-widths. But I didn't worry too much about it since I'd seen pictures of people laybacking and stemming past the off-width. (There is one such picture in the guidebook.) So I figured I could handle it. I had bigger doubts about pitch three, which was reputed to have difficult face moves up to a bolt, with only tiny nut placements nearby for pro. I thought this pitch might be pushing it for a beginner 5.10 leader like me. Sketchy face moves above tiny gear sounded scary, but on the other hand I'm pretty good with fiddly small gear. If there were good nut placements to be found I was pretty sure I could locate them.

I knew very little about pitches two and four. It seemed from the descriptions that they involved crack climbing and roofs. Would these be more my style, or less? It was hard to tell.

Was I really ready to tackle a 5.10 lead in the Adirondacks? The last time I'd climbed at Poke-O, the 5.8's had seemed hard. But that was two years ago. In the time since then I'd grown a lot. I figured Manny was solid and if I needed to bail he could take over the lead on pitch three. I just needed to take care not to get committed in a dangerous situation.

After a good night's sleep we awoke to blue skies and crisp temperatures. It was supposed to warm up but it was only in the high thirties as we packed up our stuff at the house in Lake Placid where we were staying. We took our time, getting a leisurely start and stopping in Keene for breakfast before eventually driving over to Poke-O. By the time we reached the cliff it had warmed up so much that I changed into short sleeves as we left the car.

There were several other vehicles parked at the now-defunct Poke-O campground. I feared we'd end up waiting in line to climb Fastest Gun. But this was the low-key Adirondacks, not the overcrowded Gunks. As we walked past Gamesmanship (5.8), the most popular climb at the cliff, I was shocked to find it empty. Fastest Gun was open too. It turned out we were the only party on it all day. And this was on a gorgeous Saturday in peak season!

Gotta love the 'Dacks.

Anyway, this was it. We hadn't exactly gotten out early and we needed to get on with it. The first pitch was my lead, Adirondack 5.9++ with no warm-up. It looked tough, with committing moves up a crack right off the ground and then the off-width. Up above the off-width I could see the steep layback flake which I guessed was supposed to be the crux of the pitch. I looked at the off-width and decided to bring a No. 4 Camalot with me. Maybe I could push it up the wide crack for a few moves and then place a normal-sized piece in the layback flake above.

I had no clue how I was going to get up the off-width. It appeared to me that laying back off of it would feel very insecure, as I didn't see much in the way of footholds. I could instead go into the off-width and climb the crack directly but frankly I had no earthly idea how to do that. It was longer than I'd expected, maybe a couple of body lengths.

Not wanting to chicken out, I headed upward. I got up to the off-width in no time, and found I could place the No. 4 at the bottom of the wide crack. But it wouldn't fit any higher; the crack quickly got too wide. I started trying to figure out what I was going to do. I couldn't make myself commit to laying back off the edge; it seemed very insecure. I started testing the off-width crack, trying to scrunch my side into it. I didn't like that either. I kept trying both ways, back and forth, and not liking either option. Finally I stopped and took a hang.

I was flailing on Fastest Gun already, and we'd just left the ground. I had Manny toss me the No. 5 Camalot and steeled myself to actually try to climb this stupid thing.

Committing to the off-width, I got my right foot and arm wedged in and moved up a few feet. It actually felt fine once I did it. Progress was being made. Then I reached up and placed the No. 5 high in the crack, and now with the cam over my head and a top rope protecting me I scrunched up some more. I found out I could repeat this process. When I got to the top of the off-width, basically level with my big cam, I took another hang, just because I was scared. I'd never done this kind of climbing before.

As I rested there I realized that climbing the off-width had actually been pretty easy. It is a good size for camming one foot across and there are actually some incut holds inside the crack. Once I actually got into the crack there was no way I was going to fall out. If I ever go back I might do it this way again, although committing to the layback would likely work out fine too. If you climb it as a layback you probably don't need the big cams because you can reach a vertical crack off to the right that can take small/medium cams.

In retrospect it all seems like no big deal but at the time I was totally out of sorts. I felt fried. I started moving again. I found the layback flake above the off-width difficult to get into and took another hang before finally doing the real crux and getting up to the easy finishing blocky flakes.

Pitch one of Fastest Gun was not one of my prouder climbing moments. At least I was totally safe about it. You can get pro pretty much everywhere on this pitch. It is a very good pitch, steep and strenuous at the crux. At the time it seemed ludicrous to me that it is rated 5.9+ but looking back I think my problems were all mental. I never fell off of it. I was just extremely tentative because it was so unfamiliar. I feel now like if I went back it would be no problem. Maybe I'm dreaming.

(Photo: Manny in the (loose) finishing blocks on the 5.9+ pitch one of Fastest Gun.)

As I waited for Manny to follow me up pitch one I wondered if I really belonged on this climb. Manny certainly did. He easily followed the pitch, with no apparent difficulties.

I decided to see how I felt following Manny up pitch two. If pitch two went well I would still plan to lead pitch three.

The second pitch is steep. It follows a pair of vertical cracks upward until these cracks become the sides of a shallow chimney. Manny kept calling this chimney "the coffin," which I thought was a poor choice of words, karma-wise. The coffin/chimney, whatever you might like to call it, is capped by a ceiling.

(Photo: Manny in the early stages of the 5.10a pitch two.)

Manny did well, moving deliberately and placing lots of gear. He seemed to think the climbing was difficult but he sent the pitch on-sight.

I followed it cleanly and really enjoyed it. It is sustained. Steep crack and face moves take you to the chimney. It is hard right from the start, but it is all there. It seemed to me the crux moves come when you reach the twin cracks. It is strenuous and committing until the walls of the chimney become deep enough to allow for some chimney technique. Once you can throw a shoulder into the chimney it gets a bit easier and you can rest. I thought the final moves over the little roof were exciting but reasonable.

(Photo: Manny in the middle of pitch two.)

What an awesome pitch, with great move after great move after great move. Although I couldn't point to any one move that seemed harder than 5.10a, I was still surprised that this pitch isn't considered harder than that. (In the old guidebook Don Mellor calls it 5.9!!) Like pitch one, it seems easier to me in hindsight. There is no one move that is especially hard. It is the cumulative, continuous nature of the difficulty that makes the pitch feel like a sandbag.

(Photo: Following Manny up the final bits of pitch two.)

When I joined Manny at the belay, the moment of truth had arrived. I'd felt fine following pitch two. I knew that pitch three started with easy climbing up to a pedestal. Then there was an optional belay before the committing move into a right-facing corner described in the guidebook. I could certainly go up to that point and then bail if I felt weird about going forward. So without any discussion I took the gear and headed upward.

The moves up to the pedestal went fine. I could test some holds in the committing corner before getting out there, but I wouldn't really know what I was dealing with until I made the move. It seemed like I was heading into less-than-vertical territory with thin moves and small holds. I couldn't see the crux moves up to and past a bolt above. I spent some time fiddling in some small gear. Eventually I was satisfied that what I had was totally bomber. Then I committed to the corner. After one smeary move I found a jug. I had passed the first test, and I could now see the bolt above, not so far away. This built a little confidence.

On the Internet some people complain about the pro leading up to the bolt at the crux. I was determined to place the best gear I could. I got a good small nut, and then another. I moved up again and placed a third micronut, probably six feet below the bolt. I felt that all of these placements would hold but they were small pieces in a little vertical seam. And now I had to make the hard move to the bolt. It appeared to be a balance move, stepping up on small toe holds while making use of a shallow vertical rail for the hands.

I made the step carefully and it went fine. Better than fine, actually. It felt 5.8 to me; it was no problem. I clipped the bolt and knew I was one hard move away from a total sendage moment.

I didn't want to blow it now. I felt very safe with the bolt clipped but I wanted the on-sight, badly. I tried to diagnose the move. There were slippery, small handholds. I could place the right toe on a good indentation, then smear with the left...

I tried it and it worked. In just another step I had better holds. I had cleared the difficulties. All I had to do now was make it through 5.6 territory to the belay ledge. The guidebook suggests that there is scant pro to be found here but I looked carefully through the rest of the pitch and found plenty of placements. I did not feel it was terribly run out.

It was my first 5.10 lead in the Adirondacks. I felt great. I really enjoyed this pitch, and it was so different from the ones that came before it. Thin face climbing used to scare me to death but now I think it may have become one of my strengths. People complain about this pitch and find it frightening but to me it was the easiest of the four.

(Photo: Manny following the easier final bits of the 5.10a pitch three.)

Manny once again cruised up to join me. He was having no trouble so far.

Having finished my leads now I could just relax and watch Manny handle pitch four. It looked amazing and ridiculous, and again totally different from what came before. The pitch involves steep moves up a hanging, blank corner, then a traverse left under a huge roof. It is quite intimidating. This is the only pitch of the four that was rated 5.10 in the old Mellor guidebook.

(Photo: Protecting the start of the 5.10a++ pitch four.)

The very first move requires stepping up the steep slab to an undercling, with burly moves up around left into the hanging corner. It appears there are no footholds to help you get established. Manny struggled here, for the first time all day. He stepped up and slid down a few times, then decided to just get on with it and aid through the first steps.

Once he was established in the main corner he made it up just fine, but it still appeared tenuous and strenuous. About halfway to the big roof the angle eased and Manny seemed to really relax and enjoy the final bits to the top of the cliff.

I really wanted to cap off the day by following this pitch cleanly. I started a little further right than Manny and found out I could get established in the undercling better over there. This required some awkward stepping left to get around the low ceiling and into the main corner, but it was helpful to use the better feet to the right to get onto the wall before moving up.

I felt solid in the main corner. There weren't many indentations in the smooth wall for the left foot, but I found I could almost always wedge my right toe in the crack, so I never really felt that I was about to slip off. I thought the difficulty would be much increased by having to place gear, but still I felt pretty good about how this section went for me. Once the angle eased the moves remained thin but the pitch became much more relaxed and the traversing territory around the upper roof was no big deal, at least for me. Gunks experience can sometimes pay off like that. Traversing around roofs is just another day at the office for me.

This was definitely the hardest pitch of the four, but the difficulty is concentrated in the early going and the final moves to the top are a joy-- or they were for us, since the pitch was bone dry. Lawyer and Haas warn in the guidebook that the upper portion of this pitch is often wet.

(Photo: Heading down.)

Once we reached the top we moved up to the climber's right. We could see a tree with fixed gear for rapping. I was carrying a topo for this part of the cliff which showed a rappel route here. This worked out for us, more or less. I won't bore you with the details of the near-disaster I caused when passing one of the fixed rap stations, thinking our double ropes tied together would reach the next rappel station. The lesson: NEVER pass a rappel station!

Next time I would use the central rappel route, since some of the stations indicated on the topo for our rappel route apparently no longer exist.

I loved Fastest Gun. It is challenging throughout, and so varied. The rock is very good, except for the occasional loose crap you'll find all over Poke-O. The route was a milestone experience for me. I have wanted to do this climb for a very very long time, and it totally lived up to my high expectations. It also revealed areas where I've made great progress (slabby moves and thin face, working with small gear) and areas where I need much improvement (wide vertical cracks). Speed is another issue. We were lucky no one was behind us because we were definitely slow guns, taking most of the day to do four pitches.

After doing this route I want desperately to return to Poke-O. If pitches two and three of Fastest Gun are good indicators of what the face climbing at Poke-O is all about, then I think this climbing suits me very well. I'll have to find out for sure some time next year.

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