(Photo: Reaching for the top on Mister Roger's Neighborhood (5.8), pitch two.)
We had quite a good run of weather here in New York this September. There were some amazing days in the Gunks, and late in the month I was lucky enough to return to the Adirondacks to climb for the first time in two years, in perfect temperatures, with the leaves in peak autumn form.
I've been to the 'Dacks on a few prior occasions for climbing, but I've barely scratched the surface of what is available there. I'm always looking for a chance to go back but it is hard because running up from NYC just for one day is impractical/miserable. So I've only managed to squeeze in a couple of days of climbing when I've been up there hiking with my wife and kids, and on one prior occasion I took a day off from work and went for two days, a Friday and a Saturday, with my buddy Adrian.
When I've climbed in the Adirondacks, I've found it difficult. I've felt intimidated by the vertical cracks and unsure of my feet on the non-Gunks rock. I've struggled on climbs that should have felt easy and gone home feeling spanked and sandbagged.
Nevertheless I love it up there. There is endless rock, in beautiful surroundings. I know that if I become a better Adirondack climber, the skills I gain there will serve me well in other climbing areas around the world.
A few months ago, Gail told me she was planning on spending a week in the Adirondacks in late September with her friend Manny. I hadn't met him but I'd heard great things about him from Gail. I knew him to be a strong climber who does a lot of route development in his native Arizona. Gail invited me to join the two of them for whatever part of their week that I might like. I ultimately decided that I could take a day off from work and repeat what I did with Adrian two years before. I'd come up on Thursday night and climb Friday and Saturday, returning home on Saturday night.
This plan ended up working out really well for Gail and Manny because Gail had a social event that came up on Friday night, so instead of joining Gail and Manny to make a party of three I ended up substituting for Gail and climbing with Manny, just the two of us, for two days. We had a good time together, doing some great climbing. Manny turned out to be a really solid climber, a patient belayer, and a skilled photographer to boot!
I headed out after work on Thursday and made the five-hour drive, finding Manny at the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery shortly after midnight. We hung out for a while at the bar, having a drink and batting around a few ideas for the next morning. I floated the idea of doing Diagonal (5.8) on Wallface. But Manny wasn't enthused. He was willing to do pretty much anything I wanted but he wasn't too keen on an early-morning start with six miles of hiking (each way) in order to access the climbing. I had to admit I wasn't sure I was really up for such a project the next day either, since it was already practically 1:00 a.m. and we hadn't even left the bar.
When Wallface didn't go over so well I suggested we go to the Spider's Web. This was the opposite of Wallface. Rather than a back-country big wall I was now proposing a mostly single-pitch roadside crag. The approach would be trivial. We could get up whenever we wanted and spend as much or as little of the day climbing as we pleased. I had never climbed at the Web but from what I knew of it I thought Manny would like it. It is known for overhanging vertical cracks, a weak area for me (to put it mildly). But I figured the cracks would suit a western climber like Manny.
I was keen to check out the Web. I wasn't sure how much I could lead easily there. There are a few 5.8's and 5.9's but most of the climbs are 5.10 and up. I figured that even if I didn't lead much I could follow Manny and learn a thing or two.
The forecast called for a sunny, beautiful day on Friday but when we got up in the morning it was overcast, cold, and damp in Lake Placid. We hung around for a while waiting for it to clear, and eventually drove to Keene Valley for breakfast at the Noonmark Diner. Every time I checked my phone I was told the skies were about to brighten, but it never really happened. We kept waiting, and decided to browse a bit at the local climbing shop the Mountaineer, after which we decided we might as well climb. It still seemed a little bit damp out but I hoped the rock would feel okay. It turned out that the rock was fine.
The approach to the Spider's Web isn't long but it is a rugged slog up a talus field, with no defined trail. You can see the cliff off to the left of the parking area. We just kept heading in its general direction and we got there okay.
I was immediately impressed with the cliff. It isn't all that large but its overhanging nature and soaring vertical features make an intimidating statement. We were all alone at the crag and had our pick of lines. I volunteered for the first lead, which seemed to be one of the few quality warm-ups: a 5.8 right in the middle of the cliff called Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.
This is not a crack climb. In fact the crux is a roof problem just ten or fifteen feet off the ground, which is then followed by mellow 5.6 climbing up a corner to a ledge with a bolted belay station. The guidebook warns that the early roof problem is "not to be underestimated." I wasn't really concerned about it because this was my type of climbing.
It was no problem. I had to hang out at the roof for a minute because the cam I placed wouldn't seat properly. I kept fiddling with the cam and eventually just got on with it and made the move. Once I was over the roof the climbing eased considerably and it was smooth sailing to the anchor. It is a pleasant pitch. I wouldn't go to the Web just to do it but it is a good climb if you are at the wall. It also is a good vehicle for you to set up a top rope on the harder climbs to its left (see below).
(Photo: Manny almost to the belay for pitch one of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (5.8).)
Manny took the lead for pitch two, a short pitch (also 5.8) up a crack from the right side of the belay ledge to the top of the cliff. There was no descent information for this pitch in the guidebook (which should have been a clue), but we figured there'd be some fixed rappel slings up there, or we'd improvise and find another station somewhere.
We should have looked a little more closely at the pitch before we did it. This second pitch is better left undone. Manny quickly found that the right side of the crack off the ledge is actually a loose flake. Up above this questionable rock the climbing gets dirty and lichenous. Then at the finish there is an uprooted tree trunk hanging over the edge of the cliff, which we tried not to touch but which looks as though it could be easily knocked down. You can see this broken tree stump hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles in the photo above.
Luckily there was a bunch of fixed tat at the top of the pitch for a rappel so it was a simple matter to get out of there.
While I was rapping down to the ground from the bolts atop pitch one I was kind of smitten with a steep-looking climb up a finger crack just to the left of Mr. Rogers. I suggested to Manny that we could easily top rope it from the anchors. When I reached the ground, I looked it up in the guidebook and found out that this was Fear and Loathing in Keene Valley (5.11b), a four-star classic. Manny reset the rope through some of our gear, placed some directionals on rappel, and we were good to go.
The pitch has three sections. The first bit goes up a blank wall for about twenty feet. Then the climb moves left to the dramatic, left-leaning finger and hand crack. At the end of the crack, the climb continues up and left through a final section with discontinuous cracks and features. The route is unrelentingly steep throughout.
Manny went first and though it did not look easy, he almost got up it. He got to the top of the crux crack about halfway through the pitch, complaining about the lack of footholds, but moving upward all the while. Finally he got stuck and took a hang. Then if memory serves me he got through the rest of it without a fall. I was impressed. It was not a cakewalk but he nearly sent it. He grumbled that it seemed harder than 5.11b to him. I didn't think I had enough experience with the 5.11 grade to say whether something is properly graded 5.11b. But I regularly feel that Adirondack climbs are hard for their grades, even the ones that Lawyer and Haas have upgraded in their recent guidebook, so I was not surprised to hear Manny say this.
When it was my turn to try Fear and Loathing I fell all over it. It was not an impressive performance. The initial face is surprisingly juggy and I had no problem there, although I wasn't sure how a leader would protect this bit as I didn't see many opportunities for gear. I had real trouble making the transition to the crack. After falling a few times I got into it, then made it to the top of the crack. I found the rest of the pitch to be easier, though not by much. My memory is getting hazy about the particulars, but if I had a recording I'm sure it would show a bit more hanging/falling (and more than a little desperate lunging) before the pitch was finally over.
By the time I reached the belay ledge I was kind of wasted. This climb was a real wake-up call to me. After flailing on it I understood what the Spider's Web is all about. It would be great to come back and work this climb, and the others like it on this wall, until I could climb them smoothly. I'd be a much better climber afterwards.
Later in the day another couple came to the cliff and Manny and I saw the leader cruise up Fear and Loathing (as well as another hard 5.11 called Romano's Route) with an ease that made both of us ashamed. He was hanging around, calmly giving his partner advice, in places where both of us were desperate just to hang on and make another move. His follower was only slightly less impressive. She climbed Fear and Loathing deliberately but with good technique, never coming close to falling off.
There is an even harder climb just to the left of Fear and Loathing called Only the Good Die Young (5.11c). This one can be top-roped from the same chains. You probably don't even need a directional as it is pretty much under the fall line. But Manny and I had had enough of the 5.11's for the moment, so we decided to move on to something a little more casual for us to lead.
We shifted to the left and Manny had a go at leading Esthesia (5.10a). This single-pitch climb ascends an obvious crack in a corner, passing a small roof and then another one, finishing up a wide crack that can be climbed as an off-width or a strenuous layback.
(Photo: Manny getting past the first roof on Esthesia (5.10a). The right-facing stem corner of Slim Pickins (5.9+) is visible to the right.)
Manny did a good job on this, though I hope he won't mind if I disclose that he did get a little bit fumbly. He made it up the crack and over roof number one with no worries. At the second roof he struggled to place pro. We had read the mountainproject.com entry on the climb, in which some claim a purple No. 5 Camalot is useful to protect the crux, while others insist it isn't necessary. Manny had elected not to bring the big purple cam, and once he arrived at the roof he regretted it. He tried to reach high and place a blue No. 3 but it didn't work out and he ended up accidentally dropping it to the ground. At that point he decided to come down and get the purple cam. So I lowered him, he got the gear, then he went up and fired it, ascending the final crack straight in with fist and foot jams. He was able to really sew it up, too, with the No. 5 cam placed at the bottom of the off-width and then two No. 3's in quick succession.
When I climbed Esthesia as the second I thought it would be good practice for me to try to climb the crux using crack technique also. But I found it very difficult. I tried to reach deep into the crack to get a secure fist or hand jam but I didn't feel good about it. And the start of the crack was so steep I had a hard time seeing how I was going to get a foot established in the crack. It just didn't feel right. After a minute of testing it out I switched gears and did the crux using the layback. This went well but it would be much more committing on lead. I think I could place the big cam from below before getting into it, but once I got into the layback position I imagine it would be hard to place the other gear.
(Photo: Trying to conceptualize jamming the big crack on Esthesia (5.10a).)
I thought this was a really good pitch but a hard 5.10a, and this is one of those 5.9's that got upgraded to 5.10 in the new guidebook! The 'Dacks are just full of sandbag 5.9's.
Esthesia was hard enough that even though I followed it clean I wondered whether I was really ready to lead the 5.9's and 5.10's in the Adirondacks.
There was no way to find out without trying, so I racked up to lead the neighboring climb Slim Pickins (5.9+). This is a technical climb up a blank-looking corner. It requires stemming and face-climbing up to a ledge about three-fifths of the way up, and then a hand-jam crack opens in the corner for the final moves.
Although the guidebook reports that the crux is in the technical corner below the ledge, I was most worried about the jam crack at the top. I wanted to be sure I had the appropriate gear for the top, so I tried to conserve my Nos. 2 and 3 Camalots. This was a mistake. I passed up an obvious placement for a big cam not far off the easy ramp at the bottom, assuming I'd find other gear in short order. But I did not. And after two or three hard moves I knew I was in ground fall range. I carefully made another move up as I apologized to Manny for going so far without gear, and then got a bomber placement. After this there was great gear the whole rest of the way.
(Photo: Manny at the crux of Slim Pickins (5.9+).)
I hesitated a bit at the obvious crux, a spot at which you have to commit to one wall and a couple of poor crimps. When I went for it I had no trouble with the move, and once I was up on the ledge I realized that I needn't have saved the larger Camalots for the jam crack, as there is other gear.
Once past the crux I cruised up the jam crack (yesssss!) and felt pretty good at the top. If I'm not mistaken-- and I am not proud to admit this-- Slim Pickins was my first clean 5.9 on-sight lead in the Adirondacks.
(Photo: Manny following the final jam crack on Slim Pickins (5.9+).)
For once I didn't feel sandbagged, probably because the crux thin face climbing up a stem corner was a type of climbing I could relate to. Slim Pickins is a really nice climb. It is sustained, technical and interesting.
It was already getting late in the afternoon and Manny was feeling tired. I briefly considered trying to lead TR, a 5.10a just to the right of Slim Pickins. But after just five pitches I was feeling a bit worn out too, and we had another day of climbing scheduled for Saturday. So we packed it in.
I left the Spider's Web satisfied that I'd made some progress and rudely awoken to what I still need to learn. I would LOVE to come back to lead Esthesia and some of the other tens like the aforementioned TR and On The Loose (5.10a), and to follow some of the other 5.11's. I don't know when it will happen but I want to make it a priority.
Coming soon: day two in the Adirondacks with Manny, in which I am both humbled and triumphant on Fastest Gun (5.10a)!