Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Blind Leading The Blind

(Photo: Will setting off on pitch two of Arrow (5.8).)

With this year's climbing season in its last days, I wanted to achieve something. I'd been out twice in November and while I'd redpointed one of my longstanding Gunks 5.10 projects I needed more.

Right after my easy Uberfall Sunday with Gail it was due to get pretty warm-- on Tuesday the high in the Gunks was supposed to be 52.

I had to get out again.

I couldn't end the season yet. I arranged to take a day off from work and found a partner on Mountain Project named Will.

Like my other new partner Andy, Will had learned to climb out west and had very little Gunks experience. I was happy to introduce him to some of my favorite local climbs, and I hoped this time to get on at least one 5.10 and maybe something new and challenging as well.

I was thinking about hitting Balrog (5.10b), so we warmed up nearby on Absurdland (5.8). The climbing was free and easy. I felt really good, and much less tired and tentative than on Sunday.

Unfortunately Balrog was wet, so we took a pass on that route. We moved over to the Arrow wall, where we ended up spending the rest of our day. I sent Will up to lead the 5.8- pitch one of Three Doves and he did a fine job. I had only done it once before and I was surprised at how good it was. I think this is one of the best of the lower pitches on this wall. It has two pleasant little overhangs and then an interesting, delicate, it's-all-there, face-climbing crux at the top of the pitch.

(Photo: Will on the 5.8- pitch one of Three Doves.)

I led pitch two of Three Doves (5.8+), one of my favorite 5.8 pitches in the Gunks. The face climbing past the pin is just so good. And the finishing traverse is great too. But this time I decided to skip the usual traverse and to do something new instead. Once I passed the crux moves over the pin I headed left instead of right, finishing on a roof problem at the top of a climb called Hawkeye (5.9+). (Below its roof, Hawkeye is overgrown and does not appear to be well protected.)

(Photo: Hawkeye (5.9+) goes through the big roof at the cleft that is at the center in the above photo.)

Just getting up to the Hawkeye roof from Three Doves involves a thin step up past a horizontal. It is good climbing. And then the roof itself is OUTSTANDING. There is great gear at the base of the cleft that splits the roof, and the move up over the roof is technical, burly and exciting. Clean rock, unique moves, great gear: what more could you ask for? I thought this was as good a 5.9 roof as I have experienced in the Gunks. It is every bit as good as the roofs on Grim-Ace Face or CCK Direct. It is a great way to finish Three Doves.

(Photo: Will just past the Hawkeye (5.9+) roof and about to move over to join me at the Three Doves (5.8+) anchor.)

After we got down from Hawkeye I decided to introduce Will to Feast of Fools (5.10b). I led pitch one and I'm proud to say it felt almost casual. I had no worries at the initial overhang and at the second crux I found it so much easier than the last time to hang in, clip the pin, and then step back down to shake out. As I fired through the moves up the little corner and reached the chains I felt like a different guy from the leader who slowly wormed his way up this same pitch last year.

Vegan POWER, my friends.

(Photo: Will on Feast of Fools (5.10b).)

We ended the day with two of the best climbs in the Gunks. I led the 5.6- pitch one of Limelight (not bad climbing but surprisingly sparse gear), and then Will took the lead for the crux pitches of both Arrow (5.8) and Limelight (5.7).

(Photo: Will at the Arrow (5.8) crux.)

I saw that Will went to the right at the upper bolt on Arrow. This is one of those great Gunks debates. Are you a left-at-the-bolt person or a right-at-the-bolt person?

I have always gone left, doing a pretty tense mantel move on the beautiful blank face-- the same move I worked out the very first time I climbed Arrow (my first 5.8 lead back in 2009). When I followed Will this time I tried going to the right instead and I was shocked to find it much easier than going left! I think if you go to the right at the upper bolt, Arrow is actually 5.8. If you go left it is harder. Who knew?

On Limelight, we had a little bit of drama. Will pulled up over the overlap that begins the crux portion of the route, and then I could see him start to struggle. He was standing on the unusual thin flake, perched on tiny footholds, barely keeping it together. He was tense and kept shaking out both of his hands. It turned out that his hands had both cramped up at the same time. This was a new experience for him, probably the result of dehydration plus the stress of leading. His left hand was clenched up so tight that he couldn't get it to open! He ended up using his mouth to pry his fingers away from his palm.

Eventually he worked through it, placed a piece, and resumed climbing. He sent the pitch.

Good work, Will.

The sun set as we were finishing with Limelight, so our day was done. We packed up and started walking out. By the time we got down to the carriage road it was completely dark out. On the way out I mentioned to Will that I'd never really climbed at night by headlamp, and that it might be fun.

As if on cue, as we passed the Madame G buttress, we heard a male climber yelling from high on the cliff to his partner, telling her that he had alerted the rangers. This got our attention.

We called up to the climbers, asking if they needed help. It turned out that the leader, a climber named Bob, had led the second and third pitches of Madame G (5.6) in one pitch, as leaders often do. But he'd started late in the day and by the time he'd put his partner on belay it was dark. He'd given her his headlamp but she was inexperienced and she was very afraid to follow the climb in the dark. She'd tried to do it but eventually she gave up and retreated to the tree atop pitch one.

Bob had asked her to untie and pulled the rope all the way up. I gather he was planning to rap down and get help. His partner was stranded one pitch up, and all of Bob's gear was left hanging on pitches two and three of Madame G.

Bob's mess was an opportunity for Will and me to be heroes. We sprung right into action, ascending the treacherous (unpaved!) approach trail to the base of the cliff and gearing up for the technical (5.4), lengthy (50 foot) pitch one of Madame G. I took the lead, volunteering for this dark journey into the unknown, my path lit only by my (insanely bright) headlamp. If I could successfully climb to the ledge where Bob's partner was stranded, I would then have the challenge of rigging a rappel in the inky black gloom of night using only my wits (and the fixed rappel rings on the tree).

In truth this may well have been the easiest rescue in the entire history of mountaineering. We had Bob's partner down in about ten minutes. She was a bit shaken up by the whole experience but she was fine. Once Bob knew Will and I were on the case he walked off from the top and met up with the rangers back in the Uberfall. As Will and I walked back down to the carriage road with Bob's partner, the rangers drove up with Bob in tow and we all got a lift back to the parking lot in the rangers' truck.

Will and I had a good time doing a very minor good deed and I finally got to climb at night. So it was all good fun from our perspective.

But poor Bob lost a lot of his gear. I hope he learns a little bit from the experience. He might have been wiser to stick to some single-pitch climbs until he had a better idea of what his partner could do. Certainly doing a long, wandering route like Madame G, so late in the day, was a poor choice. Bob placed himself in a position where he could neither rap down to collect his own gear nor descend directly to his stuck partner.

Bob sure learned his lesson the hard way. He posted to Mountain Project, asking politely for the return of his gear, and it appears he has gotten nothing but abuse for his trouble. Some of the abuse is perhaps justified but I don't think he deserves to lose all of his stuff. I'm sure someone has cleaned all the gear by now but no one has come forward to return it. I hope the person who cleaned the gear is just letting Bob suffer a bit; maybe eventually he or she will return it.

We all make mistakes.

Case in point: I was back in the Gunks on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and had the opportunity to make a big mistake of my own, though my mistake had little to do with climbing.

Right after my warm day with Will, an early-season winter storm came through the area, dumping six inches of snow on the Gunks. The temperatures hovered at around freezing for a few days thereafter, but on Sunday it was expected to reach 46 degrees, which was warm enough for climbing but not so warm that we'd see a total melty slushfest. Or that was my hope, anyway.

Gail thought I was crazy. But she was up at her house in Gardiner anyway so she agreed to climb with me if I really wanted to make the trip.

Of course, I did want to make the trip. Forget the snow-- I was still clinging to summer! And I'd been feeling so good lately, on Try Again (5.10b) and Feast of Fools. Maybe we'd find a dry 5.10 to send. It could be a last hurrah for 2014. We had to climb.

I woke up that morning and as per my usual routine I started to insert my contact lenses. I was using some cleaning solution that I'd never used before. This was a sample-sized bottle that I'd picked up as a freebie at the optician when I'd bought a new supply of my lenses.

I assumed this was the usual saline, but in fact it was a hydrogen peroxide solution. I had never used such a solution before; I didn't know anything about it. I hadn't bothered to look at the directions and I had failed to notice the special case that comes with this type of solution. I soon found out that if you don't neutralize the hydrogen peroxide solution with the special case, the hydrogen peroxide can severely burn your eyes.

Ignorant of all this, I rubbed my contact lens with the poison solution and then put it into my right eye. It was as if I'd lit my eye on fire. The pain was intense. It took all the effort I could muster to pry my eye open and remove the lens.

With the damaged eye clamped shut and the other one in tears, I tried to read the blurry, small print on the sample bottle and saw that it said something about how this solution is not intended to go directly into your eye. There was also some nonsense about the red tip on the bottle, which in theory is supposed to act as a warning. It remains a mystery to me how the uninitiated are supposed to know that the red tip is such a warning.

At the time, believe it or not, my main worry was not my eye but my climbing day. I needed to get moving or I was going to be late!

I flushed the affected eye with some water and in five or ten minutes it seemed like it was improving. I could keep the eye open, which was progress.

I got my crap together and drove off to the Gunks.

When Gail and I arrived at the cliff the conditions didn't look so bad. We were not the only climbers attempting to make a go of it. There was snow on the ground and the ledges but many walls were basically clear and dry.

We walked in and saw a lot of sun hitting the Jackie/Classic wall so we decided to set up shop there. I threw down my tarp, took my gear out and led Classic (5.7) to get us started. It was my second time on the climb this year. Again I was impressed at the quality of the face climbing, with really nice moves for the entire length of the pitch. It was a little bit wet under the finishing roof, and my fingers started to freeze a bit as I held on in the dampness and placed gear. While she was belaying me Gail occasionally had to dodge melting snow bombs as they fell from the trees. But these were small concerns. It was good to be climbing.

(Photo: Gail on Classic (5.7).)

As Gail followed the pitch I noticed my eye was getting worse. It was sensitive to direct sunlight. I couldn't stare up at Gail for more than a few seconds. There was a burning sensation. And it felt like something was stuck in the eye. It was hard not to rub it constantly. It was becoming a struggle for me to keep it open.

Nevertheless I soldiered on. Neither of us had ever done Classy (5.8), a variation to the right of Classic. So we did it. I led again. The first several moves of Classy are shared with Classic but then as Classic goes left, Classy heads upward to a left-facing corner system. There are some interesting moves up the corner system and then a pumpy traverse left (with good hands and thin feet) to the roof, where after one move up you are forced to merge again with Classic for the finish.

(Photo: Gail on the Classy (5.8) traverse.)

Classy is no Classic but it is good, and worth doing. I liked the moves up the corner and the traverse. And the gear is decent. The guidebook says it is 5.6 R before you reach the big corner but if you clip the third pin on Classic and go straight up there I don't think it is worse than PG. The rest of the way there is good gear; there is a great slot for a red Camalot right in the middle of the traverse.

I tried to put my injury out of my mind while I was leading Classy but as soon as I came down I realized it was getting worse and worse. It dawned on me that whatever I'd gotten in my eye was not adequately flushed out and it was continuing to do damage.

Gail and I tried to get some water into the eye at the base of the cliff using my Camelback but this effort was ineffective and a little ridiculous. What were we even doing there? I couldn't continue like this. We had to abort our climbing day.

Gail drove us in my car back to her house in Gardiner. She and Mitch and her son Max were incredibly kind, helping me set up a water bath for the eye in their kitchen sink. I flushed the eye repeatedly until I couldn't take any more. The eye was so inflamed, it felt like a smoking, radiating ruin. Curtis LeMay would have approved.

I needed to get home to Brooklyn but I wasn't sure I could drive. Gail and family had to head back to Philly and they quite reasonably and charitably offered to drive me in my car most of the way to NYC. But I wanted to wait. I hoped that in a few hours I'd be more sure that I could drive. So I insisted that they should go, and I would wait at Gail's house until I felt fit to drive. I could even wait until the next morning if I really had to.

I stayed a few hours and then decided to go for it. I couldn't say the eye was any better but I thought I could force it to stay open for the drive.

It turned out to be really hard to force the eye to stay open. The drive home was a nightmare. I was in pain the whole way and I worried that I was creating a hazard on the road. I stopped repeatedly to flush the eye with more water. When I finally got home I debated going to the ER but instead I sat in a dark room with my eyes closed until I fell asleep.

The next morning it felt a little better, though everyone who saw me was quick to tell me it looked terrible. The eye was still quite red and swollen. I resembled the Hunchback of Notre Dame after a bar fight. I saw the ophthalmologist and she gave me good news. Even though the white membrane covering my eye was distressed and swollen, my cornea looked surprisingly good and I would likely be fine in a few days. She gave me some steroid eye drops and sent me on my way.

The eye has since improved and is pretty much normal again, thank goodness.

What a way to end the year-- with both heroism and ignominy.

It has been a good year for me overall. I had some great climbing trips to Yosemite and the Red River Gorge. In the Gunks I've made incremental progress, working my way just a little further through the 5.10 grade. I've made some new climbing friends and I hope to just continue the same trends right into 2015.

And who knows, maybe there will still be a little more climbing in 2014 yet!

Monday, December 1, 2014

November Chills

(Photo: Working up the corner on BB Route (5.8+).)

We've had a colder than average November this year. We are told this is the result of what the meteorologists call the Polar Vortex. But I like to think of it instead as the Arctic Char. Mostly I use this term because I think it's funny (though my wife Robin has assured me repeatedly that it is not). I also prefer the term because, while I am ignorant of the actual workings of weather systems and the term Polar Vortex means nothing to me, the term Arctic Char, by contrast, provides me with a comforting mental image that helps to make sense of the world around us. I imagine the Arctic Char as a huge, spectral weather fish, hanging in space above our flat planet. The Arctic Char's whims are impossible for mortals like us to understand. But when the weather turns colder than average, we know that, for whatever reason, the Arctic Char has decided to swim over and pay our region a visit.

I, for one, welcome the Arctic Char.

Each autumn, as the season winds down, I tend to get very jealous of the the remaining climbing days. Every day that features a high above forty degrees might be the last such day of the season and whenever such a day rolls around and I can't go climbing I die a little inside. This year has been no different, but the presence of the Arctic Char has lent an air of extra desperation to my typically obsessive reloads of the New Paltz weather forecast. Despite the cold temperatures there have been some good days this November.

Early in the month I got out on a Sunday with a new partner named Andy. I met Andy at the Cliffs at Long Island City. Andy is a 5.12 sport climber and sometime trad leader who recently moved to NYC. His outdoor experience has come mostly out west, in Utah, Colorado and Idaho, though he has also spent some significant quality time in the Red River Gorge. When I met him he had never been to the Gunks so I made it my mission to introduce him to the area.

(Photo: Andy working the thin footholds on the traverse of Pas De Deux (5.8).)

We had a great day outside together. I led almost everything so that Andy could get a feel for the unique Gunks style. It turned out that the style suited him just fine. We didn't do anything that was new for me; I wanted to show him some of my favorites. I ushered him up Son of Easy O (5.8) and Pas De Deux (5.8) and then we headed down to the Mac Wall, where we spent the rest of our day.

I was pleased to finally get the elusive redpoint on Try Again (5.10b). I was feeling good. Andy made it look so easy as the second. Then Andy went to pull our rope and made a mistake: he got it stuck. He'd forgotten to untie the safety knot he'd put in the end of the rope.

(Photo: Andy following my lead of Try Again (5.10b).)

This wasn't a crisis-- it just meant that one of us would need to lead something on the other end of the rope to get up to the knot and release it. This was my chance to step up and lead Men at Arms (5.10b) or Coexistence (5.10d), both of which finish at the same anchor as Try Again. I considered these options for a split second but then Andy immediately volunteered to lead Try Again, which sounded like a fine idea to me! He cruised it on the sharp end. I thought it was pretty impressive. Even if you've just followed it, Try Again is rather stout choice for your very first Gunks lead.

(Photo: Andy taking over the lead to try Try Again (5.10b) again.)

When Andy's lead was done I somehow managed to snag a rope end AGAIN as I pulled the rope from the bolted anchor, meaning that once more I had to try Try Again AGAIN, at least partially. This has to be most appropriately named climb in the Gunks! It was turning into quite the farce. But once I scrambled up the initial easy pedestal I got the rope loose and was able to downclimb back to the ground, after which we were finally done with Try Again. We finished our day romping up MF (5.9) and Birdie Party (pitch one 5.8+).

The following weekend I wasn't able to go climbing, so I was not in the Gunks when a horrific accident claimed the life of a Chilean climber named Heidi.

I never met her but from all the accounts I've heard she was a great climber and person, strong and capable. At the time of her accident she was roped up but had placed no gear while leading the first 5.8 pitch of the Yellow Wall (5.11c). This is a common practice on this particular route. Strong climbers frequently solo the first sixty feet of this climb so that the entire route can be done in one long pitch without too much rope drag.

Heidi somehow slipped from about 30 feet up, with no gear in place, and fell to the ground. She was wearing a helmet but the impact must have been terrible. She never regained consciousness.

The climbing threads about this accident have for the most part lacked the usual chatter from the peanut gallery about how the tragedy could/should have been avoided.

For me this is a tough accident to deal with precisely because I too have no magic prescription to offer. Heidi was thirty feet up with no gear, which obviously is a situation I would advise most climbers to avoid. From such a height a death fall is obviously a possibility.

But Heidi was clearly a climber who was capable of soloing 5.8 under normal circumstances. She had previewed the route the previous week and had had no issues. She had made an informed decision as to how to proceed and felt that her chance of falling during the early potion of the route was close to zero. And she was probably right-- the chance was close to zero. But it wasn't zero.

It would be easy to look at this accident and say "I don't solo 60-foot pitches of 5.8 so this won't happen to me."

And it is true: I don't. Maybe you don't either.

But I know that even if I don't solo, I sometimes take risks similar to Heidi's, and maybe you do too. I climb through territory where a fall might be just as bad as Heidi's, but I consider the territory easy enough that such a fall seems extremely unlikely. I can think of climbs on which I have taken such risks this year: on Proctor Silex (5.9+), on Torture Garden (5.8), and on Deep Lichen (5.8), just to name a few. I'm sure there are other examples where I have been run out and a false move could have led to a very bad situation. If we are honest with ourselves as climbers, I'm sure most of us have been in such situations frequently.

So far I haven't paid any price for these risks but poor Heidi's accident is a reminder of just how high the cost of a wrong judgment call in such a situation can be.

A friend of Heidi's named cjkalman published a blog post called Focusing In On Death in which he wrestled with this same issue. He wrote about soloing and fatalities in the mountains and gave some advice:
Anything can kill you out there – a plane ride, a drive to the office, cancer, heart attack, etc.  I don’t think the point is to go through life petrified of the unknown – in constant terror at the concept of one’s own demise.  I don’t think the point is to quit climbing because it kills.  For myself, and for others who I am close to, climbing is a big part of what makes life so wonderful.
But perhaps the point is to turn it down a notch.  No matter what you are doing, go a touch slower, be a touch more cautious.  None of us is infallible.  None of us is invincible.  And you don’t have to fall far to fall all the way.  When we are climbing, it is incumbent upon us to take an extra step of precaution that at the time will often seem superfluous. 
There is wisdom in his words, and I think the challenge for moderate climbers like me (and perhaps you too) is to realize that this advice applies to us even if we aren't climbing superstars. We may not be soloing or climbing such radical routes as the one that tragically killed Heidi, but we are still engaged in the same game and taking similar risks. Our 5.5 runout might be the same risk for us, statistically speaking, as Heidi's 5.8 solo was for her. The chance of a fall may seem impossibly small but the chance is real. And the consequences of a mistake can be just as severe no matter how easy the terrain is.

Heidi's accident has haunted me. I climbed in the Gunks with Gail during the following weekend and I had a lot of trouble sleeping the night before we were to meet up. Gail had just come back from a long business trip to Asia, so she was far worse off than me-- she was utterly exhausted. I still had that end-of-the-season desperation to get out and climb but I wasn't really feeling like beating the world. I didn't push to hit any projects at my limit.

(Photo: Gail at the crux of Lower Eaves (5.9).)

We ended up sticking to the greater Uberfall area and we did a bunch of climbs that were new for me. Gail had done them all at least once-- she's done practically everything!

We had a nice easy day. I liked almost everything we did:

Lower Eaves (5.9): This climb has a good crux right off of the starting pedestal. There is solid gear that you can reach before you get out there and then I would recommend placing a piece to back up the junky old pin at the lip of the overhang. (I didn't clip the pin at all.) You have several climbing options after you clear the crux. I moved up a cool crack to the right and joined Bridle Path (5.7) to the top of the cliff, staying just left of Horseman (5.5). Good moves all the way.

(Photo: Gail at the crux of Double Clutch (5.9+).)

Double Clutch (5.9+): The last time I tried this climb I couldn't do the big move at all. It is a throw to a horizontal off of an overhanging cleft above the carriage road. This time around with Gail I still didn't get it right away. I tried to work out some beta to make the reach without a lunge but I couldn't do it. Gail encouraged me to really go for it as a lunge/throw-- and there is no reason not to go for it; the protection is excellent. Once I really went for it, I got it. It is a stupid little climb. Worth doing once.

(Photo: That's me on CC Route (5.7).)

BB Route (5.8+) and CC Route (5.7): I'd never gotten around to these short climbs to the right of the Uberfall descent route. BB Route is a good lead with a few tough moves up to the roof, made harder if you avoid the loose block with chalk all over it at the bottom of the wide vertical crack. The roof escape at the end of the pitch is straightforward but committing. We toproped CC Route because we couldn't see any gear. It was okay, but not as interesting as BB. I wouldn't lead it unless I had a few big number six Camalots on hand. There are some old pins but they look like junk.

(Photo: Gail securely wedged in the little chimney that begins Sundown (5.8+).)

Sundown (5.8+): This is a really nice pitch, right next to the ever-popular Frog's Head (5.6-). It has fun grovelly moves up the starting chimney formed by a block and then beautiful face climbing with decent (if spaced) gear. I thought this climb was the equal of all its more popular neighbors like Frog's Head and City Lights (5.8-). It was my favorite pitch of the day.

(Photo: Gail at the crux of Twisted Sister (5.8). The Baby (5.6) crack is visible to the left.)

Twisted Sister (5.8): Another squeeze job, this one right next to Baby (5.6). The crux is excellent, up a very shallow little corner just to the right of the Baby off-width. Good moves, and I got two bomber small nuts in the little corner. After the crux you can contrive to avoid merging with Baby all the way to the ledge but the climbing is much the same, sub-5.6 and not especially interesting.

By the end of the day I was feeling more like myself and wishing I'd done something a little harder. But in the wake of the horrible news from the prior week it was good to dial it back a notch and stick to some more casual fun. I could only hope that before the season was really over I would get another chance or two to hit my projects, with caution at the front of my mind, of course.

Stay safe out there, everyone.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Gunks Routes: Blistered Toe (5.7+/5.9+)/Torture Garden (5.8)/Yellow Crack (5.6) Link-Up, Proctor Silex (5.9+) & More!

(Photo: That's me on the traverse from Blistered Toe over to Torture Garden.)

I'm feeling good lately. Have I mentioned that I've lost some weight? It makes a big difference.

In the gym I can really tell, and on routes within my comfort zone at the Gunks I've felt noticibly lighter, free and easy.

But feeling good is just part of the climbing equation. You can lose all the weight you like, but if you are mentally unprepared to deal with the challenge of a particular climb you still won't succeed. I saw this on my Eighties Day in the Gunks with Gail, when after feeling so strong all day I didn't feel comfortable just a few moves off of the ground on pitch one of The Winter, and the awkward climbing, slimy rock, and the lack of an immediate gear placement made me back off of a move that I've previously raced up on top rope without a second thought.

This past weekend with Adrian it happened again. I wanted to go back to The Winter to give it another try. I was also interested in the second pitches of both The Winter and The Spring. They are both 5.10's but very different. The second pitch of The Spring is on the left above the first pitch of The Winter, and it features a huge 5.10d roof. The second pitch of The Winter is on the right and ascends a 5.9 corner and then finishes with a 5.10d move up a blank face.

Adrian started us off by leading the first pitch of The Spring (5.9). It was an easy onsight for him. He was clearly feeling pretty good. He'd been able to get the redpoint of Simple Suff (5.10a) the day before. Simple Suff is one of those tens I still need to go back and get the send on. It is sustained and tricky. I really should try it again before this year is out.

(Photo: Adrian on Simple Suff (5.10a). Photo by Maryana.)

I felt fine following Adrian on The Spring. I've done this first pitch several times-- I'd led it most recently one week before-- so it felt very casual for me.

(Photo: Following the 5.9 pitch one of The Spring.)

When I joined Adrian at the chains I decided to give pitch two of The Winter a try. This is the one on the right, directly above pitch one of The Spring.

(Photo: Starting up the interesting 5.9 corner on pitch two of The Winter (5.10d).)

I had no issues negotiating the leaning, left-facing corner that begins the pitch. There is a 5.9 move in there near the top of the corner but nothing too serious. But when I got up to the 5.10 part of the pitch I didn't like what I saw. I made a steep move up to a horizontal slot that would take gear, and then stopped dead and confronted a blank face above it. It looked like a tough boulder problem, requiring the use of a sloping sidepull to high-step and reach way way up to a hold above the blank face, with the gear at your feet.

I kept stepping up and down, trying and failing to commit to the move, adjusting my crux gear, and then doing it all over again. Eventually I decided I didn't feel good about it and bailed off to the right to finish on Shit Creek (5.6), another climb I did with Gail the previous week.

(Photo: Adrian waving from the crux hand traverse on Shit Creek (5.6).)

Now I had achieved the dubious distinction of backing off of both pitches of The Winter on different days. I should have looked a little more carefully at the guidebook. When I read the description later I realized that I was staring at the harder variation, which Dick Williams lists in his main entry for the route as 5.10d. I failed to consider an easier way just a couple of steps to the left, which Dick lists as a 5.10b variation, but which I think is actually the original route.

I don't know whether I would have felt any better about the variation to the left. Maybe I would have at least gone for it if I'd seriously considered it. But since I didn't try I will have to put this on the long list of climbs I need to go back to. At any rate the first part of the pitch is quite nice, and the steep traverse into the sandbag 5.6 crux of Shit Creek is a fun way to finish if you wuss out as I did.

After we got back down I told Adrian I thought it might be fun to do something new and adventurous. I proposed we do a combination of three climbs, which Dick calls a three-star link-up in his guidebook: pitch one of Blistered Toe (5.7+ or 5.9+ Direct), into pitch two of Torture Garden (5.8 PG/R), into pitch three of Yellow Crack (5.6). I'd done Blistered Toe a few times but Adrian had never been on it, and the two upper pitches were a mystery to both of us.

 (Photo: Adrian past the tough start of Blistered Toe Direct (5.9+).)

Adrian managed to sketch his way through the the direct start of Blistered Toe (5.9+), so he was really climbing well. This opening has a couple of really tough moves up a small overhang and corner and then it's all over. The difficulties are brief but I think the moves require some specific beta so it is a hard onsight. The first time I tried it, years ago, I couldn't figure it out at all.

The rest of the 5.7+ first pitch of Blistered Toe is very very good, with steep climbing up a thin crack. There is ample gear and a host of good moves. Following Dick's advice for the link-up, Adrian continued past the usual end of the Blistered Toe pitch, moving up another ten feet and then traversing to the right about twenty-five feet or so, until he found a small stance with two pins which marked the intersection with Torture Garden.

(Photo: Adrian at the belay stance on Torture Garden (5.8).)

I led Torture Garden and it was not bad, I guess. It was pretty dirty/licheny. I liked the crux moves up a little nose of rock not far off the belay and the crimpy 5.7 climbing up a headwall at the end of the pitch.

(Photo: Just under the crux on Torture Garden (5.8), looking for decent gear.)

So the climbing was okay. But I thought the pro was worse than Dick suggested, even with his PG/R rating. For the crux move there is a little crack not too far below. I couldn't get a nut to work. I managed to get a cam, but the pocket was shallow. If this placement wasn't any good then a fall at the crux would have been a pretty bad idea. Up above at the finishing headwall I couldn't find any gear for the hard moves. The last pro I had was below the action, in a hollow flake. The climbing was all pretty casual so I wasn't concerned. I wouldn't do this pitch again.

(Photo: Adrian at the crux move on Torture Garden (5.8).)

There was a huge flock of vultures hanging out on the GT Ledge between Torture Garden and Yellow Crack. I counted at least ten of them milling about. They seemed completely unconcerned about me while I belayed Adrian up to the ledge. I wondered whether we should continue with our plan. I wasn't too worried about a vulture attack but I didn't want to disturb them and it looked like we'd be tip-toeing through a substantial amount of bird shit if we wanted to move over to do the third pitch of Yellow Crack.

(Photo: Adrian past the bird poop and ready to belay the third pitch of Yellow Crack (5.6), with Skytop in the distance.)

The birds must have known of our plan because they politely decided to clear out just as we were deciding whether to go ahead with it. When they all flew away, Adrian waded through the guano and over to the pedestal beneath our pitch.

(Photo: Starting up pitch three of Yellow Crack (5.6).)

Once I joined Adrian my end of the rope was on top again so I just led the pitch. It turned out to be awesome, with beautiful 5.6 climbing up a long flake system. The going is steep and the holds and gear are great. This pitch made the whole adventure worthwhile. Next time instead of Torture Garden I might take Blistered Toe pitch two (a 5.5 pitch that isn't bad, though it has some loose rock) to get to it, or maybe the long traverse of Oblique Tweak, which I haven't tried.

(Photo: Adrian's photo of most of the excellent 5.6 third pitch of Yellow Crack.)

Adrian liked Yellow Crack even more than I did. He pronounced it equal to High E in quality. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is a good one. I should warn you that the last fifteen feet or so to the top of the cliff is a jungle of lichen. But until that point it is all clean white rock. 

We hadn't liked the looks of the rappel station (a slung boulder) on the GT Ledge so we decided to walk back to the High E area to rap down. By the time we returned to our packs I felt like our day was slipping away. I needed to lead something a little more ambitious.

(Photo: View from the top of Yellow Crack.)

We decided to head over to the Feast of Fools area. I thought maybe Adrian would like to try Feast of Fools (5.10b) and I was interested in Proctor Silex, one of the (dreaded) 5.9+ climbs I had not yet gotten around to. I'd looked at it before but rumors of runouts had kept me away. I knew that Proctor Silex's immediate neighbor, Silhouette (5.7+), is also shunned because it is thought to be less than well-protected-- but I love Silhouette. So I told myself that I might feel the same way about Proctor Silex, and that I should try it. I have looked at it from Silhouette and it has seemed to me in the past that the two climbs are close enough together that if I felt funny while on Proctor Silex I could probably bail over to Silhouette if I needed to.

(Photo: I'm just below the crux roof on Proctor Silex (5.9+). The 5.7 runout comes after the starting corner on the lower right. You don't get a piece until you're a good distance up the face.)

When we got to the area Proctor Silex was open so I led it, and it went well. The only real runout was in territory that was easier than 5.9-- though I thought the necky bit was harder than the 5.7 claimed in the guidebook. You really should be mentally prepared to run it out in 5.8 territory before leading this pitch. Proctor Silex is much more run out than Silhouette and a fall during the runout would be ugly, onto the blocks at the base.

The route is like Silhouette's big brother, with excellent, similar face climbing. But Proctor Silex is more difficult, and it throws in an interesting corner problem at the start and a great roof in the middle. I really enjoyed it. I like all of the climbs on this buttress-- Hans' Puss (5.7), Feast of Fools (5.10b), Proctoscope (5.9+), Silhouette (5.7+), and now Proctor Silex. The area is loaded with great climbs.

When we finished with Proctor Silex, we found Feast of Fools occupied and it was getting late anyway. We decided to walk back towards the parking lot. On the way there we saw that Boston (5.5) was open. Neither of us had ever done it. Adrian decided to give it a try.

(Photo: Adrian in the off-width on Boston (5.5).)

It is a short pitch, only 50 feet or so. Adrian had no trouble with it and I followed in my approach shoes. We both thought the gear was less than ideal. The big crack is too wide to take any pro most of the time, and the other little cracks along the way provide marginal microcam placements. I thought about half of Adrian's placements were pretty iffy. The climbing is fun and a bit unusual. 

We've reached the time of year when I feel the season slipping away. Adrian and I had lots of fun but I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed as we left. I aborted the one really hard climb I tried. If I could bottle the cool head I am able to maintain on runout 5.8, and transfer it to well-protected 5.10, then I'd be really happy. I'm sure I'll have a few more days this season in which to work on it. And it is always so rewarding to explore obscure pitches. Even when they're not so great I enjoy the adventure.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Eighties Day in the Gunks: An Excellent Adventure

(Photo: Some stone age Romeo, sneaking up on Nosedive (5.10b) like a smooth criminal.)

Several months ago Gail and I hatched a most bodacious idea: we would go to the Gunks dressed as climbers from the 1980's.

Gail already had some electric blue tights, which sounded perfect. I would need to buy some tights of my own, but I didn't think it would be too hard for me to find some totally gnarly, loud leggings. Then I could throw on a tank top and a headband and we'd be all set! Hilarity would ensue.

It seemed like great fun, but we never did anything with the idea.

Until last week.We were set to meet up to climb on Saturday and on a whim I asked Gail if we should go for it and declare it to be Eighties Day in the Gunks.

With Halloween just around the corner it seemed like good timing.

And besides, the 80's are percolating up again. (Don't call it a comeback!) Current pop sensation Taylor Swift has a new album out entitled 1989 (though when I listen to the lead single I can't say I understand the 80's connection). And 80's superstars Morrissey and Billy Idol have recently published memoirs.

I figure if Billy Idol can show his face in public then so can a man in tights.

Gail was very enthusiastic about the plan so we decided to Just Do It.

I only had a few days in which to get ready. I bought some bitchin' striped tights and a tank top/headband combo that matched... or sort of matched, anyway. I was ready to go. But then I decided this wasn't enough. We needed to think bigger, to get greedy. Greed is good, they say.

If we were climbing in 80's clothing, shouldn't we also climb with 80's gear?

It didn't seem right to carry around a bunch of dyneema slings and modern cams. Thinking it over, I realized that practically every piece of climbing equipment I owned was in some way inappropriate to the 80's costume: the shoes, the carabiners, the slings, perhaps even the harness and chalk bag? Should Gail and I be using a bunch of hexes and tying in with swami belts if we were going to be true to the spirit of our little project?

It is a weird science, trying to approximate the technology of an earlier era, only to take it back to the future. And if we were really serious about authenticity it could get expensive. It could take plenty of money-- to do it right, child.

I did some internet research and found out what was in use in the 80's and what was not. As the maker of rules (dealing with fools), I declared certain guidelines for our day.

Harnesses and chalk bags, it turned out, were in use in the 80's. Sticky rubber was also okay. Nuts and Tricams were fine.

Dyneema slings and wire-gate carabiners were out. And all of the cams I usually carry were also out. Aliens and third generation Camalots were not around in the 80's.

What to do? We had to be careful. We didn't want our little lark to turn into a dead man's party. I'm only human, after all, born to make mistakes, and we all know that accidents will happen. I couldn't assume that I'd never fall, and I needed to have enough gear with which to protect whatever climbs I led.

My rack was saved by the Metolius catalog from 1988, which revealed that TCU's (then called "3-Cams") were introduced in the mid-80's. Hallelujah! I own a set of TCU's, from purple through red. If I could use them I had a pretty reasonable 80's rack, with my nuts, Tricams and TCU's. I just needed a few larger pieces. Gail was able to add a few rigid-stemmed Friends, an ancient U-stem Hugh Banner cam that appeared to match those available in the 80's, and a couple of other U-stem cams of uncertain vintage.

(Photo: One town's very like another when your head's down over your pieces, brother! Here were some of the larger pieces in my 80's rack.)

Gail's costume was spot-on. In her electric blue tights and pink top she looked like she'd stepped right out of a Jane Fonda workout tape. Of course no woman in tights could ever look quite as ridiculous as a man in tights. Gail did plan to trump me in one area: her tube socks. I was wearing tube socks too (for the hike in), but unlike me Gail planned to climb in hers! It was a very 80's thing to do but I couldn't imagine wearing thick socks inside of my climbing shoes.

(Photo: They're heeeeeeere! Gail and I are ready to rock in the Uberfall in our full 80's splendor.)

When we arrived at the cliff we headed straight for the Uberfall. This was a Saturday in high season, and we expected to find crowds. Ordinarily this would be a bad thing but today we needed an audience.

As we walked in I could feel the eyes of other climbers upon us. We didn't get any immediate comments but I could sense the occasional double-take.

We parked ourselves beneath Apoplexy (5.9), right on the carriage road, in the middle of the action. I got racked up with our 80's gear and looked up at the potential placements. It seemed like I had everything I needed. I was a little bit chilly in my tank top but I had my headband to keep me warm!

(Photo: Animals strike curious poses... I'm getting set to lead Apoplexy (5.9), 80's style.)

As I got ready to go we chatted a bit with the climber to our left, who was belaying his partner on Horseman (5.5). He spoke with us as if nothing was the slightest bit unusual, and for a while I wondered if he had even noticed our completely outrageous appearance. But then as I was about to step up onto the route he turned to me, completely deadpan, and said:

"You look fantastic, by the way."

"Thanks!" I said, and I was off.

The 80's rack proved to be perfectly adequate for Apoplexy. The nylon slings and the old oval biners were the only problem. The slings and biners felt fat; I was clumsy handling them.

(Photo: Totally tubular! Gail has her tube socks on display on Apoplexy (5.9).)

The climbing felt super casual. I might even go so far as to suggest it felt like poetry in motion... the elements in harmony. Maybe the tights deserve some credit. It is easy to be flexible in tights!

But it's more likely that my vegan diet is paying off. I've lost a dozen pounds since Labor Day. I feel light and fit. I'm still trying new recipes, attempting to keep it interesting and to eat real foods that also taste good. For now I think it is a healthy development. If I start to lapse into eating nothing but potato chips then it might be less healthy. But that is unlikely, as I am generally avoiding junk food. I don't want to buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought or processed. I just want to stay natural. And maybe I'm coming around to the view that meat is murder...

I'll probably go back, one of these days, at least to animal products, if not to meat.

I know what you're thinking: you don't drink, you don't smoke, what do you do? But I assure you I have the same desires as everyone else. I want tasty food. I want candy. For now I am satisfied with the vegan food I eat. I am making delicious things. I'm sure eventually I will get sick of it. My wife, Morgan Fairchild, is already quite sick of my veganism even though it has nothing to do with her! So I don't know how long it will last.

After we were done with Apoplexy I saw that Nosedive (5.10b) was open so we moved over there. I led this one with the 80's rack again and I felt much more comfortable with the gear the second time around. Again the climbing felt very straightforward. Hmmmmmm, could it be...... Satan? (Or perhaps seitan?) Maybe it was all due to the tights after all.

(Photo: Gail at the crux on Nosedive (5.10b).)

Then Gail led Retribution (5.10b), which I was psyched to witness. Gail has been working hard on getting out there and leading tougher trad climbs so it was great to see her going for it on a solid 5.10. Retribution has very good gear and a short crux (which I've seen Gail cruise more than once before), but the 5.10 move is a challenge no matter how many times you've done it so leading it is very impressive.

(Photo: The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire! Gail at the ceiling on Retribution (5.10b).)

Retribution felt really casual to me too-- I guess I'll have to keep wearing tights. I was cruising.

(Photo: I'll have what she's having! Gail is psyched to have led Retribution (5.10b).)

By now we'd been in the Uberfall area for a few hours and we'd attracted a certain amount of attention. Our outfits were a constant source of amusement. Some people just stared, some pointed and laughed, and I was later told one climber ran over and took some photos of me while I was leading Apoplexy. (If you're out there, Mr. Photographer, I am happy to receive copies.)

I was surprised by the conversations I had with some of the older climbers. I was previously unaware that there are men out there who are nostalgic for tights. But such men do exist. There was more than one climber who described with fondness the multicolored tights he used to wear, proudly, back in the day. The story usually ended with the tights being mothballed and then thrown away (or burned) by the climber's wife.

Another climber asked me where I'd acquired my striped pants and when I told him the answer (American Apparel), he asked, dumbfounded, "so they sell those for ordinary people to wear, like, not as a joke?"

I suppose they do.

We ran into someone I know, the dad of one of my son's friends in elementary school. He was a big-time Gunkie back when he was younger, but he fell out of it while his kids were little, only recently returning to the climbing game. On Saturday he was in the Gunks with a group and when they first looked over at us he wondered to his friends, "Is that guy serious?" Then he realized who I was and said, "I know that guy!" He came over to make sure I was NOT serious, and then-- like all the other old-timers-- told me with pride about the climbing tights he used to wear. His had little fluorescent lizards all over them.

Just before we left the Uberfall area one climber said to me, "Okay, so the 80's, I get it... but, why?"

I could only answer his question with another question: "Why the hell not?"

It was time to move on. We decided to head on down to the Seasons area. I was considering leading The Winter (5.10d) and Gail wanted to check out Bold-Ville (5.8). We kept the costumes on but went back to our usual rack, including Camalots and Aliens and skinny slings.

(Photo: No one puts Gail in a corner-- except in the Gunks. Here she's on The Nose/Fillipina (5.9-).)

Our chosen climbs were occupied so I decided to lead The Nose/Fillipina (5.9-), a climb I'd done once before in 2011. I remembered that the roof problem at the end of the pitch was really exciting, and it did not disappoint on Saturday. Under the roof there is a very committing move to the right to a finger-sized horizontal. The feet drop away to nothing and you can't see how you're going to surmount the big overhang. It is a thriller. You try to scream, but terror takes the sound before you make it-- and then you just suck it up and make the move and it's all there.

(Photo: Dancing on the ceiling-- Gail at the Fillipina (5.9-) roof.)

Gail then led pitch one of Bold-ville (5.8) and did a great job. (She's got legs; she knows how to use them.) Bold-ville is a favorite of mine; I've done it several times. It is very continuous, with lots of quality moves. Steep reaches past an overhang at the outset lead to some technical moves up a curving corner. There is bomber gear all the way.

(Photo: Sitting pretty in pink. Gail at the initial overhang on Bold-ville (5.8).)

As I belayed Gail on Bold-ville I'd all but forgotten Eighties Day but just then a pair of climbers walked up and one of them said, "I'd like to congratulate you on wearing the best pants I've seen at the crag today." It was nice.

Next I started up The Winter (5.10d) but I got into trouble right from the start. I had a hard time with the politics of dancing up the initial slot. It was a shock after feeling so strong for so much of the day. The route was a little bit seepy and slimy and after I placed one piece, the next move up felt awkward and insecure on lead. I wanted another gear placement before moving up again but I couldn't find one and, fearing a ground fall, I eventually decided it wasn't worth it and climbed back down.

What a mess on the ladder of success. Looking at the photos, I think I would have been fine for one more move. I guess I should go back and try it again. I may have just been caught up in a whirlwind, and my ever-changing moods.

(Photo: Should I stay or should I go? Feeling uncertain on a wet Winter (5.10d).)

After I down-climbed off of The Winter we moved over to the right a bit and did the first pitch of Shit Creek (allegedly 5.6). Many years ago I had an epic on this pitch with my friend Greg. Back then I got up to the second roof, decided there was no way it could really be 5.6, and escaped up a blocky corner to the right. I ended up getting one of my double ropes stuck in the blocky corner and spent hours sorting it all out.

(Photo: Gail at the second roof on Shit Creek (P1 5.6).)

On Saturday, with Gail, I did the route the modern way, going directly over the second roof and then climbing up steep rock to the pumpy hand traverse to the finish. It is a high quality pitch with a ton of climbing on it, and three good cruxes. But I wouldn't put a 5.6 leader on this pitch. It felt stiff for 5.6 to me and the gear is not great. The pin at the second roof is old and there is no way to back it up. There is sparse gear for the face-climbing above and then after the final (well-protected) hand traverse, there is a lot of loose rock for the final twenty feet or so. I would probably do Shit Creek again if there were nothing else available, but if I'm there on an uncrowded day I'll be tempted by the route of another. Blistered Toe (5.7+), for example, is a better nearby alternative.

By the time we were done with Shit Creek the sun was setting. But I still wanted to climb a little more. "Don't dream it's over," I said to Gail. We still had time to run up the short 5.9 first pitch of The Spring in the fading light.

(Photo: The corner climbing on The Spring (P1 5.9) requires you to put a little boogie in your butt.)

We walked out in the dark. I put on my headlamp but apparently my leggings had some florescent properties. As I crossed the parking lot to my car I heard a final call from a stranger behind me:


This was not a day on which I achieved much of anything but Gail and I had a fantastic time. I've been smiling about it all week. It was like a little party all day long. If it's true that the best climber is the one having the most fun, then Gail and I were the best climbers at the Gunks last Saturday, by far. And it was great to see Gail leading so strong too.

It sure seemed like there was a lot of nostalgia for tights around the cliffs. Maybe they'll make a comeback and we can all proudly wear tights while rock climbing again. Wouldn't that be something?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

It's Raining Sends in the Red River Gorge

(Photo: Working on Primus Noctum (5.12a) at the Drive-By Crag. Photo by Adrian.)

I just got back from four days in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky.

It was my first visit to this Mecca of sport climbing, arranged by my wife Robin (in what will surely go down in history as the BEST BIRTHDAY GIFT EVER) with some help from my climbing friends Adrian and Gail.

Adrian and I were set to climb for four days, and Gail ultimately decided to join in too, coming down a day ahead of us with Max, her twenty-three year old son. Max is a strong boulderer. He competed as a youngster and came to the Red several times as a teen. But he dropped out of climbing when he went to college and only recently got back into it, though to all appearances the time off hasn't hurt. He has returned to fine form.

As my trip approached I tried to get more fit so I'd be able to survive on the steep overhanging routes for which the Red is famous. I went vegan (!), trained on the lead routes at the gym, and got back on my bicycle for some regular cardio exercise for the first time in a while. I succeeded in losing a few pounds and felt like I was in better shape than I'd been in all year.

But what was it all for? What did I hope to accomplish in the Red?

I had no sport climbing goals or expectations.

News flash: I am not a sport climber. Trad is my thing.

When I looked through the guidebooks for the Red, the sport walls all seemed the same to me. What I noticed mostly was that I needed to climb 5.11 if I wanted to do anything more than the warm-up routes at most of the sport crags.

So my goal was to lead 5.11 sport climbs. I didn't care whether I could send them cleanly. I just wanted to feel comfortable enough leading them that I could get the full experience of the area and have a good time.

As I reviewed the guidebooks I also noticed that for a sport climbing destination the Red sure seemed to have an awful lot of trad climbing. There were several different walls with a good selection of what appeared to be amazing climbs. I couldn't visit the Red without at least checking out some of these climbs. I knew Adrian and possibly Gail would want to hit the trad crags too.

When the time came for our visit, we found it hard just to get to Kentucky. But after a host of travel difficulties much too boring to talk about, we were all finally together at the Red on Friday afternoon, ready to climb. (Gail and Max had already begun climbing the day before.) It had rained all Thursday night and much of Friday morning but by noon it seemed like the skies were clearing and things were looking up.

Our first destination was the Drive-By Crag, a part of the climber-owned PMRP (Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve). Young Max had some friends from his Philadelphia climbing gym/team at the wall so this seemed like a good place at which to start.

The PMRP contains an odd mixture of natural wonder and heavy industry. Active oil rigs are scattered about the preserve. As you walk through the peaceful woods you will often be startled to encounter the smell of oil and the whine of machines, sometimes very close to the cliffs. The Drive-By Crag in particular has an active oil rig just downhill from the cliff face, and the noise of the drilling is clearly audible at the cliff. It is sort of a microcosm of the entire gorge; the beauty of nature is constantly juxtaposed with ugly human creations.

Despite the oil drilling the Drive-By Crag is a lovely and impressive place, steep and large. My immediate impression was that the creator had devised the ideal outdoor climbing gym, with a huge sweeping curve of pocketed, steep rock set with route after route of hard climbing. If this was your average Red River sport crag then I could see why the sport climbers love the area so very much. And I could see why gym climbers in particular are taken with the Red, since the cliffs so resemble the gym environment. But these cliffs are much better than any gym, with their real stone and a variety of holds, textures and colors that no man-made plastic palace could ever match.

(Photo: Adrian showing the stoke. Sport climbing RULES!!)

I liked the routes. We started with a 5.10b called Slick and the 9mm, on the left end of the wall. I was surprised at how easy it was. It had some steep moments but I thought it was more like a 5.9. I had heard that the Red was a little soft but if this was a representative 5.10 then we could own this place! The 5.10b that Adrian and I had done at Poke-O Moonshine just the week before made this one seem like a joke.

(Photo: Adrian on Slick and the 9mm (5.10b) at the Drive-By Crag.)

Our feelings of invincibility were sadly short-lived. Slick and the 9mm turned out to be an anomaly. I felt like the grading was stiffer and more accurate on every other climb we did over the next four days.

Storms came and went throughout the afternoon-- we stayed completely dry under the huge wall but we could tell it was raining by the sound of it pouring down behind us. It was a strange sensation.

The crag was crowded despite the weather. Most of the easier routes were constantly occupied even though it was a weekday. I accidentally worked on my first 5.12, Primus Noctum, when I found it open and was told it was a 5.11. I got shut down by one move I couldn't figure out, which I suppose must be the crux, at the very last bolt, but it was nice to work on a 5.12 on just my second pitch of the trip. I wasn't expecting that to happen. It made me feel right at home in the Red.

(Photo: That's me just over the roof on Primus Noctum (5.12a) at the Drive-By Crag.)

Adrian worked at Spirit Fingers (5.11c) and then I tried leading it too. I was happy to get over the technical, bouldery sequence off of a scary ledge near the bottom, but then I flamed out and had to take a hang in the pumpy upper section just one move below a good rest stance near the top. Having narrowly missed the onsight I regretted not trying harder.

We finished up our Friday with a 5.10d called Fire and Brimstone. I got the onsight lead on this one and felt pretty good about it. The crux climbing through the middle of the pitch was crimpy, making for a difficult clip of the draw. Seemed like a hard ten to me.

(Photo: Adrian on Fire and Brimstone (5.10d) at the Drive-By crag.)

Leaving the Drive-By Crag I felt like we'd had fun and gotten a taste of the real Red River Gorge, though we hadn't even begun to exhaust the possibilities within our ability levels at this one wall. I was relieved to find that I could climb in the Red. The routes were good, and they varied enough to discredit the widespread notion that all the climbs in the Red are steep, mindless jug hauls.

Still I knew that if we kept on climbing sport routes like these for four straight days I'd get bored.

Saturday and Sunday were expected to be sunny but cold, and rain was predicted again for Monday. Adrian and I decided to spend the next two days trad climbing. We guessed that the weekend crowds would be thinner at the trad walls, and then on Monday we could find a sport climbing location that would stay dry even if it was raining.

On Saturday Adrian and I headed to the Long Wall (a trad showcase) and had a great day. (Gail and Max went elsewhere for more sport climbing.) We got started pretty late, as the temperatures hovered in the low forties until late morning. Despite our lazy start we were just the second car parked at the tiny pullout. If you want to be alone at the Red, go trad climbing! We were the first to arrive beneath the marquee climbs of the area, Autumn (5.9-) and Rock Wars (5.10a).

Both of these climbs follow beautiful cracks up corners. Autumn is a hand crack/layback while Rock Wars is a fingers/tips crack that turns into an overhanging thin hands crack at the top. I thought Autumn would be good practice for me (I need to work on both hand cracks and laybacks) and it was theoretically the easier climb so I volunteered to start us off by leading it.

(Photo: I'm at the crux of Autumn (5.9-) at the Long Wall.)

I didn't exactly cruise it but I got through it unscathed. I was a little bit jittery all the way up. I found it easier most of the time to lay back off the flake rather than jam it, but I had to psych myself up to shakily commit to the moves at several points along the way. Nevertheless it was a success, and what a fine route! Beautiful rock and movement. I was glad we'd pooled our gear, since this climb will take as many blue No. 3 Camalots as you care to bring up. I placed three blues and two gold No. 2 Camalots. Adrian, when he followed, often jammed one hand in the crack and layed back with the other. Seemed smart to me. I might have felt more secure if I'd done it his way. He made it look very easy.

(Photo: Adrian on Autumn (5.9-) at the Long Wall.)

Next Adrian led Rock Wars and after the straightforward stemming section at the bottom the moves up the thin crack looked tough. Then the steeply overhanging hand crack to the anchor looked even tougher. I got it done as the second without any falls but of course it would be a bigger challenge to do the last part while also placing the gear. It is very steep. This is a pretty solid 5.10a, in my humble opinion, and another beautiful pitch.

(Photo: Adrian on Rock Wars (5.10a).)

I led a 5.9+ called Cruise Control which is right where the approach trail meets the Long Wall. This is another high quality pitch with steep moves up a few corners, around some small overhangs, and then a fun finish up a crack/flake system. And then I also led a sport route at the left end called Boom! Boom! Out Go The Lights (5.10b), which presents some overhanging, crimpy reaches past a bulge close to the ground and then finishes with technical moves up a slab. It was interesting. I liked having sport climbs intermixed with the trad routes. It is totally alien to me as a Gunkie, but I found that running up a moderate sport route is a really good way to take a mental break after a solid trad pitch.

(Photo: Adrian getting started on Cruise Control (5.9+) at the Long Wall.)

Adrian finished our day with a trad pitch called Mailbox (5.8), which features an easy low-angled off-width crack and then a sandbagged, steep finger crack to the finish. It is a really cool pitch. I wonder if the (quite straightforward) wide bit scares many people off.

(Photo: Adrian crammed into the off-width on Mailbox (5.8) at the Long Wall.)

We both loved the Long Wall and we didn't even make it around to the right half of the cliff. I'd be happy to go back.

On Sunday we had a similarly nice day trad climbing at the Fortress Wall. Gail and Max came along too and shared some of the routes with us. I didn't think the climbing at the Fortress Wall was quite as consistently stellar as at the Long Wall. The routes can be overly sandy and sometimes the rock feels unpleasantly sharp.

(Photo: Adrian on Bombs Bursting (5.8) at the Fortress Wall.)

We mostly did pleasant moderates like Bombs Bursting (a tough 5.8, with mandatory hand jamming and a committing finger crack crux) and Blue Runner (5.9- and similar to Cruise Control, with steep climbing down low and technical layback moves above). Adrian led both of these, plus a pretty easy but entertaining 5.8 called Snake, which slithers up an off-width for one or two moves before transitioning to a moderate hand crack with tons of features outside the crack.

(Photo: Here I'm following Adrian's lead of Blue Runner (5.9-) at the Fortress Wall, with Gail and Max below.)

I enjoyed leading Calypso I, a fun 5.7 flake climb.

(Photo: That's me leading Calypso I (5.7) at the Fortress Wall.)

My big lead of the day was Where Lizards Dare (5.9+), a beautiful and imposing finger crack up an overhanging corner which starts one pitch up off of the ground. I took us up Calypso III (5.5 off-width, very sandy) to get up to the ledge above. Then I plunged into Where Lizards Dare and found it pretty technical and sustained. The hardest single move involves stepping up into the dihedral where the crack begins. The crack at this point is too thin for fingers and the available face holds are high slopers. I took a long time and placed more and more gear (bomber nuts!) before finally committing to this move and making it into the crack. But then the route continued to be challenging and I got flustered. Eventually I had to hang to get my head together.

(Photo: I'm leading Where Lizards Dare (5.9+) at the Fortress Wall.)

The pitch eased up a little bit as the crack got wide enough for fingers and when I finished it I wished I could come back the next day to lead it again and do a better job. To me this was perhaps the best pitch of the trip. It rivals Rock Wars for quality and difficulty, though Rock Wars is longer.

(Photo: Gail on Calypso III (5.5) at the Fortress Wall. Photo by Adrian.)

I also enjoyed leading a chimney/off-width climb on the right side of the Fortress crag called Cussin' Crack (5.7). I enjoyed the moderate climbing up the wide chimney off of the ground (it was a great excuse to use our No. 4 Camalots), but then after reaching a ledge (where I thought I was all but done) I found a surprise squeeze chimney finish, invisible from the ground, which turned out to be the crux. This climb obviously doesn't see that much traffic. It was a bit dirty, with sharp edges, but I still found it to be a good time.

As predicted, it poured all Sunday night and into Monday morning. Gail and Max were exhausted and decided to head back to Lexington to try to catch an early flight. I hoped Adrian and I could do a day of sport climbing at another one of these sheltered, overhanging walls. Adrian was feeling pretty whipped but he was game to go for it for one more day.

We went to the Military Wall, which Gail and Max had enjoyed on Thursday and which the guidebook said was a good rainy day crag. We walked up during a break in the storms and found the climbs to be pretty much completely dry even though it had been raining steadily for hours. Another thunderstorm rolled through just as we were beginning to climb but it didn't really matter to us since we were already beneath the wall.

(Photo: Adrian on Sunshine (5.9+) at the Military Wall.)

It seemed to me that the Military Wall (one of the more mature sport crags in the Red) had a mix of the best and the worst of the sport climbing scene. We did the warm-up routes Sunshine (5.9+) and Moonbeam (5.9). These are overhanging jug hauls made more difficult by the fact that they are so greasy and chalky from the thousands of ascents they have seen over the years. Standing there on a rainy Monday, we had no trouble getting access to them, but the chalk told the story of many many crowded weekends. It was like being in a gym where the climbs are never changed. I felt similarly put off by the supposed classic Fuzzy Undercling (5.11-). The start is so slimy and white with caked-on chalk, it is just gross. Also impossible. It is gross and impossible, a lethal combination.

(Photo: I'm about to start Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b) at the Military Wall.)

My mood improved when we walked left to the far end of the Military Wall, where we found ourselves beneath a spectacular overhanging face that is covered in swirling black lines made of iron oxide. Behind these bands of iron oxide, the wall is a gorgeous mixture of reds, oranges and yellows. It is like a kaleidoscopic work of art. We looked at the two routes on this wall, and when I stepped up to try the one on the left, Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b), I was tickled to find that the thin black iron oxide bands formed awesome crimps and pinches. The route had some tough, long reaches from the first to the third bolts but I got by this crux section okay and then managed to climb through the pumpy remaining terrain for an actual bona fide 5.11b onsight.

(Photo: Adrian on Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b).)

I later read on the internet that if you move further right after the second bolt everyone thinks this is really a 5.10. But I didn't move to the right, so I guess I did it the hard way. And the guidebook calls the route a 5.11b so who am I to question it? I am officially a 5.11b sport climber, there is simply no denying it.

Right after this historic achievement I tried the 5.11d/5.12b next door, Forearm Follies, and got shut down hard. I didn't make it very far. I had to leave a bail biner after just a few bolts.

(Photo: Adrian leading Possum Lips (5.10d) at the Military Wall.)

We enjoyed two other routes at the Military Wall. Adrian and I both took a turn at leading Possum Lips (5.10d), a slab route with some thin, technical moves. Nothing pumpy about this one but it definitely requires finesse and good footwork. I was psyched to get the onsight.

And finally, we liked another less-popular route to the right, next to the archaeological closure: Danita Dolores (5.10b). The start over a low roof is described in the guidebook as "desperate." But I found it pretty doable. I campused up a few holds, got my feet on the wall, and cruised through the fun climbing up an arĂȘte.

(Photo: I'm almost to the anchor on Danita Dolores (5.10b) at the Military Wall.)

As we left the Military Wall and headed to the airport, I felt that we'd done a bunch of wonderful climbs in the Red and had a great experience. But the time had flown by and ultimately we'd barely dipped our toe into the metaphorical sea of climbing that was available.

We'd gotten just a small taste of the sport climbing life in the Red. We did some of the pumpy jug hauls for which the place is well-known, but really just a few. I liked these climbs. I would come back and do them again. If I devoted all of my energies to these sorts of routes I'd probably improve at them. But for now, doing just a few in any one day was enough for me.

I was pleased to see that, counter to the Red's reputation, there are other types of sport routes available. In our random sampling of the sport climbing in the Red we'd stumbled upon slabby routes, crimpy faces, and technical aretes. I really enjoyed these sorts of routes. I would love to come again to seek out the walls that are filled with these less pumpy, more technical routes.

As you might expect, I was happiest with the trad climbing we did. I don't think the Red's collection of trad routes is exactly world class, but what they have is certainly much more than you can do in a few days and is so different from what we have in the Gunks that it feels like a real treat. The Gunks just doesn't feature crack routes. Fingers, hands, fists, and off-width cracks-- the Red has them all, and on beautiful cliffs in secluded settings.

Over the course of our visit numerous people expressed shock and dismay that Adrian and I were spending half of our time in the Red trad climbing. But I'm glad we split the trip up the way we did. There was no way we'd get more than a small sample of what this massive area has to offer in one visit anyhow. I was pleased to get as many different little tastes of what was available as we could.

And anyway I don't think that a pure sport climbing trip would ever do it for me. I've previously written about my preference for trad over sport and I don't want to belabor the point again here.

But there were times during our trip when I could see the other side of the argument. At the Military Wall there was a young man trying like crazy to get the redpoint on a particular 5.12. While we were there he took four burns on the route, succeeding on the last try. When he finally nailed it his exhilaration was contagious. I was thrilled for him, and I was pretty impressed that he was able to reset, recharge and go after the route again and again the way he did. I don't think in my current state of fitness I could be so fresh on my fourth try at such a steep route. If I put in the effort and focused on this type of climbing I know I could have successes like that, and I'd probably be a stronger trad climber as a byproduct as well. It would be good for me.

But the trade-off would be doing less of the kind of climbing I love the most, so I probably won't.

It's one of the wonderful things about climbing: there are no rules. You get to set your own goals and choose your own level of adventure, taking your motivation from whatever source you like. Your path will be different from mine, and that's just fine.