(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.)
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).)
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.
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!