Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Anguish (5.8?) of a Long Winter

(Photo: Adam on Directissima (5.9), doing the pumpy crux traverse.)

Hello, my climbing friends.

It has been a while. When last we spoke, it was early December. The climbing season of 2014 was winding down.

Little did we know it, but we were in for another long winter.

As of this writing-- a few days after the official start of spring-- the wintry conditions remain.

And what have I done with the last four months?

I managed to avoid ice climbing for the entire season, again. I did plan to go once with my ice-loving buddy Adrian, but we ended up bailing on our chosen day because it was too cold! Yes, it was too cold for ice climbing. The idea of shearing off brittle plates of ice with every swing of the axe, in temperatures hovering around the minus-ten degree mark, seemed like no fun at all.

I did get out climbing on rock a few times.

My new partner Adam and I went to the Gunks on Christmas Day. It had rained the day before but Christmas was unseasonably warm and sunny. The slight breeze and low humidity dried most of the cliff pretty well. There were streaks of runoff everywhere, but many routes were acceptable... though the cruxes always seemed to be wet. (Doesn't it always work out that way?)

(Photo: Adam heading up Strictly From Nowhere (5.7), weaving between the wet streaks.)

We found a bunch of classic climbs we could do, and really, what more could you ask for? It was a Christmas miracle.

Adam is working his way through the 5.7's and 5.8's. Many wonderful Gunks moderates are still new to him. He reminds me of myself, just a few years ago.

(Photo: That's me, linking Strictly's into Shockley's Ceiling (5.6). Photo by Adam.)

After we did a few pitches I asked Adam if he had any climbs in mind-- the whole cliff was open to us. No one else was around. Adam started rattling off a list of three-star classics he'd never tried. After hearing a couple of them, I had to interrupt.

"Directissima? You haven't done Directissima? Oh my God, let's do that!"

(Photo: I'm at the crux of Directissima (5.9). Photo by Adam.)

Such a joy to usher someone else up an old favorite. I took care of the slightly scary 5.8 & 5.9 bits and handed it off to Adam for the beautiful 5.6 arete pitch and the High E finale.

It was a very good day.

We had no such warm, dry days in January or February.

As March rolled around I was starting to feel pretty desperate.

Previously I have held to a general rule that I would not go rock climbing unless it was above 40 degrees outside, for the whole day. So a high of 40 wouldn't do; you'd need the high to be closer to 45 or 50 so that temperatures would be in the 40's throughout the day. I arrived at this rule after I went out climbing a few times when it was in the 30's and found that my fingers got numb and tingly on cold rock, making it difficult to feel confident in my grip.

Of course, real mountaineers deal with this sort of thing all the time but there's no reason to subject yourself to this sort of torture just for a day at the crag, right?

But as March started to pass us by, it seemed like we weren't getting many days in which my minimum temperature would be met. I started to soften my position. I needed to go climbing.

Adam and I got out again on a Sunday in which the predicted high was something like 43. But I don't think it ever actually got that warm. It was 37 degrees when we left the car and I suspect the temperature never left the thirties. There was a foot of snow on the ground. But the rock was pretty dry. I'd say it was dry-ish. Seepy in spots.

(Photo: Adam on City Lights (5.8-), through the hardest moves and about to enter the easy runout.)

I started our 2015 season with Son of Easy O (5.8). The rock felt cold to the touch. My fingers, as predicted, began to go numb and I felt insecure holding on through the opening cruxy thin face. But I got over it and things improved from there. It was great to be back in the Gunks, regardless of the circumstances. I was occasionally too cold, but mostly okay.

Adam ticked off a nice 5.8 lead with City Lights, which he took to the top in one pitch. I can't believe I've never posted before about City Lights. It is a great classic I've enjoyed several times. It is a good lead for breaking into the grade because there is only one hard move with great gear, at the two triangular pods close to the ground. The route is a little run out higher up, in 5.5-ish territory, but not too bad. The second 5.6 pitch is also nice, up a steep corner and face.

I got my first 5.9 lead of the year out of the way with Apoplexy, which at this point may be the climb I've led more than any other. I haven't grown tired of it yet.

(Photo: Adam at the 5.7 crux of pitch two of Morning After, with quite a bit of snow still visible on the ground.)

Though my 37-degree day with Adam worked out surprisingly well, I resolved to wait for a little more warmth before going back out there again.

But then Gail reached out to me one Monday and asked me if I might like to take a day off of work to climb with her on Tuesday. It was only going to be about 38 degrees but we could expect some sunshine.

How could I refuse? I told her I was in.

Gail has had the worst winter imaginable.

Her husband Mitch passed away recently, just a few months after it was discovered that he had cancer. He was only 55 years old. It is a devastating loss.

If you are a reader of this blog, then you know that Gail has been my most regular Gunks climbing partner for the past four years. She is one of my favorite people in the whole world. I tend to rush into the Gunks to climb and then rush right back out again, so most of our time together is spent actually climbing. Gail and I haven't spent nearly enough time hanging out with our families, so I never got to know Mitch in the way that I know Gail. But I did climb with him a little and I hung out with him a little. I got to know him well enough to see what a kind, genuine person he was, and how deeply he and Gail loved each other.

Writing about him like this, in the past tense, seems impossible. He was just here! I saw him right after Thanksgiving, at Gail's house in Gardiner. It seems like yesterday. I had stupidly injured my eye and Mitch helped me set up an eye bath in their kitchen sink. It was classic Mitch-- he was helpful and generous but at the same time he gave me a gentle ribbing for the idiocy I demonstrated in sticking hydrogen peroxide directly into my eye.

This was not a proud moment for me and it was a very brief interaction between the two of us but I will never forget it, because everything was normal. He was Mitch, the same guy he'd always been, strong and funny. Within a few days everything changed for him and Gail. I can't make any sense of it and I don't know how Gail can even begin to process it. I do know that Gail is a very strong person and that she can overcome any challenge. (I realize how trite that must sound, but it's true.)

(Photo: Mitch and Gail in 2012, at the base of Never Never Land.)

I didn't know what Gail had in mind for our climbing day but I was so happy that we could get together. It had been months since I'd seen her one-on-one and I hoped returning to climbing might be a comfort to her.

We had a good day together, climbing and talking. We started late because it was still below thirty degrees when I arrived at Gail's house. And once we finally got out there, I got a little numbness in my fingers again as I led Sixish (5.4).

But the sun was out and it really helped. The highlight of our day was a climb called Anguish (5.8). I've written about this climb before, back in 2012. That was the only other time I've been on the route. On that occasion I led pitch one, but I chickened out of its crux 5.7 move: a left exit from a little alcove. I was afraid to commit to the move back then, because my last gear was at the back of the alcove and I didn't like the potential fall if I failed at the crux. So I escaped right.

This time, in 2015, I still couldn't find any higher gear. Gail told me that she's seen someone get a C3 at the lip of the little overhang but I couldn't make anything work. In contrast to 2012, however, this time the crux move didn't trouble me, so I went ahead and climbed out to the left and it was quite enjoyable. As soon as you commit and make the one move out of the alcove you find jugs and gear, but be careful: if you blow this one move it could be bad news for your ankles.

Once we were both on the GT Ledge I got set to lead the 5.8 pitch, which I'd followed in 2012. I couldn't remember much about it. I recalled that my partner Matt found it challenging and that he'd found a piton up there somewhere.

It turned out to be a doozy. This is a tough tough 5.8! From the ledge (immediately left and around the big corner from the Three Pines descent route) you can see up above you a hanging, right-facing corner beneath a ceiling. You need to work your way up to the top of this hanging corner and then exit left to get over the roof. Right from the start this pitch is steep and in your face. You have to move up, then make a thin traverse right, move up again and make another thin traverse left to the base of the hanging corner.

There is gear along the way but once you reach the hanging corner, your only pro for the crux move up to the roof is a junky old piton. I was glad to clip it but I sure didn't want to fall on it. If I fell and it broke I was looking at a nice swing to the right. It was a little bit tense for a minute there but I made the move and, with relief, slammed a red Camalot into the crack beneath the overhang.

The rest of the way is pleasant and just below the top of the cliff there is a surprise: a short, fun, slabby section on white rock reminiscent of the Arrow wall.

In 2012 I said that I didn't think too much of the first pitch of Anguish but now I think the whole climb is great and very worthwhile. I would warn you, however, that both cruxes are somewhat serious. I would not want to fall at either one. I'd say Anguish is a very good 5.8 for the 5.10 leader.

(Photo: Gail at the end of our day on another sandbag 5.8: Dirty Gerdie (5.8+).)

I squeezed one more cold climbing day into March this year. I met Adrian last Saturday, setting a new record low temperature for me, as far as rock climbing in the Gunks is concerned. The expected high was only in the low thirties, and there was a chance of snow. I would have called it off except that I knew Adrian was coming down from Montreal for the whole weekend and I didn't want to strand him without a partner on one of his two days.

When we got started it was below freezing and snowing. (Flurries came down all morning.)

I nearly went to pieces at the crux on our first climb, Squiggles (5.4). I was standing at the piton, about fifteen feet off the ground, just beneath a roof. I needed to move right to a crimp to avoid the overhang but my hands were cramping and burning from the cold. I wasn't sure I could hold on to the crimp and I started to panic. Eventually I stepped down so I could back up the pin and stick my hands in my puffy jacket to warm up.

"What are we doing here?" I wondered. "Is this fun?"

After I warmed my hands a bit I got going again, finishing my successful on-sight of Squiggles. It's actually not a bad pitch. Short, but good rock. Interesting moves up the ramp and around the roof.

(Photo: Adrian following my bold lead of Squiggles (5.4).)

While we waited for it to maybe get a little warmer we top-roped the two 5.10's right next to Squiggles: Squiggles Direct (5.10b) and Jacob's Ladder (5.10b).

These were both new to us as well and they too are not bad climbs, though like Squiggles they are short. Both climbs feature thin technical face climbing with quick cruxes. The rock is solid. Neither climb has any gear for the crux but the cruxes are close to the ground. With a couple of bouldering pads you could probably highball them, if you're into that kind of thing. Caveat emptor: I don't boulder.

(Photo: Adrian past the low crux on Jacob's Ladder (5.10b).)

We did some more easy stuff around the Uberfall, hoping it would warm up, but it never did. It was so cold out that at one point Adrian took a sip of his Gatorade and gave himself an ice cream headache.

We had a good time anyway. Climbing is really about the people, isn't it? It was good just to be out climbing together.

We finished the day on a high note. I was about ready to pack it in when Adrian suggested we do Retribution and Nosedive (both 5.10b).

If Adrian was willing to lead 5.10 then I guessed I had to do it too.

We trudged on over and Adrian chose to lead Nosedive, the climb on the right.

I wouldn't say it was without any shaky moments for him but he gutted it out, sending the pitch cleanly for a strong early-season performance. As the follower I had no issues with the climbing, but the sun had gone behind the cliff and my fingers started tingling and burning again. Luckily Nosedive has stances, so I was able to stop periodically to put my hands in my pockets.

I wasn't really feeling like leading anything at this point, much less a 5.10, but when I reached the top of Nosedive I decided I might as well lead Retribution. I know the climb backwards and forwards and it has good gear, so I could always hang if I needed to.

(Photo: I'm past the crux on Retribution (5.10b). Photo by Adrian.)

It went fine and it allowed me to leave the cliff feeling pretty good. I felt solid on all four tens we climbed on our cold day together and once it warms up a little I hope to hit some new ones.

Bring on Spring, PLEASE!