Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Week in Yosemite National Park

(Photo: Yosemite Valley.)

Vertical cracks. Blank slabs. Polished granite. Old-school grades. Huge walls.

Such are the many attractions of rock climbing in Yosemite.

I have long dreamed of climbing there. This year, during my kids' Spring Break, I finally got my chance. We planned a trip to Berkeley, CA, to visit my wife's sister, after which we would drive out to Yosemite for three days of family hiking. Then the wife and kids were to go back to Berkeley, and my climbing partner Adrian was to meet me for FOUR DAYS of rock climbing.

I was going to spend a whole week in Yosemite. A dream come true.

I'd say it went reasonably well. I loved the park, and I had a great time hiking around with my family. The weather was fabulous for most of our stay. Adrian and I were able to climb on three of our planned four days, getting on good routes at three different locations.

I was a little disappointed in my climbing, however. Last year in Squamish I felt instantly comfortable on the grippy, textured granite. But this year in Yosemite I found the granite to be so polished, the routes sustained and intimidating. I was not as comfortable this time around and it showed.

Still I got a great introduction to Yosemite climbing and I'd go back in a heartbeat.

Before the trip, I tried to prepare by working on my crack-climbing technique in the gym and by going outside to lead as much as possible. I made it to the Cliffs at LIC-- the new gym in town-- a couple of times to work on their crack climbs.

(Photo: My buddy Deepak working the jams at the Cliffs at LIC.)

Meanwhile I felt like my head was getting into decent shape outside. On my last day in the Gunks before my trip, I went at a hard 5.10 (Try Again), and though I didn't send it clean, I felt good going for it. And I led on-sight a somewhat sketchy 5.9 called Turdland, and felt fine doing it. Not bad for so early in the season. I hoped I could keep it together to try some similarly hard leads in Yosemite.

We flew out to California on Saturday, April 12. We had a nice few days in Berkeley with family before we drove out to Yosemite on Wednesday. The forecast for our time in Yosemite couldn't have been better, with sunny skies and highs in the upper sixties predicted for our whole visit.

On our first afternoon in the park we checked out the Mariposa Grove, home of the giant sequoia trees. I was itching to go straight to Yosemite Valley but seeing as it was an hour away from our hotel we decided it could wait until the next morning.

(Photo: Giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove.)

We enjoyed the huge sequoia trees, but I thought the experience in the Grove was a little bit of a letdown. We hiked all the way out to the Wawona Point Vista (about six miles round trip), stopping at many of the specially-marked landmark trees along the way. Even though this was a weekday in early season, there were lots and lots of people around, and signs of overuse were everywhere. The trails seemed aged and beaten. The most impressive trees were surrounded by ugly fencing to prevent trampling by the masses. The stone walls at the Wawona Point Vista were crumbling; the metal railings had twisted and fallen. The view out to Wawona Dome was okay, but not exactly breathtaking.

(Photo: View of Wawona Dome from the Wawona Point Vista.)

I was a little worried. I wanted so much to love Yosemite. I also wanted my wife Robin to love it, so she'd be interested in coming back. Robin knew little of what to expect here. I'd prepared her to expect crowds, but I had assured her that the spectacular surroundings would compensate for all the people.

Was I wrong? Were we doomed to spend three days fighting through throngs of people-- only to find compromised, decaying viewpoints?

Well, I needn't have worried. The next morning we drove up the Wawona road to Yosemite Valley and as we rounded a corner both El Capitan and Half Dome came suddenly into view. Robin and I were instantly blown away. I would remain so for the full remainder of my week in Yosemite. I spent days just walking around with my mouth open, gaping at the incredible scenery all around us.

(Photo: Good morning, El Cap!)

Once we arrived in the Valley we chose to do the Mist Trail hike up to the top of Vernal Falls and then (so long as our kids were cooperative) we planned to continue up the Muir Trail to the top of Nevada Falls. This is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite and it did not disappoint. It gave us about 7 miles of rugged hiking. The waterfalls were in peak early season form. We got a good soaking on the Mist Trail as we passed Vernal Falls.

(Photo: Vernal Falls, seen from low on the Mist Trail. If you click on the photo to enlarge it you can make out some tiny people on the trail, starting to get wet.)

Everywhere we looked we saw enormous granite walls. I knew the names of some of the formations, and I was familiar with some of the classic routes on some of the walls, but the sheer amount of stone all around was overwhelming. It was impossible to make sense of it all.

Vernal Falls is quite beautiful and the overlook at the top is a great spot for lunch. As we got higher up and approached Nevada Falls the hike got even better. Nevada Falls is just as impressive as Vernal Falls but there are fewer people crowding the trail. The landscape began to resemble the pictures I've seen of the Sierra high country, with alpine plant life and clean white domes of rock in all directions.

(Photo: The dome of Liberty Cap, seen from the Muir Trail.)

(Photo: Looking down the cascading Nevada Falls from the top.)

Though the kids grumbled a bit they were generally troopers and got through the hike without too much foot-dragging.

For our third day of hiking we chose another ambitious undertaking, the Yosemite Falls Trail. This trail is slightly longer than the combined Mist/Muir Trail and it gains significantly more altitude. But we ultimately felt like it wasn't that much more difficult, overall. The early part of the trail is the steepest, and once you are over that there is a flatter middle portion of the trail, which provides a good rest before you tackle the long climb to the top of upper Yosemite Falls. The kids made it up and down just fine, buoyed by the knowledge that this was to be their last big hike of the trip.

(Photo: Yosemite Falls, seen from the ground before the hike. The falls are 2600 feet high and you can only take in both the upper and lower portions from a distance. There is no view of the whole falls from the trail.)

Along the way I was just amazed at the views of Lost Arrow Spire, a detached pinnacle to the right of the falls. There are full-length climbs up the huge wall next to the spire, and I have seen photos of climbers doing a tyrolean traverse (i.e. dangling from a fixed line) back to the main cliff after climbing the 5.12 route to the tiny summit of the exposed spire. But the photos can't prepare you for the real thing. Once I could see it in real life, the notion of climbing on such a huge wall, so high off the ground, with the raging falls nearby, gave me the chills.

(Photo: Upper Yosemite Falls, with the detached pinnacle of Lost Arrow Spire visible to the right.)

From the trail we also got great views of Half Dome and some of the higher peaks in the southern part of the park. Later (with Adrian's help) I found out what peaks we were seeing. Maybe some day after the kids get a little older we'll get a wilderness permit and hike all the way out to these mountains. Yosemite Valley is such a small part of the park. As soon as you gain a little altitude you can see how much more the park has to offer.

(Photo: View to the South from the Yosemite Falls Trail, with Half Dome on the left and some snowy peaks in the distance, including Mt. Clark and Mt. Starr King.)

By the end of our third day of hiking I was starting to get a little tired and sore. But I had to buck up because the main event, from my perspective, was still to come. Adrian met up with us at our hotel on Friday night and in the morning we planned to say goodbye to my wife and kids and do four straight days of climbing. My wife and kids would head back to Berkeley and Adrian and I would take up residence in Curry Village, in the heart of the Valley, in a perma-tent built for two.

Apart from my fatigue, I had an anxiety about climbing in Yosemite that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The walls were so huge, the surroundings so overwhelming, the routes so legendary. It was intimidating to me. Adrian had lots of experience in Yosemite so I knew I could lean on him a bit but I also wanted to get the most out of my time and live up to my potential.

We started out on Saturday at the Five Open Books area. We figured that this would be a good place to get started because there are multi-pitch climbs here at several different difficulty levels. Adrian suggested we start with Commitment, a three-pitch 5.9. He'd been on it before but he hadn't led pitches one and three, which are the harder pitches. He was figuring I'd lead the 5.7 pitch two.

(Photo: Adrian leading pitch one of Commitment (5.9).)

I found Commitment to be a pretty rude introduction to Yosemite granite. The first move on pitch one is a doozy, getting over an awkward bulge with a wide crack. I felt like I was barely able to do it as the follower (with a little help from the tree at the base!) and then though the jamming afterwards was straightforward I felt unsure of my feet on the slick granite.

Pitch two was supposed to be my lead but it began with 15 to 20 feet of face climbing with no gear. The climbing looked easy but I didn't feel confident that my feet would stick. I felt really shaky on the granite and it was infecting everything. Plus a fast party was right on our heels, watching us. I imagined myself falling off the initial moves right onto the belay, and I decided to give up the lead to Adrian. I felt pretty dumb about it afterwards. I had no trouble with the pitch, though I was still a bit insecure on the 5.7 layback moves after the easy run-out face climbing.

(Photo: Adrian at the crux roof on pitch three of Commitment (5.9).)

Adrian led the crux roof escape on pitch three, getting through it quickly. Again I followed it cleanly. The crux moves definitely are committing, and rather Gunks-like, with good hands and smeary feet until a blind reach around the roof locates a great handhold. Again I was more concerned with the polished laybacking that came afterwards, though it worked out fine.

I liked Commitment but I was surprised at my reaction to it. There was little jamming but I felt pretty comfy on what little there was. It was the polished laybacking that I was unnerved by. It was a preview of things to come later.

We walked back around to the bottom, hoping to do Munginella (5.6), a climb with lots of easier pitches for me to lead. But Munginella had two parties stacked up waiting, so we moved over to The Surprise (5.10). This climb had three pitches I was pretty sure I could lead.

I worried my way through the initial 5.8 pitch, slowly negotiating the blocky, dirty corner. Then Adrian led a traverse pitch which was easy (5.5) but which had almost no gear at all. There was a bolt about halfway across, but it was an old quarter-incher, rusty, bent, and only partially driven, with a very rusty hanger to boot! It was the worst bolt I have ever seen.

(Photo: Adrian following the 5.8 third pitch of The Surprise.)

But with the third pitch came the prize, 100 feet of 5.8 splitter hand crack. I was feeling a little more confident after my first lead and I got through this just fine. Then I followed Adrian cleanly up the next pitch, another really good one which had two 5.10 bits, first a finger crack section and then a thin traverse (again, very Gunksy, with good hands and no feet). It was a great lead by Adrian, and I was very pleased to follow it well. Finally I led another short 5.7 pitch to the top. 

I liked The Surprise, but I could have done without the first two pitches. I wouldn't call it a classic but the later pitches are great.

By this point we'd done eight pitches and we were both feeling hot and tired. I felt like I'd made some real progress. But we had a few hours of daylight left so I suggested we go down to a little cliff near the road called Swan Slab where we could squeeze in another pitch or two. Adrian pushed me to lead a 5.9 finger crack there called Grant's Crack, but I balked and made him lead it. He did it in about ten seconds, but told me it was very polished and slick. (This is a popular toprope area.) When it was my turn I fumbled a bit at the top of the crack and fell a couple of times. Not a great way to build confidence at the end of the first day. Still I hoped to start day two refreshed and with a healthy mojo.

On our second climbing day we went to Middle Cathedral Rock to hop on Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9), a classic five-pitch crack climb. 

(Photo: Middle Cathedral Rock, with Higher Cathedral Rock peeking over its shoulder.)

When we got to Middle Cathedral we were pleased to find our climb wide open. Adrian headed up the 5.9 first pitch and didn't find the climbing quite as carefree as he had the day before. He struggled a bit in the wide vertical crack ascended by this pitch. In the early going you can choose to go deep into the crack or stay outside, using flakes and edges. Adrian mostly stayed inside where he found secure jams but I think it may be harder to move up in there. After he got through the lower bits he sent the upper crux, a flaring slot, cleanly. By contrast, I stayed outside down low and had no trouble, but at the flaring slot up top I slipped out. Then got over it once I found some footholds outside the slot that I'd missed.

(Photo: Adrian on the intimidating pitch one of Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9).)

Adrian later described this pitch as typical of Yosemite climbs. There's often some wide crack or awkward chimney at the bottom of great routes, acting as a gateway to the sinker jams above.

When I joined Adrian atop pitch one I had to confront the moment of truth. I had to lead pitch two, a 5.9 pitch of crack climbing. We'd taken a lot of time on pitch one. Adrian clearly wasn't feeling like carrying the whole team today. If I couldn't do my share we'd most likely end up bailing. I could see the way ahead, up the obvious vertical crack system. I took a big gulp and led onward.

The first 5.8 part was fine and soon enough I could tell I was beneath the crux 5.9 finger crack.  I placed a great nut at my chin level and tried to shake out at my tiny stance. I felt so tense, I couldn't say why. I kept trying to contrive a real rest so I could just get my head together, and eventually I started to pump out as I stood there paralyzed, shaking out one hand, and then the other, back and forth, looking at the thin crack.

Eventually I called out "take" and rested on my bomber nut.

As I rested I tried not to let myself be defeated. I tried to summon the mindset of the great Yosemite climber Mark Hudon, who in times of stress will remind himself that "I am Mark Hudon and I am a badass. Suck it up!" 

I certainly didn't call myself a badass, but I did try to remind myself of what I know I can do.  "I lead nines and tens at the Gunks!" I told myself.  "I have led 5.10 finger cracks at Squamish. I know I can do this! Just get on with it!"

I even threw in a little bit of Wide Boyz wisdom for good measure.  "Focus on performance, not the goal!"

Then I did it. I climbed right through the 5.9 bit, several thin moves in succession, placing a bomber Alien right before getting to a good stance. The rest of the way was 5.8 hands and fingers with frequent rest stances. I shook out at every stance and told myself to breathe and enjoy it. This was a great pitch.

(Photo: Adrian following pitch two of Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9). You can just make out the pile of snow that was still there at the base when we did the climb.)

The rest of the way was all smiles for me. Adrian led the next pitch, which had a (supposedly) 5.7 roof and then some 5.8 off-width climbing. 

(Photo: Approaching the 5.7+++ roof on pitch three of Central Pillar of Frenzy. Sorry about the butt shot.)

The roof was interesting, with jugs and then a diagonal jam crack through the roof. Being a Gunks guy I was hoping to gloat over any roof I found but I really thought this was much harder than 5.7. I found the jamming secure but awkward. The next, off-width portion of the pitch was more often fist-sized for me.  Whenever the crack was larger than my fist I was able to move up using the sides of the crack. I enjoyed climbing it as the second with no worries, but if I'd led it I'm sure I would have been leap-frogging our biggest gear like crazy and freaking out.

I led pitch four, a glorious dream of 5.8 double vertical hand cracks. I loved this pitch. It was my favorite of the trip. Jamming and stemming all the way, great great fun.

(Photo: That's me leading pitch four of Central Pillar of Frenzy.)

Adrian led the final pitch, heading up a really fun 5.6 chimney, to another rooflet and a couple of 5.9 moves before straightforward jams finished the pitch. I followed cleanly but man, I was tired by the end of pitch five. These sustained jamming pitches took a lot more out of me than the usual Gunks pitch. I was used to brief moments of difficulty followed by stretches of easier climbing, not 100+ feet of similarly difficult movement all in a row.

(Photo: Adrian on pitch four of Central Pillar of Frenzy.)

I really loved Central Pillar of Frenzy. It had all that I'd ever hoped to see in a Yosemite climb. Great jamming and variety from fingers to hands to fists to off-widths and chimneys. And a beautiful location with views of El Cap across the road and nice vistas up the Valley. Once we got it done I felt like I'd started to really find my way in Yosemite. Or so I thought.

The next morning we found out the weather forecast had changed. We were looking at rain that evening and maybe into the next day. We decided to head over to the Manure Pile Buttress to do the Nutcracker, a classic 5-pitch 5.8. I was to take most of the harder pitches this time, including the infamous mantel move at the start of pitch five. And once we were done we figured we could see how the skies looked and decide then whether to do something else. Surely if the weather was cooperative we could climb more than five pitches of 5.8?

(Photo: Here I'm leading pitch one of the Nutcracker. The unprotectable wide section is just above the tree and the steeper 5.8 layback is at the top of the photo.)

Things seemed fine as I started to lead pitch one. But I quickly discovered that I wasn't at my best. I realized as soon as I started climbing that I felt utterly exhausted. At the time I figured three days of hiking, two days of climbing, and a healthy dose of beer the night before must have taken their toll on me. 

The pitch features a wide 5.7 layback that can't be protected for about 15 feet. I hemmed and hawed but eventually got through this. I wasn't about to backslide so much that I'd abandon another 5.7 lead. But then I got up into a steeper part of the pitch, with 5.8 laybacks up a polished corner (with great pro), and I continued to have trouble. I was making the moves but with every step I felt more tired. And with the exhaustion came nerves. 

I stopped and took a hang on a good cam. Then I took an immediate lead fall (my only one in Yosemite) right next to the cam when I tried to stand up back into the layback. Angry and cursing, I tried again and stepped up to a good horn at the top of the corner. The pitch was basically over. All I had to do was to flop onto the shelf above the corner, but just then my foot slid off and I almost went for a pretty good ride. I managed to hold on, though, and collapsed onto the shelf, panting and sweating.

It was going to be one of those days.

Adrian walked right up the easy 5.4 pitch two. Very soon it was my turn to lead again, and the guidebook described pitch three as only 5.7 but featuring "sustained and polished" 5.7 laybacks! Not again. I wanted to die. I still wasn't comfortable on these polished laybacks. 

(Photo: Heading up pitch three of the Nutcracker. You can see the polished crux above me.)

I got through it eventually, but it wasn't pretty. I wasn't enjoying this great climb. When Adrian joined me at the belay I told him I thought we should consider bailing because I just didn't have it today. But ever supportive, Adrian told me he thought I'd regret it if I didn't at least try the famous mantel on pitch five. And he was right. It is a Yosemite rite of passage. I had to try it. So we carried on.

(Photo: Adrian on pitch three of the Nutcracker.)

I was glad Adrian led pitch four, which has a tricky 5.8 roof and then some sketchy 5.8 slab past a piton.

Very quickly it was my turn to lead again. It was mantel time. Just one hard move up a mysterious steep corner and it would be 5.6 cruiser climbing to the top.

(Photo: Getting up to the infamous mantel move on the Nutcracker.)

I wasn't sure what I had to do, I just knew it involved a mantel. Seemed like you had to commit to the steep corner and then reach up high without being able to see what was up there. I placed the best gear I could, a nut and a small cam, in cracks at the back of the corner. I wished I could get something higher. If I blew it up top these pieces would not prevent me from hitting the slab.

I really wanted this over with.  I stepped up and grabbed a good side pull with the left hand, then reached high with the right.....

And found jugs. Lots of jugs. A quick high step and a push (mantel!) and it was over.

(Photo: Success! Whew.)

For once something felt easy. I was glad to salvage something positive from the Nutcracker.

I think the Nutcracker is another great climb, with a lot of variety on it. But its popularity has resulted in an unpleasant amount of polish. It is really quite slick in places. 

When we got to the top there was no question of doing more climbing. I was so wiped out. I felt like I'd been hit by a truck.

(Photo: Adrian topping out on the Nutcracker.)

I wasn't sure what I could do the next day, our last. We only had until early afternoon. We both had to get back to San Francisco for flights. 

When we awoke it seemed like the rain we'd been promised had largely passed us by. The boulders in Curry Village were dry. It was still cloudy but I expected it to clear in an hour or two, if the previous night's forecast was still valid. Seemed like we might be able to do at least a little cragging before we left.

But then after we ate breakfast it started raining steadily. It didn't stop for two hours. Eventually we decided we were done. It was over.

It cleared up as we left Yosemite Valley.

(Photo: Sentinel Rock emerging from the fog.)

(Photo: A bear sighting on our way out.)

I really loved Yosemite and I think I got a good introduction to what it has to offer the hiker and the climber. Of course there is so much more to experience there. I'm sure we'll find a way to go back, especially since my wife enjoyed it as much as I did. 

About the climbing, well, Yosemite is an intimidating place! I did some good climbing and a little whimpering and hanging. I think I need to log some serious time in New Hampshire working on granite slabs and then I can come back and conquer the Valley!

In retrospect, I think my sixth-day exhaustion was partially the result of a virus coming on. As soon as I got back to NYC I got sick. I've been fighting the bug ever since. The weekend has been beautiful here in the city and I've spent the whole time indoors, propped up on Dayquil, blowing my nose and coughing.

But I'm not complaining. I'll cherish the week I spent in Yosemite. I had a wonderful time and I'd love to go again.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

At the Mac Wall: Try Again (5.10b) & Coexistence (5.10d), plus Turdland (5.9 or 5.10d)

(Photo: Gail finishing up the traverse on the 5.8+ pitch one of Birdie Party.)

I have been trying to get ready for my trip to Yosemite next week.

I went to the new gym in NYC, the Cliffs of Long Island City, and threw myself at the easiest of their three crack climbs. Several times, I tried it. It wasn't pretty. When it comes to hand cracks, I have my work cut out for me. I am going back again this week. And while we are in Berkeley, before we drive out to Yosemite, I hope to practice on some of the crack climbs at the Berkeley Iron Works, if I can find a partner.

In addition to working on my crack climbing skills, I have attempted to get some mileage on real rock in the Gunks. It has not been easy to find any climb-worthy days in the last few weeks. The weekends have been rainy.

Gail and I made a go of it one Saturday. Of course, it had rained on Friday and was supposed to rain on Saturday and Sunday as well. But on Saturday the rain was supposed to hold off until the late afternoon, so we decided to go for it and hope for the best. Sometimes insane optimism pays off.

(Photo: Looking down at the first pitch of Frog's Head (5.6-).)

As I drove up I could already tell it wasn't going to be worth it. It was raining at exit 15 in Sloatsburg. (Then again, isn't it always?) It wasn't raining when Gail and I arrived at the cliffs but everything felt a bit slick. It was just warm enough for climbing, probably 42 degrees, but there was a damp chill in the air. I backed off of Baby (5.6) when my fingers started to feel numb inside the off-width. We ended up getting just four slimy pitches in before it started raining in earnest just after noon.

Desperate for more time outside, I agreed to meet Gail again on a weekday that had a more favorable forecast.

This time we had better luck, though again the day started out feeling cold and damp. We began with moderates and never got around to doing anything really challenging.

(Photo: Gail studying the crux move on Snooky's Return (5.8).)

The cliffs were pretty much deserted so we had our pick of popular climbs. Any day on which you get to climb Snooky's Return (5.8), Madame G's (best 5.6 in the world), and Raunchy (5.8) is a very good day indeed. Also Gail led up the first pitch of Columbia (5.8) like it was nothing at all. That crux move is kind of tricky, I think. I was impressed. By the end of the day the sun was shining, the rock felt good, and winter finally seemed to be receding from view behind us.

(Photo: Leading into Spring on Raunchy (5.8), reaching for green leaves and blue skies.)

This past Sunday the weather gods seemed poised finally to deliver the kind of glorious Spring day we'd all been waiting for. Gail and I got out by 9:30 and headed straight for the Mac Wall. I was hoping the routes would be dry because there were several climbs there that were suddenly high on my agenda.

The Mac Wall is well-liked, and for good reason: it has a high concentration of good 5.10's, all in a row, one after another. But until this past weekend I'd never done any of them except the ones on the left side (Interstice (5.10d) and Mother's Day Party (5.10b)), which I could set up as a top-rope from easier climbs. And I've led the Dangler (5.10a), but I'm not sure that really counts as a Mac Wall ten.

The prime reason I've stayed away from most of the popular Mac Wall tens is that, knowing only their reputations, I am scared of them. Each one has its own fright-inducing aspects for the budding 5.10 leader. Try Again (5.10b), for example, has some poorly protected 5.9 climbing off of a ledge and a crux roof protected by an ancient pin. Coexistence (5.10d) has 20-30 feet of 5.8 R/X climbing right off of the deck. Star Action (5.10b) features a crux dyno 60 to 70 feet off the ground. Graveyard Shift (5.10d) just seems scary, period. The name alone is terrifying. And finally, Tough Shift (5.10a) is supposed to have a big runout after the crux move around a corner.

Another reason I've avoided these climbs is that the Mac Wall tends to be incredibly crowded. It sits right at the top of the Stairmaster approach to the Trapps and there are many bolted anchors. Groups of top-ropers regularly hog multiple lines for hours on end. Not my idea of a great time.

But as the new season approached I decided I might be ready to start to fill the Mac Wall hole in my resume. With the annual spring peregrine closure likely to restrict access to some or all of these climbs it seemed like time was of the essence. I thought maybe I could lead Star Action. The pro was reputed to be good. I'd just have to suck it up and try the dyno. And I thought I could handle Try Again safely, making sure I got the best pro I could at the dicey bits and backing off if necessary. I was even considering leading Tough Shift, because, well, how bad could it be? What could possibly go wrong?

We weren't the first party to arrive at the Mac Wall on Sunday but Gail and I had our choice of lines. We decided to start off with a climb I love, Birdie Party. I thought maybe we'd do the 5.10b roof on pitch two if I felt good leading the 5.8+ pitch one.

Right off the bat I did something incredibly stupid. I got up on the wall and with my feet perhaps six feet off the ground I tried to worm a small nut into the vertical seam beneath the good holds. I thought I'd placed one there before. After some tinkering it seemed I had a solid placement. As I said "this seems pretty good!" to Gail I gave the nut a dramatic tug and, wouldn't you know it, it popped right out and I was suddenly flying off the wall. On instinct I converted the fall into a jump and in a split second I landed squarely on my heels next to Gail on the ground. It happened so fast Gail didn't even see it.

I felt fine but I waited a minute to get back on the wall. I worried that I'd sprained or broken something and that the pain would come on over time. This was just what I needed, an injury right before my big climbing trip! But luckily I seemed to be okay and I was able to go right back to climbing.

The second time around I ignored the nut placement and instead placed a hybrid cam in a little v-slot above the seam so I was protected for the smeary move up to the little ledge. The rest of the pitch went well, much to my relief, and soon enough I'd completed the thrilling traverse to the MF (5.9) bolts. This first pitch of Birdie Party, including the traverse, is one of the very best 5.8 pitches in the Gunks. It is full of good moves and the ending is just superb, exposed and exciting.

(Photo: Gail following pitch one of Birdie Party (5.8+).)

By the time Gail reached the end of the pitch it had become much more crowded at the wall. Climbers were coming up both Birdie Party and MF behind us. And the stance at the MF bolts isn't very comfortable. I decided I shouldn't subject Gail to waiting there in a crowd while I tried the second pitch. I suggested to her that we rap and go somewhere else.

But when we got down I saw that there was no one on the right side of the Mac Wall, where the tens I wanted to lead reside. So I gave them a look. Star Action was a wet, seepy mess through the crux, so that one was out. But Try Again appeared to be dry, so I decided to go for it. I wasn't concerned as much with the on-sight (though I hoped to get the roof cleanly) as I was with being safe and reasonable. I told myself to not be afraid to leave a piece and bail, and to take it slow.

I liked the climb. The early going up an easy left-facing corner to a big ledge is no problem. Then you confront a blank face right above the ledge with thin moves up to a dramatically leaning, right-facing corner. There isn't any real gear for the blank face. I got two small nuts in opposition placed in low horizontals, not far off the ledge, which I chained together with a carabiner so they wouldn't pop out. But these nuts were only to make sure I didn't fall further than the ledge. There was no gear available to prevent a ledge fall if I blew the moves on the blank face.

(Photo: Gail at the crux roof on Try Again (5.10b).)

Once you pass the blank face there are some interesting moves up two right-facing corners with good gear, and then comes the crux roof. When I reached the roof I saw that the pin seemed to be brand new! Someone had replaced it. Hallelujah. I clipped it and looked for other back-up gear, but I didn't find anything.

The stance under the roof was strenuous but by leaning into the corner I found I could shake out a bit....

And then I went for it. News flash: I failed. I thought the challenge on Try Again was supposed to be finding the holds above the roof, but I saw holds all over the place. For me the real challenge was choosing the right ones! It took me three tries to step up just right. I think I have it now; I could cruise it next time. I know I always say this. I'm as predictable as the rain in Sloatsburg.

Once above the roof I was kind of shocked to see the climbing wasn't over. I needed to make two or three more thin moves up and right to a flaky rooflet where there would be gear. With my feet above the pin, feeling shaky and pumped out, I had to calm myself and make sure my moves were precise until I could get to the gear. Once I carefully made these moves it was all done.

It felt good to go for it on Try Again but it took a lot out of me. I was safe about it but very slow, tense and deliberate. I don't know if my head is really back in shape yet for the season. It is a quality route, and though it is broken up by ledges it has several fun sequences and a great roof problem. If you place the nuts off the first ledge it is not a horror show and the new pin definitely helps.

After Gail attacked Try Again, solving it differently than the way I did it, we decided we might as well top-rope Coexistence, a climb I thought I would likely never feel confident enough to lead. Why not check it out?

(Photo: Dealing with the beginning bulge on Coexistence (5.10d).)

This is a great great pitch! Much better than Try Again. High quality the whole way, with good 5.8+ moves over a bulge at the start and then some steep climbing up a diagonal crack to a right-facing corner and crux roof. For me the hardest technical move came in the diagonal crack. Maybe I did it wrong. After I sneaked past the crack it seemed like I attacked the corner just right, nailing the reach to the horizontal beneath the roof and then blasting over the roof, proudly, on my first try. The whole way up I was thinking I would never lead it but now.... I really think I might do it one day. The issue is the pro during the early 5.8+ climbing. There is very little gear there, though a small cam might protect the hardest move. If this tiny cam is good then it probably isn't soooo dangerous, though there is still some do-not-fall territory after the protected move. There is dynamite gear for the roof crux at the end of the pitch.

(Photo: Getting into the real business of Coexistence (5.10d).)

After Gail also top-roped Coex we decided to move on. The Mac Wall had become packed with people, both friends and strangers. My gym friend Leo was there and Gail ran into her Philly pal Olivier. While Gail was still climbing Coex I counted over twenty climbers in my immediate field of vision. It was time to go.

(Photo: A typical Mac Wall crowd on a Sunday.)

As we walked down the cliff, it was apparent that the season had officially begun. There were climbers everywhere, on practically every route. I suggested we do Turdland, a climb that gets three stars from Dick Williams but which no one ever seems to do. I think the main reason it is not popular is that Williams lists the 5.10d direct variation as the main route in his most recent guidebook, even though the original route is just one step to the right from the variation and goes at a more approachable 5.9.

I'd heard it was a good 5.9, and a contrived 5.10d if you choose to do the final crux move the hard way. I'd also heard it was a little necky, even though it has three protection bolts (a rarity in the Gunks).

We walked up to the route and I could spot some of the bolts as well as the little roofs and corners described by Dick in the guidebook. I could not tell exactly where I was going but it seemed clear enough. So I headed on up.

It went well, although again I felt like I was really slow. I got stuck just after the first bolt, mystified about how to step up for quite some time until I realized I was too far to the left.

The bolts caused me some concern. I am not an expert in evaluating bolts but all three bolts on this route appear to be really old and rusty, and on some of them the very rusty (and perhaps homemade?) hangers spin. After the first bolt there is a hardish move and then delicate, thin climbing heads up and left to a pin at a rooflet. There is sparse pro in between. The climbing here is not 5.9 but it isn't that much easier. I got a red Camalot in a funky pocket, which gave me some comfort, but if I hadn't managed this placement I would have felt quite run out. Even with the pro I had, this was heads-up climbing above gear during which I did not consider falling to be a viable option-- actually almost the whole pitch felt this way.

But the climbing is very nice. The rock is of high quality, similar to the nearby Absurdland (5.8), and there are a lot of thoughtful moves on the pitch. By the time I got to the upper rooflet beneath the final bolt I was feeling both mentally and physically fried. I checked out the crimps for the 5.10d finish but I could see the better holds literally just an arm's reach to the right and so I chose to finish the pitch the 5.9 way.

I would climb Turdland again if I could get some assurance about the bolts.... And maybe even if I couldn't. The climbing on it is really good. Gail liked it a lot as the second. It is hard to find a route that is new to her! It is not a good climb for the new 5.9 leader. Even though the climbing style is totally different than on Try Again, I think doing the climb was similarly helpful for me in terms of getting my head together for the season. It felt good to go above the gear and work it out, on-sighting challenging moves in a careful, precise way.

(Photo: Gail leading V-3 (5.7).)

After we were finished with Turdland I was ready to dial it back. We ended our day more casually. Gail cruised up V-3 (5.7 and always a pleasure). Then we headed back to the Stairmaster trail and I led Strictly From Nowhere (5.7), which I've done a million times. It is mostly an easy romp up to a fun, steep roofy corner. You have to climb up into the steep corner, place gear, and then escape right. Very exciting for the grade and a very good time.

We ended the day with another new climb for me. I led the first pitch of Revenge of the Relics, just left of Strictly From Nowhere. This pitch is 5.9, with a reachy two-move crux over a bulge not far off the ground. There is bomber gear for the crux, so it's a good little lead, even though the gear gets a bit more sparse for the easier, unremarkable climbing up to the Oscar's Variation tree at the end of the pitch. It is worth doing once.

Next week I head to Yosemite. I am determined to lead some good hard climbs out there, and not to follow my buddy Adrian up everything that is challenging. I know he'll always be able to bail me out if I need him to (crack climbing on granite is his specialty), but I hope not to be forced to push the panic button. I think I've done everything I can to climb as much as possible this season in preparation, given our lousy recent weather.

I will let you know how it goes!