Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Ridiculliss-ly Nice Day in the Gunks

(Photo: Olivier on Birdie Party (5.8+).)

Last Sunday was a beautiful day-- finally!-- in the Gunks.

I was climbing with Olivier, a friend of Gail's from Philly. I'd met him several times around the cliffs, but we'd never roped up together before.

With sunny skies and highs expected in the low sixties, the conditions were just about ideal.

I was very excited, because I was finally going to see what condition I was in. I'd been out three times in March but it was so cold I hadn't felt comfortable trying anything new or difficult.

Now, however, there were no excuses. It was time to try something.

I worked hard over the winter to try to improve my climbing.

The most important step I took was to enroll in a coaching program/webinar with the training guru Don McGrath. Don's expertise is in the mental aspects of the climbing game. His approach isn't entirely mental, to be sure-- he believes physical fitness is very important. But he is not on the bandwagon with all of the recent training bibles which would have all climbers hangboarding and campusing their way to 5.13 (or perhaps to elbow and pulley injuries). Instead his primary focus is on the mental barriers which cause us to quit before our bodies really need to quit. He attempts to help climbers realize their potential by overcoming these barriers, many of which are related to fear, such as fear of falling and fear of failure.

You can read all about it Don's excellent book The Vertical Mind (written with Jeff Elison).

My friend Gail worked with Don last fall. She has struggled with her lead head and has shied away from leading climbs anywhere close to her real physical limits for years. She was happy with Don's advice and I could see the results as 2014 came to a close. Gail was out there on the lead much more often and on harder climbs, too. Gail told me that Don was offering a winter program and when I checked it out I decided to sign up. Why not?

It turned out to be an insanely good value. Don provided a set of general fitness videos he made himself, and designed a set of climbing exercises for us to perform in the gym to improve endurance and technique. He also gave us a blueprint for a weekly schedule of working out and climbing that we would follow over the course of the eight-week program, and he advised us on picking goals that we would attempt to reach during our time together. Last but not least, there was a weekly webinar in which we would all talk together as a group about our goals and progress. During the weekly webinar Don would also present a short lesson on a specific topic, such as advanced footwork or practice falls. And outside the weekly call Don was always available by email if we had questions or wanted advice. All of this for just a couple of hundred bucks!

I enjoyed the whole program and got a lot out of it. Though all of it was useful, I found two parts of the program to be most helpful to me personally: Don's general fitness videos and the goal-setting part of the course.

Don's general fitness videos convinced me to change my workout regime entirely. For many years my main exercise other than climbing has been cycling, but in recent years I've been bored to tears with it and have only sporadically kept up with it because I find riding in the park in NYC to be such a tiresome chore.

I did Don's twenty-minute workouts for a few weeks and decided I really enjoyed them. Then I took it a step further and started doing P90X3, the third iteration of the wildly popular exercise program from fitness king Tony Horton. Really P90X3 isn't so different from Don's videos (both programs feature high-intensity short workouts which tax a bunch of different muscle groups) but my wife Robin has been doing the original P90X for some time and I have come to enjoy Tony Horton's style. I was already thinking about trying it, and Don's program was just the push I needed to get going with it. I'm now most of the way through the P90X3 cycle and I feel like not only have I gotten more fit, but I'm stronger in ways that match up better with climbing. My core strength has increased, and with all of the yoga and other similar exercises my balance is better too. I'm working out antagonistic muscles to my climbing muscles (lots of push ups!), so I feel my muscles are less out-of-balance as well.

By forcing me to set concrete goals, Don showed me that I've been seriously holding myself back in the climbing gym. I picked some gym climbs to "project" that I thought were surely above my pay grade, but when I tried them it turned out that I could already do them! My mind was completely blown. Eventually I picked some climbs that were so hard that I couldn't send them before they were taken down. The process of working on these harder climbs made most of the climbs in the gym feel so much easier than before. I finished the eight-week course climbing much much harder routes in the gym than I was doing when I started out. Don made me open my eyes to my true potential, which was much greater than I realized.

My success in the climbing gym made me very excited for the outdoor season to come. I resolved (once it finally got warm) to pick some Gunks climbs outside my comfort zone, routes that I had always assumed were too hard for me, and to try them.

Before I met up with Olivier I identified two such climbs: Coexistence and Ridicullissima. Both are 5.10d but I don't think I'm saying anything too controversial if I argue that they would be 5.11's in many other places. They are both generally regarded as hard testpieces.

Olivier had been out climbing on Saturday and he was very easygoing about whatever I wanted to climb on Sunday. Maybe he was overwhelmed by my extreme enthusiasm.

I didn't want to just hop on Coex first thing so we did some warming up.

After a quick run up to the bolts on Birdie Party (5.8+) we started looking around for another good climb to do. I asked Olivier if we could take a look at Ruby Saturday Direct (5.10a). This is reputed to be an "easy" 5.10, with a single crux move on pitch one, and then a sustained, steep 5.9+ section on the traditional pitch two. I had never been on it and I was intrigued to check it out after Gail and I so enjoyed its neighbor Anguish (5.8) a few weeks ago. Olivier had done it before and was willing to do it again.

I led the first two pitches in one to the GT Ledge. It went very well. The first pitch has a few interesting moves right off of the ground and then the crux comes pretty quick, a thin section through a bulge. I thought the crux was a good move and not too hard. But the crux hold and the crux gear depend on a little left-facing flake that might rip off one day. The flake looks suspect but it feels pretty solid. I wouldn't want to be holding it when and if it breaks.

(Photo: Olivier finishing the overhanging 5.9+ section of pitch two of Ruby Saturday Direct (5.10a).)

After the crux, the climbing is casual up to a nice shelf where the second pitch begins. Once you move up to a long shelf, you hand traverse to the right and then follow the obvious holds upward through a sustained steep section. This was really good climbing, I thought. Good gear, too.

I liked Ruby Saturday, though I do not know that I'll be back to repeat pitch one. The first pitch is just okay. It is a decent quick 5.10, if that is what you are looking for. The second pitch, on the other hand, is great. This pitch would be a wonderful link-up with the first and third pitches of Anguish (as the guidebook recommends).

Olivier quickly joined me on the GT Ledge. He suggested we take the third pitch of Glypnod (5.8) to the top. This pitch is just a little bit left of Anguish/Ruby Saturday and it follows an obvious right-facing corner with two overhangs. I had never been on it before. Olivier put it up, getting great pro at the early crux ceiling. When I followed I was impressed. Like Anguish to its right, this is a tough 5.8! A committing, burly layback gets you over the first roof. The crux is brief, however, and the rest of the way is easy and a bit bushy/dirty. This pitch is worthwhile for its great crux, but I do wish the good stuff continued a little longer.

(Photo: Olivier headed quickly into the business on pitch three of Glypnod (5.8).)

With four pitches down it was time for me to hit my project climb. Coex was occupied. So we trooped on down to the High E buttress to find Ridicullissima available. The climb was in the shade. Conditions couldn't be better.

I started to feel very nervous. Before this day I had never even considered leading this climb. It seemed obvious that it was too hard for me. I wasn't sure how technically demanding the climbing was going to be. (I top-roped it once before, in 2012. But I couldn't remember anything about it.) It looked very steep. I knew the gear was supposed to be very good. I told myself there was nothing to worry about, so long as I made sure to be safe and place pro. Eventually I started upward.

I did not send it. But I came somewhat close.

There are two 5.8 crack systems right next to each other at the base of the buttress. I took the right-hand crack up to the little ledge at forty feet, because I've always been told it has better gear than the one on the left. Then I led straight into the Ridicullissima pitch.

It gets steep very quickly. After negotiating some hard, overhanging moves past a little rooflet and placing a lot of pro along the way, I reached a vertical crack below a small ceiling. This crack is probably the crux section. I spent too long hanging in there at the base of the crack, fiddling in some nuts, shaking out. Once I was satisfied with the gear I botched the sequence, getting my hands reversed. I tried to regroup, stepping down to go for it again, but the pump got to be too much and I eventually took a hang.

After taking a rest I did the crux move (it wasn't so bad) and then continued up over the (hard) overhang to a very welcome stance. I can't remember what I said but I know at this point I let out a few loud utterances. It felt really good to get over the difficulties, and everyone in the immediate vicinity found out how good it felt! I knew from this stance onward the angle eased and the climbing to the GT Ledge would be no problem.

Whew! This pitch is AMAZING. It may be my new favorite. It is steep and difficult for quite a ways. The movement is beautiful and there is gear everywhere. Now that I know the basic sequence and the gear at the crux I think I will send it soon.

(Photo: Finishing up Ridicullissima (5.10d).)

Mostly I'm just thrilled that I tried Ridicullissima, and got through it in control and very safely. It would have been awesome to send it on the first go, but just getting confirmation that I can handle it is an exciting thing.

If I can attack this climb in April, what else is on the horizon this year? As Kevin would say, what's my Dawn Wall? I have lots of legendary Gunks climbs in my sights: Fat City Direct (5.10d), Erect Direction (5.10c)..... dare I say Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a)??

Maybe in time.

Olivier and I then did another pitch that was new to me-- the 5.8 pitch to the top which Dick Williams calls the final pitch of Doubleissima. This one starts at the right end of the coffee-table block on the High E ledge. There is another 5.8 pitch further right which Dick describes as the finish to Lakatakissima. I did that pitch on the right last year with Nani and liked it very much. The one on the left is good too, juggy and pumpy, though not quite as difficult as the one on the right. I don't think these two pitches get done all that much, which is a shame. They are good climbs.

After we got back to the ground it was time to dial it back and do some easier stuff.

What an awesome day. Great weather and great climbs, so many of them new for me. The season has officially begun.

This weekend I am headed to Seneca Rocks for four days, and if it doesn't rain all weekend maybe I'll even get some climbing done! We shall see.


  1. Great write up...def motivates for pushing the limits a bit.

  2. Nice going Seth! In my opinion the two issimas are two of the best the gunks has to offer! The 10+ grade is intimidating in the gunks, but actually has some fantastic well protected climbs (Coex/Matinee/FCD/Winter/Ridic/10k Restless are all extremely well protected at the cruxes). The 11's on the other hand take a bit of a leap of faith. Keep em going on hopefully I'll see you out there cruising your way up more classics!