(Photo: That's me leading Le Teton (5.9?) on a hot July afternoon. Photo by Adam.)
June was the cruelest month.
Maybe not for everyone else. I'm sure there were many beautiful days. But I seemed to have a knack for picking the wrong days in June this year.
On my last trip out to the Gunks with Olivier, it rained in the middle of our day for about an hour. We still got to do some great climbing before the storm, so I wasn't complaining.
But on my next two planned weekend climbing days, I was rained out completely.
After that, I'm pretty sure I started complaining.
Things were getting desperate in a hurry. I had to do something.
I made a plan to take a day off of work on a Tuesday to climb with Emma. This was supposed to be a beautiful day and I drove up to the Gunks with great expectations. But we only did one climb before a cloud settled over New Paltz and started dumping rain on the cliffs! At first we ignored the mist, but as it started to really come down we went into town to wait it out and have lunch. I checked the radar and the whole region was clear, save for this one dark cloud sitting directly over New Paltz. It had to pass soon, right?
When it didn't let up after more than two hours we decided finally to call it off.
I wasted a vacation day for one pitch. That sucked.
I had to put it behind me and hope July would be better.
Adam and I were heading up to the Gunks on a hot and sweaty Saturday early in July. It was expected to be close to 90 degrees. I figured we should avoid my project, Coexistence (5.10d) (much as I wanted to jump on it), as it was sure to be baking in the sun.
I tried to be grateful that it was supposed to be a sunny day, whatever the temperature. Forget projects: we didn't have to do anything really hard. We could just have fun out there on easier stuff until we wilted from the heat.
I suggested we try Traverse of the Clods (5.9), which Adam and I had discussed before. The route starts from the GT Ledge in the same area as Hans' Puss (5.7). Adam was down with the plan. But first we needed to do some other climb in order to get up to the GT Ledge.
Recently I'd read on Mountain Project about the 5.8 first pitch of Man's Quest for Flight. (The top pitch is 5.11a). The climb is not popular. I was interested in checking it out, mostly because this pitch sits next to some of my favorite climbs, like Silhouette (5.7+) and Proctoscope (5.9+).
In the past when I've looked at the first pitch of Man's Quest it has seemed kind of dirty and uninspiring, and I've ended up walking away. But when I read a recent positive comment about the climb on Mountain Project it was enough to pique my curiosity about the route again.
I led the pitch. It begins beneath the huge corner ascended by Andrew (5.4). In the guidebook Dick Williams describes two different starts. If you diagonal up the left wall of the corner right away there are some steep 5.8 moves. Alternatively, you can move up the Andrew corner just a little bit and then head left at 5.6. I chose to do the 5.6 start because I found gear that way. It was steep and fun, although I had to fight past a small bush to get started.
(Photo: Adam on the slightly grungy Man's Quest For Flight (Pitch 1 5.8).)
Once I got around the outside arete and onto the face it was easy to find the route; you just have to stay between Silhouette and the corner. It isn't bad. There is a nice 5.7/5.8 cruxy sequence up through a bulge in orange rock. But it is a little bit dirty, and it is always difficult to resist the temptation to move a few feet left to Silhouette's beautiful, clean crack system.
If this route got some more traffic it might get cleaned up and become a fine climb. But even if it were cleaner I'd still say Man's Quest is nothing special.
Now that we were on the GT Ledge it was time for us to climb Traverse of the Clods.
This is an interesting and intimidating route. In the guidebook it is described as two pitches. The first pitch (5.8) starts out heading more or less straight up, but soon enough you embark on a 50-foot traverse to the right, which ends at a hanging belay in beautiful white rock amidst the the roofs of Twilight Zone.
The second pitch is short, but it is the crux. You move up over a small overhang and then do another traverse to the right, following a little foot ledge until it ends, and then doing a thin 5.9 sequence to reach a jug. From the jug you exit straight up over a notched roof to the top.
I found the first pitch to be a bit necky and route finding was sometimes a challenge. Please avoid the death block that is just sitting on a shelf with a piton driven beneath it! That thing is freaky.
Once you wander up and past two overhangs and start traversing the moves are very nice and the rock is great. I always found myself wishing I could find a little more gear but it wasn't a horror show. The crux for me was at a point about a halfway across the traverse where I had to make a delicate step down to continue. Once I was through this move I was relieved to see that the hanging belay wasn't too much further.
(Photo: Adam confronting the crux step-down move on the first pitch of Traverse of the Clods (5.9).)
I was feeling mentally fried by the time I finished pitch one, and as Adam tiptoed his way over to me I seriously considered bailing on pitch two. It is easy to escape the route from the hanging belay. You can go straight up instead of continuing the traverse. It is only 5.6 to the top if you go this way. But after a little prodding from Adam I went ahead and led pitch two and it turned out to be very exciting and worthwhile. A couple of thin moves over a big void will get you through it. The gear for the crux is tiny-- I had a black Alien, a small sideways nut, and a blue Alien in the little tips crack at the back of the roof. It was hard to tell if any of this gear was actually solid. I later read that Dick Williams recommends Ballnutz.
After Traverse of the Clods was in the bank I didn't have much ambition left. I was already spent. Luckily Adam had a whole list of classics he was eager to lead and since it was so hot we didn't have too many other parties to contend with. We spent the rest of our day on a parade of three-star climbs, knocking off the upper pitches of Annie Oh! (5.8) and Three Doves (5.8+), as well as both pitches of Modern Times (5.8+) and Bonnie's Roof (5.9). These were all on-sight leads for Adam, except for Modern Times, which I led. (I had to step up and lead something at some point.)
Looking back, this was a pretty amazing, fifteen star day.
(Photo: Adam at the classic photo op on pitch two of Bonnie's Roof (5.9).)
This past Saturday Adam and I got out again. It appeared we might be wasting our time. Rain was predicted for the afternoon. We hoped it would hold off long enough for us to at least do a few pitches.
As we drove up from NYC things looked very bad for us. It rained almost the whole way up. Adam kept checking the weather on his phone, insisting that in New Paltz it was not raining. I told myself that the fact that it was raining in Sloatsburg didn't mean a thing-- it is always raining in Sloatsburg! I'd had good luck with this sort of gamble before. But while externally I tried to project confidence, I was dying inside. I felt that we were sure to be shut out. There was no way this rain wasn't hitting the cliffs. The feeling grew stronger as we drove on and the rain did not let up. It was still raining as we left the Plattekill rest stop, just a few miles south of Exit 18.
At 9:00 a.m., my wife sent me an email telling me that it was pouring in the city and asking if we were still going climbing.
Against all odds, we were.
We pulled into town to see a band of fog hanging over the cliffs. But, miracle of miracles, it wasn't raining in New Paltz. The streets were dry. We were in business. And as we drove into the Stairmaster lot I took a look at my dashboard and saw that the temperature outside was a mere 68 degrees.
This was sending weather, my friends.
We probably wouldn't see such favorable conditions again until mid-September.
Time was of the essence. It could rain at any moment. We gathered our stuff and marched up the steps, heading directly to the base of Coex.
I realized something recently about my struggle with this climb. It occurred to me that every time I've done the route I've ended up finishing it the same way. But even though I know what to do, I still find it hard to execute, and it feels like I'm on the verge of popping off when I try it. The feeling that I'm about to fall makes me stop, hang, and look for other options. But ultimately I fail to find a better way and I come back to square one and commit to the one way I know that works for me.
This time I said NO MORE. I vowed to stick to my beta and commit to it on the first try. I told myself that if I could just keep going, keep moving my feet up, no matter how bad the holds felt, I would get through it. Maybe.
(Photo: That's me at the crux on Coexistence, once again (5.10d). Photo by Adam.)
I got up to the roof, feeling pretty solid. I placed my crux gear. I stepped up and clipped one of the pins. I stepped back down to shake out. I got myself mentally prepared. Then I announced I was going for it.
Hitting the good rail with my hands, I set my feet right where I wanted them. Then I grabbed the crappy left handhold. It felt a little bit slimy in the fog, but I held on. I reached for the shitty sidepull with my right hand, barely catching it.
"These holds are terrible," I thought, as I always do. "I'm about to slip off."
I drove these thoughts from my mind with one command: "Foot up foot up foot up! Get the right foot up! Keep going!"
I stepped up and-- lo and behold-- the sidepull improved, as it always does. And then in an instant I had the jug in my left hand and it was over. Success: a clean lead of Coex.
It took me only four tries.
(Photo: Getting ready to fire the crux on Star Action (5.10b). Photo by Adam.)
Some friends of ours from the gym, Alec and Liz, showed up just as I was finishing Coex. A few minutes later Josh and Tiff (who I met through Gail) also appeared. It was turning into a private party at the Mac Wall, all of us overjoyed that we were actually getting to climb.
I was feeling great after our first pitch, so once Adam finished with Coex, I led Star Action (5.10b), getting the redpoint without much trouble. I struggled on this route the first time I tried it last year-- and I wasn't even sure I wanted to go back, as I found it a little bit heady-- so I was very pleased that it felt pretty straightforward this time around. If you want to get solid at 5.10b, I've found the secret: start flailing away on 5.10d. It really helps.
The crux of Star Action is awesome. The move up to the jug over the roof is hard, and the step left to the corner afterwards takes willpower and technique. But in my opinion the route is all about that crux roof. The rest of the climb is less interesting. I can't say it's one of my favorites.
Since we were there on the right side of the Mac Wall we decided to throw a top rope over Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a), another testpiece 5.10d which many say should be a 5.11. I thought maybe it could be the next project for me. But several people have cautioned me about the gear being all small stuff and hard to place, so I thought it might be wise to give it a top rope preview. I'd never been on it before.
I got the coveted top rope flash but it was tough going all the way. It is a great pitch, with steep moves up a crack over a bulge, then some thin steps up the face to a little roof, which is followed by a burly sequence to get over it. There is not much in the way of stances. I think this would be a demanding lead for me.
After Adam and I were done with Graveyard Shift we watched Alec go for it on the sharp end.
(Photo: Alec leading Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a). He's heading into the steep little bulge that presents the route's first crux.)
Alec told us he's been rehearsing for this one and you could tell; he was smooth as silk as he calmly led the pitch. He placed a lot of gear too, but it was all small, fiddly stuff. I'd like to get to his level on Graveyard Shift, some day. But I think my next project will be some other 5.11 with a shorter crux like The Stand or one of the Voids.
Our day was turning into an avalanche of hard climbs. The expected rain still hadn't materialized; in fact, the fog had lifted and now the sun was out. It was growing hotter by the minute.
Adam still hadn't had the chance to lead anything. He decided to do Birdie Party (Pitch 1 5.8+), including the long traverse over the flake to the MF bolts. He did a fine job on this on-sight lead, although he got a little bit lost on the traverse and wandered up to the Birdie Party pitch two roof before stepping down to the bolted anchor. He sorted it all out, though. It remains a great 5.8, with consistent thoughtful climbing.
(Photo: Adam on Birdie Party (Pitch 1 5.8+).)
I considered one more Mac Wall 5.10: Tough Shift (5.10a). I even started climbing it, but in the crux crack near the bottom I decided I wasn't feeling it any more. It was now sunny and rather hot. Things had gone so well. I didn't want to push too hard. After checking out the move a few times I decided to climb down and walk away. I'll attack it when I'm fresh, some other time.
Much better to do a scary 5.9!
I decided to lead Land's End, a notorious sandbag. Dick Williams gives it a rating of 5.9- G in his guidebook, but many people think it is harder than that and everyone agrees it has a significant runout past some very shaky flakes. Sounds good, right? I've always wanted to check it out.
(Photo: Adam following Land's End (5.9-).)
As I led the route I had to agree with the grumblers. It felt like a solid 5.9 to me, with steep moves over the initial roof and then a strenuous, awkward undercling traverse at the upper crux. In between the cruxes the route is quite run out. And there is loose rock all over the place, not just at the fragile flakes. I can't recommend this climb. It is dangerous.
This short pitch has a ton of fun climbing on it. I'm just saying.
(Photo: I came within inches of stepping on this four-foot snake as we walked over to the Guide's Wall from Land's End.)
It was now mid-afternoon and we had no plans. We walked down the cliff, looking for a climb for Adam to lead. I was ready to dial it back and do something easy. I half-heartedly suggested Hawk (5.4), but we kept walking.
As we passed the Madame G buttress we saw that Le Teton (5.9) was in the shade. Suddenly I got excited again. It was irresistible to me.
Adam led quickly up Northern Pillar (5.2) to the pedestal at the start.
I followed Le Teton once before, in 2011, but I never wrote about it. I remembered it as pretty tough for the first fifteen or twenty feet. The route is on you from the first moment you step onto the wall. The feet are thin as you work your way up an overhanging crack on the face to a juggy traverse. Once you get out to the arete it's all air beneath you and easy steepness to the top of the Madame G buttress. The route is challenging and thrilling, but when it's all over you wish it were a little bit longer. You want those jugs to go on forever.
(Photo: Adrian in the finishing jugs on Le Teton (5.9) in 2011.)
Ever since 2011 I've wanted to lead it. I never made it a priority because I've always been a little bit intimidated by those tough opening moves.
But not this year.
This year I knew it would be fine. And I think that's the difference between this year and all previous years, for me. It is mental more than physical. I'm sure I could have climbed better when I led Le Teton this past Saturday. I was tired and it was hot. I fumbled in the vertical crack. I failed to clip the fixed nut. I threw in a desperate cam and then hucked for the jugs.
But through it all I knew I wasn't going to let go and that all was right with the world. As I reached the arete and took in the fantastic exposure I thought of Le Teton as a metaphor this whole year. It has been a great ride so far with one highlight after another. I want to keep pushing further but I know soon I'll reach a barrier I can't pass-- I'll get shut down by a project, or the season will end with no further progress-- and then I'll look back and think the ride was great but that it ended too soon.
I want the jugs to go on forever.