(Photo: Gail on the last pitch of Realm of the Fifth Class Climber (5.9).)
I got up on Monday morning, looked in the mirror, and found bits of lichen in my ears.
This could mean only one thing:
I'd been climbing at Millbrook.
Sunday was one of the longest days of the year. It was expected to be a beautiful day in the Gunks. The main cliffs were sure to be overrun. Why not head back out to Millbrook, where we might find solitude? It had been more than a year since my first trip out there. I was overdue for another taste of this most mysterious and daunting of Gunks cliffs.
Last year Gail and I had picked off the two most obvious plums, Westward Ha! (5.7) and Cruise Control (5.9). These two great climbs are centrally located and relatively easy to find. They sit pretty much directly beneath the spot where the Millbrook Mountain Trail reaches the cliff.
This time around I suggested we venture a bit further afield, towards the southern end of the cliff. I was eager to check out Realm of the Fifth Class Climber (5.9). There were a few other routes nearby that I thought we also could do.
Realm of the Fifth Class Climber has a reputation for being on the easy side of 5.9, and also for being well-protected. It seemed like a good candidate for Gail and me. I also thought that since it ascends a prominent corner system we could be fairly sure we were in the right place when we started climbing, which is important at Millbrook! I didn't want to mistakenly stumble into 5.11 X territory.
Chris Fracchia (a fount of knowledge about Millbrook) had given me some advice about approaching Realm. He said we should rap in from directly above the climb rather than traversing over to it on the shelf popularly known as the "Death Ledge." The Death Ledge traverses the whole of Millbrook about one third of the way up the cliff, and all of the climbs start from this ledge rather than from the ground because the rock beneath the ledge is crumbly choss. The Death Ledge itself is pretty crumbly in spots, too, hence Chris' suggestion that we avoid it as much as possible by approaching our chosen climb from directly above.
We followed Chris' instructions and it seemed like we were in the right spot. We were able to find a good tree to rappel in from without too much trouble. By a stroke of dumb luck we stumbled upon another experienced Millbrook climber who confirmed we were in the right location, which gave us the confidence we needed to back our butts off of the cliff and into the unknown.
Even though I knew we'd found the right spot, I was nervous, just like the last time, as I stepped into the void and rappelled down the steep white cliff. Millbrook is a little bit spooky, there's just no getting around it.
(Photo: Rappelling down to the Death Ledge. The triangular roof visible up at the top of the photo is pretty much directly above the start of Realm of the Fifth Class Climber (5.9.).)
Once we got down to the Death Ledge, Realm of the Fifth Class Climber was easy to locate, just to the left of our landing point. The guidebook splits the climb into three pitches, but they are pretty short. I thought maybe I'd combine the first two into one 100 foot pitch.
I led the first 5.7 pitch up a right-facing corner without any trouble. The rock was pretty good and the climbing was mellow. I didn't place very much gear, hoping to reduce drag and save my favorite pieces for the crux climbing above. I finished the first pitch in no time and with plenty of gear left. But as I looked up at the intimidating crux of pitch two right above me, I worried that if I continued without stopping I might create some bad drag going in and out of the overhanging corner. And let's face it, I was still feeling some Millbrook jitters. I decided to bring Gail up and to do the route the traditional way, in three pitches.
(Photo: Gail climbing the last bits of pitch one of Realm of the Fifth Class Climber.)
Pitch two of Realm is a great pitch. It climbs another, larger right-facing corner. The crux comes near the start of the pitch as you escape a ceiling, climbing up to and around it and continuing up the corner system. There is a committing move out right from under the ceiling and then a challenging move up on the face with poor footholds, which leads to more good climbing up the corner with better holds. The pro is outstanding. You can place gear pretty much whenever you like in the crack at the back of the corner.
(Photo: Making it look easy, as always! Here I'm working up the corner to the crux roof on pitch two of Realm of the Fifth Class Climber (5.9).)
Full disclosure: I went back and forth several times before I finally did the crux move out and around the roof. It is a committing sequence. But once I put myself out there it went okay. I didn't find it soft for 5.9. Seemed like solid 5.9 to me. I was glad that I had Gail nearby for moral support.
(Photo: Gail reaching the end of pitch two of Realm of the Fifth Class Climber.)
After two very good pitches, I thought the third pitch was kind of a letdown. There is a hard, awkward move up onto a shelf, right off the belay. After that the pitch is pretty easy and not that much fun. You climb up and left to easily skirt two different roofs and then the climb is over. Watch out for some very loose plates on the wall beneath the first roof.
I wasn't sure where the 5.9 is on this pitch. Maybe it is just that first awkward move.
After Gail joined me atop the cliff we rapped in again from the same tree as before. I was hoping we could take a short walk to the north on the Death Ledge to do Again and Again (5.7). I was intrigued by this climb's long traverse under a roof on pitch two. Though the climbing isn't supposed to be hard I thought the position under the roof might be very exciting. Also, after the roof traverse this climb meets Cuckoo Man (5.10) and I was considering checking out that climb's final roof problem.
But when we got back down I couldn't find a secure way to cross the ledge from Realm to Again and Again. The Death Ledge just north of Realm is so much worse than it is over by Westward Ha!. It is very steeply sloped and loose. I couldn't see a safe path across, and I wasn't eager to try to make it, even roped up. I pictured myself sliding right off into oblivion.
So we decided not to do Again and Again.
But the only way out was up. We had to climb something.
(Photo: Hanging out on the sloping, loose Death Ledge near Realm of the Fifth Class Climber.)
I had another moderate climb in mind, Old Route (5.5 or 5.7, depending on who you believe). This was the very first climb ever done in the Gunks. It was put up by the great Fritz Wiessner in 1935. Wearing sneakers (!!) and using just a couple of soft iron pitons for protection, he made history, establishing with this climb what would become THE eastern center of American rock climbing for the next half a century.
Gail and I crossed the Death Ledge over to Old Route without a problem. It is south of Realm, in the opposite direction from Again and Again. We pitched it out, staying roped up while we moved on the ledge. I slung some trees along the way. The ledge wasn't as terrible to the south of Realm, but it was still pretty junky and loose. It is just a touch more than 60 meters from Realm to Old Route. I stopped at a tree when I was just about out of rope, and then after Gail came over we scrambled up to the right-facing corner where the climb begins.
Everyone agrees on where this climb starts, at an obvious right-facing corner. But different guidebooks disagree about where the route goes from there. Dick Williams has the climb going straight up the corner until it ends and then veering left up a woodsy dihedral to the top, while Todd Swain sends the climber on a long horizontal traverse after the corner ends, finishing the climb in a totally different place. Chris Fracchia identifies on his website yet another possibility, this one based on Fritz's own recollections as published in Appalachia magazine in 1960. We did the climb this last way, going up the corner just until we reached a bush and ledge, then stepping left to a v-notch and, at the top of the notch, moving back right to the belay at the top of the corner. And then moving left as the Williams guide has it for the second pitch up the large vegetated right-facing corner to the top.
Standing beneath Old Route, we both had to wonder why Fritz picked this line out of all the thousands available in the Gunks. It doesn't look so great. My guess is that he chose it because it looked like it could be climbed. The initial corner has lots of features to grab on to and the part towards the top of the cliff goes up a gully/notch, so Fritz figured he wouldn't get shut down at some massive overhang.
(Photo: Pitch one of Old Route (5.7).)
The first pitch, it turns out, is well worth doing. The initial corner is easy and pretty dirty, nothing to write home about. But the move into the v-slot is a toughie (easily 5.7 or harder) and then the climbing up this slot is clean and interesting. Once you reach a roof and start to traverse right to the belay ledge the moves are easier again and the exposure is really nice. I would think that anyone following Fritz on this traverse in 1935 would have been terrified! If this pitch were in the Trapps, it would have been cleaned up by the passage of human traffic long ago and it would by now be a popular trade route.
But since this climb is at Millbrook it hasn't been cleared of its considerable debris. Every ledge is full of loose rocks-- some small, some the size of cinder blocks. I couldn't get through the pitch without knocking a couple of the small ones off, and I narrowly avoided sending down some of the big ones. The belay ledge, too, is a mess, covered in loose crap. And the trees there are not very useful for the belay. One tree is dead and the other is very small. I chose not to use them. Instead I moved up and left to the next ledge and built a gear belay in some cracks that seemed solid.
(Photo: Finishing the clean climbing at the beginning of pitch two of Old Route (5.7). It is pretty densely wooded the rest of the way.)
The second pitch begins with enjoyable moves up the wall to the left of the belay, and then you chimney/grovel your way to the top up the big dihedral with a wide crack at the back, past bushes, trees and lichen-- lots of lichen. It is all 5.easy climbing. I found it fun up to a point. By the time I got to fighting my way past the final tree I'd had about enough.
I doubt I'll ever do Old Route again but I'm glad we did it once, partly for the connection to Fritz Wiessner and also because the first pitch has some very nice moments.
Realm of the Fifth Class Climber, by contrast, was pretty high quality for most of its length and I would be happy to do that one again.
It was great to be out at Millbrook, no matter what we were climbing. The place has a special atmosphere and it is very enjoyable just to hang out at the belays and up atop the cliff. You feel removed from it all up there, much more so than at the Trapps or the Nears. The ground, the buildings, other climbers... all of them are much further away. The cliff demands caution and respect, but it also offers genuine adventure and some very good climbing. I hope not to wait another year to go back. I'd like to jump on Rib Cracker (5.9), The High Traverse (5.8 by one of the variation finishes), Again and Again/Cuckoo Man (5.7/5.10), maybe even The Time Eraser (5.10-), some time soon.
If we have some agreeable weather this summer (not too hot) I might be able to make it happen in the near future.