Thursday, October 2, 2014

Poke-O Moonshine Cliff: The FM (5.7+ R), Bloody Mary (5.9+) & More!

(Photo: Looking out on Poke-O Moonshine from the top of pitch two of Bloody Mary (5.9+). Photo by Adrian.)

A few weeks ago (as you'll surely recall!) I took a random tumble at the base of the Trapps in the Gunks, opening a gash in my knee and causing some worrisome swelling. The timing wasn't great, since I was planning to go to the Red River Gorge for four days in early October.

Because I had so little time to waste, I went to see a few doctors. After a tetanus booster and some antibiotics I'm happy to say the knee is pretty much back to normal. I lost about a week of my usual physical activities but I feel lucky it wasn't more serious.

This past weekend I got back to climbing outside. I made my second attempt of the season at climbing in the Adirondacks with Adrian. Our first effort of the year back in June was pretty much a washout, but this time we seemed well set for a good day. We had a cushion of several clear days in a row.

The plan was for Adrian and I to meet on Sunday at Poke-O Moonshine, the huge cliff close to the Northway at exit 33. I've been there twice before, but there is so much climbing to do at Poke-O I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what the place has to offer.

Poke-O is just an hour and a half away from Adrian's current digs in Montreal. By contrast, it is five hours away from my home in Brooklyn. No one without a family would ever think of making the trip up there for just a single day. For people without children it wouldn't be worth it, but since I can rarely get away for a whole weekend I am occasionally willing to do a lot of driving for just one day's climbing.

Luckily, my wife and I have friends who own a place near Lake George and they offered their house to me for the night on Saturday. This made it possible for me to drive up Saturday night, crash, and then meet Adrian at the Poke-O at 8 a.m. on Sunday. It worked out well.

I had several ideas for us. I'd previously climbed some of the great Poke-O multi-pitch routes like Gamesmanship (5.8+) and Fastest Gun (5.10a). I wanted to do another full-length route up the 400 foot cliff-- something new. I was thinking about The FM (5.7+ R), a historical classic which was once very popular but which isn't as frequently done these days because it features some slightly scary traverses and run outs, as well as some sections with loose rock. I wasn't too worried about these challenges. I figured we'd be very comfortable with the climbing at that grade and that we'd be able to handle whatever else this climb threw at us.

Beyond that, I was thinking about leading Bloody Mary (5.9+), a testpiece which Adrian and I had attempted three years ago but which we had abandoned about halfway through.

And I thought I might like to try a 5.10. Poke-O has several single-pitch 5.10 face/crack climbs, many of which feature bolted cruxes. I thought I should be able to handle one of these climbs. I've always felt sandbagged and intimidated when I've climbed in the Dacks, but on my last trip to Poke-O, a year ago, I'd been able to on-sight lead the 5.10 pitch three of Fastest Gun. And lately I've been attacking Gunks 5.10's with gusto. It made sense that I should at least try one with Adrian during our day together.

Sunday dawned clear and warm and as I drove up to the cliff I could see the fall colors were out in abundance. Adrian and I met at the defunct campground and walked in to the cliff. We stopped at The FM and gave it the once-over. The first pitch goes up the back of a black alcove and then exits out the right side using a layback crack. The pitch looked a little dirty and uninspiring. But the rock above pitch one looked clean and dry so I figured pitches two and three, the highlights of the climb, were going to be in fine condition. Why not try it? We racked up and got started.

I led pitch one and it was better than it looked. The pitch wanders to the top of the alcove, moving from left to right up some obvious cracks with decent gear. It isn't a long pitch (60 feet) and before you know it you are at the fun, clean exit moves out of the alcove and onto a good belay ledge.

(Photo: Adrian finishing pitch one of The FM (5.7+).)

Adrian led pitch two, the crux 5.7+ pitch, featuring a traverse that moves left and slightly down across a thin face. At the crux leftward step (known as the "Lavallee move" for the man who unlocked the sequence on the route's first free ascent), there is great gear in a vertical crack just above. Thus the leader is essentially on top rope for the crux move. The follower faces a bit of a swing at the Lavallee move, because he or she has to clean the overhead pieces of pro before making the move. But the next gear is only a few feet to the left. The fall wouldn't be that terrible.

(Photo: Adrian just past the traversing on pitch two of The FM (5.7+).)

I very much enjoyed this pitch. It is a masterpiece of route finding, weaving its way left around corners and across the blank slab to easier climbing up a corner and around to a good belay ledge. It would be a slightly nerve-racking pitch for someone whose limit is 5.7, since the pitch traverses so much and the gear, while adequate, is spaced.

(Photo: That's me at the "Lavallee move" on pitch two of The FM (5.7+).)

Pitch three earns The FM its R rating. The runout 5.7 crux climbing comes right off the belay, up a right-facing corner and arĂȘte. But I didn't think it was so badly protected. After one or two moves I was able to reach up and blindly place a small nut behind a thin flake above the corner. It was hard to evaluate this gear until after I made the move up but it did seem pretty solid when I examined it afterwards. The climbing is good and then the rightward moves up a ramp to the belay beneath a large v-notch present a few more committing steps around corners, with much better gear.

(Photo: I'm just past the poorly protected starting crux on pitch three of The FM (5.7+).)

The belay station atop pitch three is kind of a mess, with one good bolt, an ancient ring piton, and a horn slung with old crusty slings, all equalized with a cordelette. I added a nut next to the piton, shoring up one of the three legs of the anchor, figuring that with my nut and the bolt we were in good shape.

(Photo: Adrian coming up the ramp on pitch three of The FM (5.7+).)

But while you can improve the anchor, you can't do anything about the loose rock laying all around this station. As Adrian led off on pitch four, he found plenty more junky rock until he got about halfway up the v-notch. It is pretty easy to avoid all the looseness but you do have to be careful. After you dance through the loose crap, the pitch improves greatly, with some nice moves up the notch and then a bizarre feature that guidebook authors Lawyer and Haas call a "gong flake." This huge flake-- really an entire wall-- rings hollow when you pound it. Climbing the edge of this hollow feature is fun and it seems solidly attached. One hopes so anyway. Then an interesting final corner takes you to a grassy ledge with a rappel tree.

(Photo: Adrian just about through the junky rock on pitch four of The FM (5.7+).)

I thought The FM was a fun route, with adventurous situations and some fine, unique climbing. But it isn't for the new 5.7 climber, that's for sure. Both the leader and the follower should be solid in 5.7. Whichever person leads pitch one will be in for the worst of the run outs, following pitch two and leading pitch three.

I highly recommend using double ropes (as we did) because then you can rappel just twice: from the top of pitch four to the top of pitch two, and then to the ground. The belay stations atop pitches two and four are in good shape but as of this writing the station atop pitch one has good bolts but a faded, crusty cord holding it all together, and the pitch three station is an all-around disaster.

Once we got down Adrian asked me if I was ready for my big lead of Bloody Mary.

I wasn't sure about it. Intellectually I knew I could do the route but in my heart I had doubts. I remembered our first attempt at this route three years ago. I'd led the throwaway thirty-foot 5.6 first pitch and then Adrian had aborted his lead of pitch two after taking a lead fall and finding himself unsure of where to go. Following him I'd found the first half of pitch two to be unrelenting and just plain hard. A burly layback through an overhang led to tenuous, steep stemming up two opposing flakes. I felt like I could pop out of the stemming at any time and I did take one fall before reaching the point where Adrian had bailed off to the left. I remembered the pitch as exhausting, and we didn't even finish it!

This time around I was planning to combine the first two pitches into one 150-foot pitch to the bolted anchor. I resolved to take it slow and make smart choices, and to milk rests whenever I could.

(Photo: That's me in the crux on Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

After I got through the traditional first pitch and looked up at the start of the crux layback I wished I had two blue No. 3 Camalots. I needed one to protect the committing step up into the layback, but after that the crack remained the same size for a few more moves. I supposed I could ask Adrian to send me up another cam (using some rope shenanigans) but ultimately I decided I could work it out with what I had. I placed my one blue Camalot as high as I could and then stepped up into the overhang. Once I got a good foothold I found I was able to drag the blue cam up a bit and reposition it to protect the next moves, so it worked out fine. One blue cam was sufficient. But if you have two you'll be in really great shape.

(Photo: Stemming it out on Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

I didn't know it yet but I'd already done the hardest part of the pitch. Looking up, I was intimidated by the stemming yet to come. I hemmed and hawed before getting on with this section. But once I actually committed it went perfectly. I remembered the stemming as so fragile and thin but this time around I found solid foot jams and holds. Decent footwork makes such a huge difference. There was never a moment where I felt I could fall. Before I knew it I was through it, stepping left onto the white face and approaching the final overhangs.

When it was all said and done I was thrilled. If you combine the first two pitches together, Bloody Mary is one hell of a single-pitch climb. There is so much great climbing on it, and the challenges are varied, ranging from laybacks to stemming to face climbing and finally to overhangs. It is one of my favorite pitches ever, anywhere. (Double ropes are again recommended, so you can get down in one rap from the bolted station atop pitch two.)

(Photo: Adrian just about done with Bloody Mary (5.9+).)

Adrian too found Bloody Mary less mysterious and challenging the second time around. It is rare that I find climbs that give me such a tangible feeling of improvement over time. It is a nice sensation.

Next we took a look at one of those bolted Poke-O tens. Just to the right of Bloody Mary is a route called Casual Observer. The overall grade is 5.11a but first pitch of this route is 5.10b and it is almost entirely bolt-protected, with some optional gear placements in a chimney near the top.

(Photo: Adrian contriving to rest on Casual Observer (P1 5.10b).)

Adrian decided to give it a whirl and it was somewhat tough going for him. He struggled at the crux thin move across the face about halfway up and then again at the roof move to escape the chimney.

(Photo: here I'm above the crux on Casual Observer (P1 5.10b).)

When it was my turn to follow I was happy to get it clean but boy, this thing was pretty tough. I felt sandbagged. I might have been a little freaked out leading this, even with the bolts. I had to hand it to Adrian that he'd led it calmly from the ground up. I thought it was technical and "in your face" from the word go, with thin moves up a shallow corner past the first several bolts. Then the crux traverse step was definitely another notch higher in difficulty, followed by a steep sequence to get into the chimney and still more hard moves to escape. It didn't really let up until I reached the anchor.

After Casual Observer I wasn't so keen on any more tens. We'd done seven guidebook pitches and I was ready to dial it back a bit.

So we ended the day with two fantastic pitches we'd done before (albeit three years prior). I led The Sting (5.8) and Adrian led the first pitch of Gamesmanship (5.8+).

These have to be two of the very best crack climbs in the East. I upped the ante a bit by leading the 5.9 direct start to The Sting. It sort of resembles the first moves of Maria Direct (5.9) but I think The Sting Direct is a little harder, even though it only takes one or two moves (depending on your height) to reach the jug. I'll admit I stepped up and down a few times until I figured out which hold was the jug I was aiming for, and then I went for it, crimping hard and then making the big lock-off and reach.

(Photo: Past the tough start on The Sting Direct (5.9).)

After the bouldery start I loved The Sting's moves leftward on a fingery rail, and then the rest of the way was just joyful climbing up the obvious hand crack, with plentiful opportunities for feet and hands outside the crack as well.

(Photo: Adrian heading up Gamesmanship (5.8+).)

Apart from the opening moves, pitch one of Gamesmanship is the harder climb of the two. It is steeper and longer and has a bit more required pure crack climbing on it. It is such an appealing line-- it is hard to imagine walking by it without wanting to climb it. (And bring your double ropes again for the long rappel.) Adrian, crack specialist that he is, ran up the pitch in no time, and following him I felt free and casual, another contrast to three years ago, when on this same pitch I felt challenged and crack-deficient.

(Photo: This is my patented "ignore the crack" technique on display on Gamesmanship (5.8+).)

Returning to Poke-O produced one of the most enjoyable days of the year for me as a climber. In a way it was a reunion of sorts for Adrian and me. We were together here three years before, both of us having our first experiences climbing in the Adirondacks, and now here we were again, both older and wiser, enjoying some of the same climbs as on our first go 'round, our partnership still strong.

We were lucky to have beautiful weather and stunning fall colors. And to enjoy great climbs carrying a host of different challenges. I left feeling like we'd accomplished a lot, yet we'd still just begun to explore all of the many facets of Poke-O Moonshine Cliff. I can't wait to come back.

Now if only I could find a way to avoid the five hour drive back to NYC....

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