Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Gunks Routes: Erect Direction (5.10c) & Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a)

(Photo: Andy emerging from the crab crawl under the roof on pitch two of Erect Direction (5.10c).)

September seemed to fly by. Labor Day came late. Before we knew it we stood at the brink of October. As September hurried past us, we started to see some ideal fall days in the Gunks.

I headed up to the Gunks with Andy on one beautiful Sunday. The chief question in my mind as we drove up was which big target we should hit. The high season was here and would soon be gone. If I wanted to make any progress on my list of mega-classics I had to get cracking!

The grade was not terribly important to me. What mattered more was whether the climbs we chose would push us; whether they were climbs that I'd always wanted to try but had been too intimidated in years past to consider seriously.

My two top candidates were Fat City Direct (5.10d) and Erect Direction (5.10c). Both of them are often described as climbs that define what climbing in the Gunks is all about. Both of them ascend enormous overhangs and both routes have intimidating crux climbing that precedes the overhangs.

I was also thinking about my role as "Mr. Gunks" for Andy. Andy is a great climber who has a bunch of trad experience, but during his several moves around the country he has mostly focused on sport climbing. He came to New York City last year and after we met I decided it would be my mission to show him the best of the Gunks. We'd been up there just twice together so far and during these two visits we'd generally stuck to single-pitch climbing.

With a beautiful day ahead of us I thought it was time for Andy to experience some real multi-pitch Gunks action. This argued in favor of Erect Direction, which is typically done in three pitches with an exposed, hanging belay under the big roof after pitch two. (Fat City, by contrast, often gets done in a single long pitch.) There were also some other great multi-pitch climbs close to Erect Direction that I was game to tackle. So it seemed like our choice was clear.

Andy was cool with the plan. He even agreed to let me lead pitches two and three because he understood that this was one of these lifetime-goal climbs for me. When we got to the Trapps we marched straight over to the base of Erect Direction.

Looking up at the cliff I could see the challenges which were to come. The 5.10a roof on pitch three is really big, but it didn't concern me so much. I knew the holds had to be good. A roof that big couldn't be all that mysterious, or it wouldn't be 10a! It would be much harder.

I was more worried about the 5.10c pitch two crux, which requires you to ascend an off-width vertical crack over a small roof and into a cramped position underneath a bigger overhang. From this scrunched stance you have to worm your way to the right until you can get out from under the roof and then ascend a corner to the hanging belay beneath the big, triangular pitch three ceiling. It looked claustrophobic and intense. And I had no idea what to expect from the moves. Would I know how to ascend the off-width? Would the traverse be terribly thin?

Standing at the base, taking it all in, I had to calm my stomach a little bit. Were we really going up there?

We were.

(Photo: Andy heading up the 5.8 pitch one of Erect Direction.)

The first pitch was new to Andy, of course, though I've done it many times. It is a very nice 5.8 pitch, juggy and steep. It is one of the best of the first pitches in this part of the cliff, so it is frequently used to access the upper pitches nearby. Andy led it without a worry and soon enough-- maybe too soon!-- we were racking up for pitch two.

From the GT Ledge I had a really good look at the pitch two crux. It seemed pretty scary to me. What was I going to do up there? I would have to figure out something. I carried on, with optimism (as Dick Williams might say). I brought with me a big gray Number Four Camalot because David Stowe once told me that it would be useful in the off-width.

I got up to the business in no time. The opening bits of this pitch are shared with Moonlight (5.6), and the climbing is easy but there's very little gear.

Luckily there is good gear for the crux. I got a solid nut at the lip of the overhang, just below the off-width.

Then I had to figure out how to make further progress. Above the small overhang is a blank face and the off-width crack-- too wide for cams-- to the left. I couldn't place the Number Four yet. It appeared I might be able to place it after I made the moves, at the top where the wide crack tapered a bit.

I ventured up and down several times, testing the obvious holds, and looking vainly for purchase inside the wide crack. It seemed like you could lay back off the edge of the off-width but, frankly, there was no way I was doing that. It was too insecure for my tastes.

So I found another way. I don't want to spew too much beta, but I will say that it involved groveling in the off-width, pushing up, high-stepping, wedging my body... in combination. Eventually I got my feet to the highest holds and arrived at the ceiling. My feet were maybe four feet from the roof, and the rest of me was scrunched in between. It was simultaneously cramped and exposed, like being trapped in a cardboard box, but at the same time risking an immediate fall if my toe moved a millimeter.

Existing in the space between the tiny footholds and the ceiling, hunched over, I tried not to hyperventilate. I'd made it. Now I just had to figure out how to tiptoe to the right to escape this crawlspace. Carefully I reached to my left and placed the Number Four at the top of the off-width. (Thanks, David!) Then I told myself to breathe.

"Calm down calm down calm down," I repeated.

I examined what was to come. There were holds. It wasn't so bad. The hardest work was behind me. It looked like after just a few moves to the right I'd be out. Gingerly I tiptoed over, then again, and before I knew it I was out from under the roof, looking up the corner to the fixed anchor, and above it to the big pitch three roof.

I threw in a cam and hustled up to the fixed station, which (as of this writing) is just a single sling threaded through several rusting nuts. Clipping it, I called out "Take!" and then I relaxed onto the tat and said a silent prayer while I built a real anchor. I was wiped out.

(Photo: Another shot of Andy emerging from the crab-crawl under the ceiling on pitch two of Erect Direction (5.10c).)

I have to say I don't think I've ever been happier to reach an anchor than I was on pitch two of Erect Direction. It's not that the pitch is really so hard, or long (it's actually pretty short), or at all unsafe (there is good gear everywhere you need it). It's just stressful. I found the positions to be unnerving. I had to work not to panic.

Andy followed the pitch cleanly, as I knew he would, and then we set our sights on the big ceiling above us.

I was hoping this third pitch, at 5.10a, would seem easy by comparison, but somehow I managed to blow it.

Leading up to the gargantuan roof, I got some good cams underneath. Then I made the big reach out to the lip, cut my feet and found myself hanging at the edge of the ceiling with one heel up. I tried to place a cam immediately but I couldn't get it to work in the irregular crack. I kept fumbling.


The cam wouldn't seat correctly. It wasn't right. I wasn't willing to make another move without a good piece but I was flaming out and I couldn't get the piece I had to work. I was at an impasse. I refused to clip this worthless cam and I couldn't hang on to fix it any more.

I expressed my thoughts to Andy. "Fuck me," I said. "Fuck me, fuck me, FUCK ME!"

I'm not proud of it.

It seemed like it was safer to drop down deliberately than to attempt to make another move. Once you commit to the ceiling you are looking at a swinging fall. I reasoned that it was better to let go in a controlled fashion than to fall further out, unpredictably. I decided to make the leap. Moving back towards the wall, I dropped my feet and asked Andy to pull it in. Then I let go and took the swing.

I landed, I hope gently, on Andy's head back at the belay.

After we both gathered ourselves I went back up and sent the damn thing. Since I started the pitch over from the beginning I'm counting it as a red point.

When I went up to the roof for the second time I bumped over ONE MORE MOVE and found a much better position from which to hang. I could have played with cams in this position all day long. I felt like such an idiot. In leisurely fashion, I placed two cams and got out of there.

The roof, as large as it is, actually isn't that hard, relatively speaking. As I'd hoped, there are lots of jugs. I think the crux of the third pitch is actually after you stand up at the lip of the roof. You have to make a hard move up an open book, and then finally you'll find easy terrain as you move left and around another ceiling to the finish.

(Photo: Feeling spent atop Erect Direction. Photo by Andy.)

I'm afraid I'm making Erect Direction sound like it wasn't a lot of fun. But it was. It was terrifying, exhausting, difficult-- and lots and lots of fun. It lived up to its reputation as one of the best climbs in the Gunks. I was really proud to on-sight pitch two of this climb. I should have also on-sighted pitch three. But what are you gonna do. You win some, you lose some.

Some day I'll go back to try to run pitches two and three together without stopping at the hanging belay. It would take careful sling work to avoid horrendous drag.

By the way, if you'd like to see some fantastic photos of Erect Direction, check out this set taken by Christian Fracchia. There are great shots of the pitch three roof. And Chris' photos bring to life the cramped, insecure pitch two crux better than my words ever could. Beware; there is a lot of beta revealed, although I did both cruxes very differently!

After Erect Direction I was ready for a break. I decided to send Andy up CCK Direct (5.9), one of my favorite routes.

(Photo: That's me, leading the 5.5 pitch one of CCK. Photo by Andy.)

I took care of pitch one and then sent Andy off on pitch two, the money pitch. Andy liked it, but I think maybe it was too easy for him. I remember cowering in the alcove before the final roof when I first led this climb back in 2012. But Andy? He breezed right through it without a care.

(Photo: Andy leading CCK Direct (5.9).)

Next I wanted to find another classic for him. We started walking a bit and found Arrow (5.8) wide open. Again I took the first pitch and handed it off to Andy for the crux pitch.

(Photo: Andy setting off on pitch two of Arrow (5.8).)

Once again Andy finished the lead in no time. I was curious to hear his thoughts, as a newcomer, on a climb that for me is like holy ground.

He liked it but wished there were more bolts. "A little run out" was his verdict. What can I say, he is a sport climber! And Arrow, while bolted, is no sport climb.

Our day was winding down and I started to feel ambitious again. I decided to try Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a). We rapped to the GT Ledge and walked on over.

This is just another great 5.10 at the Gunks which I've never gotten around to.

The climb is no joke but after Erect Direction it felt almost casual, well under control. The first crux is a big multi-tiered overhang. Nothing but a juggy good time. Right at the beginning of the hard part there is a sideways pocket where you really want a good placement. I had a hard time getting a cam to fit but I eventually worked in a brown Tricam, facing down. It was seated in a strange way but it seemed very solid.

Every time I consider dropping Tricams off my rack I find that they come in handy like this.

At the end of the first crux section there is an exciting, reachy grab up to a big shelf. And then easier climbing leads to a second crux, over another roof and into a seemingly blank corner. And then to the top of the cliff. There is good gear to the right as you enter the final overhang.

I really liked Amber Waves. The pitch has a ton of good moves on it. I think the 5.10a grade is fair-- at the old rating of 5.9 this would be one heck of a sandbag.

(Photo: Andy topping out on Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a).)

With autumn officially under way, 2015 continues to be an amazing year. I feel like with every visit to the Gunks I have to fit in at least one milestone. The time is limited and there are many, many excellent projects from which to choose. I'm so fortunate to be feeling so good and I have to take advantage of every chance I get.

I'm also headed to Indian Creek in two weeks for a mini-vacation. If you read this blog then you know I'm a terrible crack climber. I've been trying to prepare on the crack climbs in the gym-- and I've made progress, for sure-- but I know I'm in for a spanking when I get to Utah. It will be a learning experience and I will let you know how it goes!


  1. Riveting account of pitched two. My heart rate accelerated while reading this. Classic Seth G Gunks storytelling.