Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Rediscovering the Joys of Multi-Pitch Climbing

(Photo: Climbers on the seldom-climbed upper pitch of Beatle Brow Bulge (5.10a).)

This past week I was reminded of how much fun it can be to romp up easier multi-pitch classics in the Gunks. I got out twice with different partners.

On Thursday I took a day off from work to climb outside with several of the folks from my winter training program. Don McGrath, the leader of the program, came to New York from Colorado with his wife Sylvia, who is also a climber and who also participated in the program. I drove up to meet them in the Gunks with with another participant and fellow Brooklynite named Dave.

Dave has very little outdoor climbing experience so it was my privilege and mission to give him a pleasant introduction to trad climbing in the Gunks.

(Photo: Dave on Classic (5.7).)

Since it was a weekday we had our choice of routes.

From my perspective we had a great time on several classic moderates. We took our time and worked on things like belay commands, double-checking of systems, and rappel procedures.

(Photo: Dave on Rhododendron (5.6-).)

I hope Dave remembers the day the way that I do, and not (for example) as a never-ending death march of too many climbs.

Dave said he had fun. He also said he'd do it again, which is a good sign.

(Photo: Dave on Horseman (5.5).)

We tried to stay in the same general area as Don and Sylvia. Sometimes we all shared ropes and pitches and sometimes we did our own thing.

(Photo: Dave on Dennis (5.5).)

The only real surprise of the day for me was an obscure route called Three Pines (5.3). Perhaps you've heard of it? After you've exhausted all the other climbs in the Gunks you might get around to this hidden gem...

Dave and I ran up Three Pines on Thursday and it was only as I began the third pitch, off the GT Ledge, that I realized I'd somehow never done the route in its entirety before. I knew the first two pitches well. They are great fun, featuring super juggy climbing. They are easily combined into one long pitch. But the third pitch was new to me, and wow! Great exposure as you traverse to the right away from the main face of the cliff, above The Dangler and 150 feet of air. And then if you go directly to the top of the cliff with no wandering you will do a few nice 5.6 moves up a short bulge. Pretty cool.

(Photo: Dave on Three Pines (5.3, Direct Variation 5.6).)

Dave got a taste of the real trad experience on Three Pines, traversing out over all that air, alone and with his belayer out of sight and earshot. He performed admirably, getting through it all without stopping. By the time he reached the 5.6 face at the end of the pitch he was just about ready to quit, but he did not quit. It bodes well for his climbing future.

(Photo: Elizabeth on Cakewalk (5.7).)

Sunday was a special climbing day for me because I was getting together with my old partner Elizabeth for the first time in a long time. She used to be my go-to partner, back when I was working my way through the sixes and sevens and eights. We learned a lot about the Gunks together, having many adventures and misadventures along the way, some of which I've written about here.

Liz and I were together on what remains, for me, the best day ever. This was the day in 2009 on which we did CCK and Bonnie's Roof for the first time. Both routes were previously unknown to us. I had dreamed of attempting them some day, and then, without warning, "some day" came along and it turned out we were actually ready. On that day it seemed like a whole new world opened up to us.

The excitement of climbing, the physical and mental challenge, the tingly sensation of exposure over a great void, the realization that the Gunks is a magical place full of wonders... all of it was ours and it was brand new, as though we alone had discovered it.

The Gunks is still a magical place to me and I love it dearly, but sometimes I think every new challenge I set for myself is just a vain attempt to recapture the innocent bewilderment that I experienced on that awesome day back in 2009.

Elizabeth and I haven't climbed together recently because her life trajectory took her back to her hometown of Allentown, PA, where she settled down and had two babies. Climbing hasn't fit into her plans.

But she never lost the climbing bug, and a few weeks ago she asked me if I could meet her to climb for a day.

I was psyched.

We had a great time. Again, I hope I didn't push it too hard. We did a lot. Elizabeth struggled on some climbs but that was to be expected after her long time off. Considering it had been years since she climbed, she held up really really well.

We walked into the Trapps looking to do just about anything moderate that was open. After we knocked off Raunchy (5.8 and still a lot of fun) and Cakewalk (5.7 and great but a little run out in the initial face climbing), I saw that Balrog (5.10b) was just sitting there, available. I had attempted it in late 2012 but had to hang at the tough, burly crux moves up onto a slanting face above a roof. Ever since then I'd wanted to go back for the redpoint but whenever I came near Balrog it was either wet or occupied.

So on Sunday when I found Balrog just sitting there, dry and open, I couldn't resist it. I asked Elizabeth if she'd be cool with trying it. This was a harder route than I thought she would really be interested in doing. I hadn't planned on it. But she was okay with it so long as we followed it up with an easier multi-pitch classic.

Sounded like a great deal to me.

Balrog still wasn't easy but I got it done this time without a fall or a hang. I felt like I'd really improved in the 2.5 years since my last attempt. Reaching the holds above the roof was so much easier this time, and while I still grunted and worked hard to find a way to get my feet onto the sloped face above the roof, I was able to hang in there and eventually work it out. I still think I must be doing it wrong. It should be easier. But it is of no consequence! It is finished.

(Photo: Elizabeth battling the Balrog (5.10b).)

It was time for our muti-pitch classic. I thought immediately of Madame G's but when we got there there were several parties strewn all over it. It looked like a nightmarish situation. I thought we might as well check out Snooky's Return (5.8), which was nearby, though I had no illusions that we'd actually get to climb it. It is very popular.

When we got there it appeared that Snooky's just might be possible. Gavin and Jen, two climbers I've met at Gail's house, were about to clear out. No one was waiting. There was a group of climbers top-roping Friends and Lovers (5.9) next door. I felt we'd be within our rights to start up Snooky's without saying anything, but it seemed more considerate to ask the guys next door about their plans. If they wanted to TR Snooky's from the shared bolted anchor I didn't want to get in their way.

So I asked one of the climbers what they were going to do. I believe these were my exact words:

"Excuse me, sir, but I was wondering what your intentions are with regard to Snooky's Return?"

For some reason this gentleman thought my query was amusing.

I couldn't understand why.

Later, when the aforementioned amused person overheard me making an offhand remark about law school, he said that he "knew" Liz and I must be lawyers. I resented this. I don't know how a person can make such a cruel judgment based on something as trivial as the wording of a simple interrogatory.

Of course, it happens to be true that I am a lawyer (and so is Elizabeth). But to suggest that I sound like one? That's a horse of a color that is not dissimilar.

The next time someone says I sound like a lawyer, I just might sue.

(Photo: Elizabeth on pitch one of Snooky's Return (5.8).)

In any event, the top-ropers gave us their blessing and Elizabeth and I did Snooky's all the way to the top. It was a joy. The first pitch is the clear winner with its excellent, consistent face climbing. But pitch two is pretty darned nice as well. It has interesting face moves as you traverse left and then, a bit higher, back right. The line wanders but it presents itself as you move along.

(Photo: Elizabeth finishing pitch two of Snooky's Return (5.8).)

The top pitch too is worthwhile. From below it looks like a bushwhack up a dirty corner but there is a clean, steep traverse and roof escape hidden there. It is brief but pretty good.

After we were done with Snooky's, Liz was feeling kind of beat. She suggested maybe I should do another hard climb and she would sit it out and take a breather.

She didn't have to ask me twice. I was feeling really strong so I decided to try Coexistence (5.10d), the great Mac Wall testpiece.

The big one.

I thought maybe I could send it. I did it clean on top rope once.

As we were about to get started I got pretty nervous. People started appearing out of nowhere-- some of them known to me, some of them strangers-- saying "Ya gonna try Coex?? Good luck! Tough route!"

It was unnerving. I felt the weight of their eyeballs. I was a little bit tense about the runout 5.8 part up to the first ledge. Heck, I was a little bit tense about everything.

(Photo: Past the opening bit on Coexistence (5.10d). Here I'm just beneath the first ledge. The next move is very easy but if I blow it I'm probably hitting the ground.)

It didn't go too badly, but I didn't get the send. I worked my way upward, slowly and carefully. I placed lots of gear. It wasn't so bad getting to the first ledge. Then there were some interesting moves up the crack before the crux roof, but the protection was good and I worked these moves out without much trouble.

At the roof itself, I had a hard time committing. There is great gear; you just have to move up on some pretty crappy holds. It is hard to figure out. I did a lot of testing of holds before finally getting pumped out and taking a hang. After exploring a little more I figured out what to do and when I finally committed to going for it I got up and over the roof.

After it was over with I wished I hadn't been so tentative, but even if I'd really gone for it on my first foray above the roof I think I still would have failed. I needed to work out the beta, and this took me a few tries. I don't know what I did on top rope last year. It seemed like a different route on lead.

On the bright side, I think I have it worked out now and will, with luck, get the send next time. Coex felt easier to me than Ridicullissima, for sure. It is so much less sustained. I can't really see how it is harder than Try Again (5.10b), actually. Coex has much better climbing on it than Try Again, but the hard part is rather similar.

I made a mess out of the descent. I tried to clean the pitch on rappel, which presented a challenge since the route follows a crack with a slant. I attached myself to the side of the rope going through the gear so I wouldn't go too far from the pieces, but I found it very difficult to control the rappel and also pull myself over to the right so I could get at my gear. I should have had Elizabeth lower me while I retrieved the pro, or maybe I should have just lowered off entirely and then followed the pitch from the ground in order to clean it. Or we could have offered a burn on Coex to any of the twenty people who were around the Mac Wall at the time. That would have been better, and likely just as quick.

I ended up leaving a few of my pieces behind and the folks next to us on Try Again kindly retrieved them for me on their way down.

It was now after 5:00 and the cliff was clearing out. I wanted another good muti-pitch route for Liz and luckily we found Madame G's sitting completely empty.

It was a perfect way to end the day. I've previously described this climb as the best 5.6 in the Gunks-- now I think it might be the best climb in the Gunks, regardless of grade. It is just so great for such a long time. It offers fantastic juggy fun.

(Photo: Topping out on Madame G's (5.6) as the sun goes down behind the cliff.)

Standing atop the Madame G buttress, belaying Elizabeth up, I felt a renewed love for the Gunks, my hometown crag. Yes, the place gets crowded. But we got on some of the best moderates, on a gorgeous Sunday, without waiting for anything. You just have to be flexible and willing to climb whatever you find open at any given time. That's my secret: don't wait in line. Keep looking. You'll find something else that's good.

And do the upper pitches! Up above the first-pitch frenzy, a cool breeze is blowing. The birds are circling gracefully and Skytop cliff is visible in the distance. It is easy to get sucked into doing mostly single-pitch climbs, especially when you are looking for harder pitches to do. But there's a special pleasure to be found in getting up high off the deck. It took a couple of "easy" days for me to remember it. But this week I really felt the magic again.


  1. Dave here, from part one of the story.

    If Seth invites you to go climbing, your answer is "YES".

    What a fantastic day. Seth mentioned I was (and still am) a newcomer to outdoors climbing. Today was my first multi pitch climb ever (technically, that would have been Horseman but since we linked P1+P2 together on the way up, and did a double length rap off it didn't really feel like one). Three Pines, however, was a different matter. Absolutely incredible, but the exposure at the belay station for pitch three did rather kick me in the brain. I'm not quite sure that's Seth's "without stopping" comment is true (in the legal sense of the word, that is) as regards the start of that third pitch :-)

    My only disappointment from the day is that my climbing was cut short by painful feet (wearing climbing shoes for a gym session is VERY different to all day outside) and though I started on a couple of short pitches at the end that Seth and Don had thrown top ropes up on, I had to bail pretty early on both.

    Can't wait to go again. Maybe Madame G on my next trip up...

  2. Hi Seth, Really enjoying reading your blog and over past entries. I'm new to the gunks this season and loving it. I also live in Brooklyn, I have a feeling my climbing level is a bit beneath yours, but if you're ever heading up and need carpool mates, my climbing partner and I can always use a ride (we're currently relying on the bus and hitching to get to the cliffs).

    Couldn't find your email on here, but feel free to get in touch!



  3. Dave here, from part one of the story, two years later...

    Who would have thought I'd have the luck and privilege, just two years after my first multipitch outing, to return to the gunks having moved away from the area and climb Three Pines again with Seth, only this time as my first gunks lead.