Thursday, October 1, 2015

From the Gunks to the Dolomites and Back Again

(Photo: Adam approaching the first belay on The Time Eraser (5.10-).)

It has been a while, my climbing comrades.

Although you haven't seen any posts from me, I have been climbing. I got out to the Gunks on a few of those hot days we always have in August. It was nice to be climbing, despite the oppressive temperatures and the humidity. But I wasn't going to push it on days like these, and I didn't do anything much that was new or exciting.

(Photo: My partner Andy working on To Be or Not To Be (5.12a) on a brutal Sunday in August. This wasn't much fun in the slimy heat. What on Earth were we thinking??)

The highlight of the summer was a trip I took with my family to the Dolomites in Italy, at the end of August. We had a wonderful time in this gorgeous outdoor playground. Most of our time there was spent hiking, but while we were in the area I was able to steal away for one day of rock climbing with a guide.

My hired gun, Lucas, works with the well-established Catores guide service. I knew the guide's rules would prohibit him from letting me lead any pitches, and I suspected Lucas would not be too keen on taking an untested partner up a route that was truly challenging. So I just told him I wanted a long route that would get us high in the mountains. Lucas more than delivered with the Vinatzer Route on the third Sella Tower. It was exactly the kind of adventure I was hoping for, with more than a thousand feet of fun climbing up a dramatic, steep face, ending at an exposed summit with panoramic views.

(Photo: My guide, Lucas, in the foreground, leading us to the Sella Group. The Vinatzer Route ascends the tallest pillar-- the one with the flat top-- in the middle of the formation.)

This route is a classic multi-pitch outing (established in 1935!) with maybe three crux moments in the 5.7 to 5.9 range during the early pitches. The climbing is otherwise casual and mostly very pleasant, with the pebbly, featured limestone providing lots of obvious horns and pockets to grab on to. It is a popular trade route, crowded and at times polished.

(Photo: Here I'm enjoying myself somewhere on the Vinatzer Route.)

The Dolomites have a reputation for looseness and our route certainly had its share. In the upper half there was a lot of suspect rock and towards the summit it became hard to avoid loose chunks all over the place. At one point the party ahead of us knocked a few pieces down and before I could react I was hit in the shoulder with a rock the size of a tennis ball.

(Photo: View across the pass to the Sassolungo Group from the summit of our route.)

The belay anchors were another cause for concern. They were pretty junky. The standard anchor seemed to be two rusted pitons, sometimes with a sling tied through them in a "death triangle." Usually Lucas would add a piece or two, which made me feel a bit better.

The descent, too, was a little bit sketchy for my tastes. I knew that with Lucas leading the way we'd have no trouble, but if I'd been on my own I would have liked to have had a detailed topo for the improbable "fourth-class" scrambling we had to do on loose gravel slopes and the occasional rappels from single-point anchors.

Apart from the general sketch factor, I loved the route and would gladly return to the area for more rock climbing. I felt like the climb provided a great day in the mountains and I would have been fine to lead every pitch we did. I'm sure there are many, many moderate routes in the area of similar character and quality. Maybe some day I'll plan a trip back there with a partner and I can do a bunch of them.

Once we returned to New York I planned a weekend day in the Gunks with Adam. The weather was supposed to be outstanding. The favorable forecast made my thoughts turn to Millbrook, which you could call the Dolomites of the Gunks, due to its alpine feel and occasional looseness. I've been wanting to get back to Millbrook all year. I figured time was of the essence, since the days were only going to get shorter over the remainder of the season.

We got to the West Trapps trailhead nice and early but as Adam checked over his gear in the parking lot it suddenly dawned on me that I couldn't remember putting my harness in my bag! A quick search confirmed that I had indeed left it behind in Brooklyn. Thank goodness I realized it before we embarked on the hour-long hike out to Millbrook. I would have had to improvise a swami belt.

After a quick run to Rock and Snow for a new harness we got back to the lot and headed off to the cliff.

I had several ideas for us. I figured we would stay in the central part of the cliff near Westward Ha! (5.7), since Adam had never been there before. I had done Westward Ha! and Cruise Control (5.9) two years ago, but I was happy to do them again. I also had in mind some nearby routes that would be new to both of us, such as Rib Cracker (5.9), The High Traverse with the Recollection finish (5.8), The White Corner (Regular 5.9 or Direct 5.10), and most of all The Time Eraser (5.10-).

As you probably know, I've been trying to push my limits all year. While I believed that The Time Eraser's difficulty wasn't at the top end of my current abilities, it was a new level for me at Millbrook. Knowing how far away we'd be from help at Millbrook, I saw the cliff as no place to risk a bad fall. The prospect of a complicated rescue situation was always at the back of my mind when I considered routes at this cliff. I did not want to attempt any 5.10's there unless I felt very confident that I would climb them safely and in control.

And The Time Eraser in particular has a reputation as a serious lead, with thirty to forty feet of insecure, poorly protected 5.8 climbing at its start. So it merited special caution.

I thought I was ready. But who knew how I would feel once we reached Millbrook?

(Photo: Millbrook cliff, seen from our rappel point not far from Westward Ha! and The Time Eraser. You can actually see the crux section of The Time Eraser in the photo. It is the steep, clean vertical streak of rock towards the left edge of the visible portion of the cliff.)

Despite our delayed start Adam and I were the first to arrive at Millbrook and we used Westward Ha! as our warm-up. I started us off from the Death Ledge and led a short pitch past junky rock to the tree at the bottom of the big corner. From there Adam took it to the top in one lead containing all of the good climbing. My opinion of the route remains about the same: it is a fine climb, well worth the hike. But there are other options nearby which are even better.

(Photo: Adam coming up the first bit of Westward Ha! (5.7).)

It is a good thing we hit this climb right away, since we were soon joined at the cliff by three other parties, two of which did only Westward Ha! and then went home. It was strange to see so many people out at Millbrook and I thought it was a bit of a shame that most of them hiked out for just one route. Folks, there are other good moderate routes very close by. You should check them out.

There was one other pair of climbers there at the cliff who seemed interested in doing climbs other than Westward Ha!; I struck up a conversation with the leader after I heard him giving some advice to one of the other parties. He seemed to know his way around. He gave me his opinion of all of the climbs I was thinking about attempting. His advice was not encouraging.

The White Corner? "If you fall at the wrong spot you're going to get hurt."

Strike one.

The Time Eraser? "The hard part is well-protected but the first forty feet are scary."

Strike two.

Rib Cracker? "That's a good one. Fun route!"

Well, okay then. I guessed we had a winner.

With my ambitions rapidly fading I got ready for Rib Cracker. It did indeed look like a nice climb, with two clean 5.9 pitches to the top of the cliff, passing several overhangs along the way.

It didn't go well. I got stuck at the crux of the first pitch, a move up through an overhang and into a blank corner. I couldn't figure out how to move up into the corner and reach the obvious holds, which were high above. I tried over and over again, stepping up in different ways, never taking a fall but stepping down every time after I failed to find a way to reach the holds up above the overhang. It was very frustrating. I kept thinking I must be missing something.

Eventually I decided it wasn't going to happen. I hadn't really thrown my body up there to go for the holds, but feeling cautious, I didn't want to. I decided to bail. At Adam's suggestion I down-climbed until it was possible to move left to join The High Traverse (5.5), which I then followed to its first belay.

(Photo: Adam is doing the second pitch of The High Traverse (5.5), and when he moves around the corner he'll go straight up for the Recollection (5.8) finish. The part of the route that is in the picture is supposed to be just 5.5, but I thought it was a bit harder than that.)

Adam then took us to the top via the Recollection (5.8) variation to The High Traverse. This turned out to be a high quality route. The climbing is little bit dirty but it is very interesting, with thin moves up the face. Adam protected it well, finding a few creative placements along the way.

(Photo: Adam's shot of one of his neat placements on Recollection (5.8).)

I arrived at the top of the cliff in a foul mood. What were we going to do now? I'd given up on Rib Cracker, a 5.9. Was I really willing to try a scary 5.10 like The Time Eraser?

Adam gently pushed me to at least have a look at it.

And so we rapped down again. I decided to just take it one move at a time and to be careful not to get committed way out from my gear. If I found the initial climbing too run out I would just climb back down.

It ended up working out fine. I really enjoyed The Time Eraser.

(Photo: That's me reaching the end of the crux section of The Time Eraser (5.10-). Photo by Adam.)

To my relief, I thought the early climbing was no big deal. The rock was okay and I found gear here and there. It certainly is no horror show, so long as you start well to the right of the crux face above (as the guidebooks recommend). You trend up and left to the end of a low overlap, and then the business begins. A delicate traverse further left is followed by steep climbing up the orange face. The terrain is technical and the holds are small. It reminded me of Proctoscope (5.9+) in the Trapps. The climbing is of a similar style and difficulty, but it goes on for a longer time.

Once you reach the small roof above the steep orange face you are through with the hard climbing. I was pretty psyched to get there, especially after feeling so defeated by Rib Cracker. The Time Eraser felt just as I'd hoped it would: engaging and challenging, but in control.

(Photo: Adam inspecting the crack at the start of the 5.8 pitch two of The Time Eraser. You can see our fixed rappel line on the right side of the photo.)

Pitch two is also nice, though not as nice as pitch one. It ascends several corners to the top of the cliff, with an exciting, blind step out to the right beneath the final corner. Adam dispatched it with ease and we were again atop the cliff.

We'd now topped out three times and the sun was well on its way towards the horizon. We figured we had just enough time for another quick one and Cruise Control (5.9) seemed like the obvious choice.

(Photo: Adam rappelling down to the Death Ledge one more time as the sun sinks behind the cliff.)

Doing Cruise Control again for the second time only confirmed my initial impression: this is one of the best routes in the Gunks. Both pitches are outstanding. I love the technical bit up a shallow open book on the first pitch, which is followed by a good roof problem. Then the second pitch offers exposed position on beautiful white rock and fun climbing up a crack to the finish. It's as if you took the best parts of Limelight, Arrow and Silhouette and stacked them all on top of one another.

(Photo: Adam leading the 5.8 pitch two of Cruise Control.)

We hiked out as the sun set, reaching the bridge just before it got truly dark out.

The high season is upon us and I still have many landmark climbs to hit before the year is out. I was really pleased to knock The Time Eraser off my list. For me it was a big goal and now I have to consider whether I'm ready for some of the other more serious tens out at Millbrook. I don't know what went wrong on Rib Cracker but I'll have to go back some time and give it another shot.

As for the Dolomites, I only got a taste-- but my wife Robin loved the area as much as I did, so I'm sure we'll go again. For now, as the song says: it's very nice to go traveling... but it's so much nicer to come home!

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