Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mac Wall Machinations: Interstice (P1 5.10b), Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a), Men at Arms (5.10b), & Tough Shift (5.10a)

(Photo: The Trapps in early November.)

My office was closed for Election Day. It was one of those rare weekday climbing opportunities. The weather was going to be beautiful and Julia was looking for a partner.

Julia and I haven't climbed together much so I approached the day as a sort of bonus. I didn't have anything on the agenda.

After we warmed up a bit, we found ourselves at the Mac Wall, standing at the base of Something Interesting (5.7+). It was a weekday so there weren't too many people around. A party was racking up for the ever-popular Three Pines (5.3) but everything else was available, and it was my turn to lead.

(Photo: Julia on Something Interesting (5.7+).)

I've spent a lot of time at the Mac Wall over the last couple of years, but on most of my visits I've been focused on red-pointing just a few of the routes. It took me more than one attempt to nail Try Again, and it happened again with Coexistence. So there remained several routes that I hadn't explored. There were some that I'd top-roped but never led, and a few more routes on the wall that I'd never even touched, despite all of my days there.

I've been thinking lately that I want to fill in the gaps and send everything at this wall. Or at least, all the tens. Or maybe all the tens except for Water King (5.10d R)?

Standing there with Julia, I checked out the nearest 5.10: Interstice. The first pitch is 5.10b. I was on this climb once before, in 2013, with Deepak and Chin. On that occasion nobody led it. I set it up as a top rope from the Birdie Party bolts. I found it devilishly difficult to make the first crux move just ten feet off the ground. You have to stand up on a good foothold above a shallow roof to a balancy position with no handholds to speak of. I also remembered the upper crux as a tough move, cranking over a bulging, leaning corner to a thin stance.

(Photo: This is Chin at the first crux on Interstice (5.10b) in July of 2013. She's been waiting two years for me to write a post about it!)

At the time, two years ago, I didn't think I would ever lead this route. Both cruxes involve moving up past the gear and you have to keep it together above your pieces to complete the sequences.

But that was a long time ago. As I glanced over at Interstice on Election Day with Julia, it looked like good fun to me. I told Julia that I was feeling like leading it. As we talked about the route, I pronounced the name as "Inter-stiss."

One of the guys on Three Pines immediately piped up:

"I am a scientist, so I can tell you: it is pronounced 'In-TER-steh-see.'"

Who knew? I stood corrected (though the people at the Cambridge Dictionaries Online seem to disagree).

It is a clever name. The word means "the space between," which is a good description for a face route which ascends the blank nothingness between other obvious, natural lines.

(Photo: Fall colors at the Mac Wall.)

I racked up and got started. I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped right up into the first crux move and had no trouble standing up above the little rooflet. This was so different from my 2013 experience. Right after this stand-up sequence there is another thin, delicate move up. You really want some gear for this move-- you are still so close to the ground. I managed to get a small Alien in a little v-notch. It seemed like it would hold.

Once I was through these early moves I found pleasant climbing past a shallow left-facing corner and then it was time for the upper crux. I placed the highest gear I could manage in the bulging corner. Then I committed to moving up. It took a little bit of work to get the move right, but I managed to hold on just fine and to get out onto the face, where after one more easy-does-it step up I was relieved to get another small cam in a tiny downward-facing slot.

(Photo: At the upper crux on Interstice (5.10b) in 2013. Photo by Chin.)

I loved Interstice. It has the same excellent rock quality as the other more well-known climbs on this part of the wall, and two excellent, interesting crux sequences. It doesn't get much attention, but I think it is one of the best of the tens on the Mac Wall. And while it is mentally challenging, requiring moves above gear, I believe it is a safe lead. Bring small cams. I used Julia's C3's in addition to my Aliens.

(Photo: Julia on Star Action (5.10b).)

After we were done with Interstice, Julia went hard at Star Action (5.10b), a climb with which I've become quite familiar over the past year or two.

While I stood there belaying Julia I couldn't take my eyes off of Graveyard Shift (5.10d or 5.11a, depending on who you believe). It was another climb I'd tried once on top rope, this past July. I'd gotten it clean on the first try, which was nice.

This is the most feared hard 5.10 on the Mac Wall. Near the start it has some scary, run-out 5.8 climbing over a bulge. And above, at the crux, you go over a small roof with great gear but then you have to make a few more hard moves before you can place anything else. This hard part isn't dangerously run out but I expected it to be very committing.

I decided to go for it. I'd felt so good on Interstice. Again I took Julia's C3's.

I got through the scary 5.8 part just fine and once the run-out section was done I was pretty happy with my pro as I moved delicately up the face to the crux roof. I worked in a few more pieces at the overhang and after shaking out for a while, I went for it.

Alas, I didn't make it. I got above the roof but then I couldn't find a way to stand up. I fell. Then I tried and fell again, and again and again, coming off each time with my feet just above the level of my gear.

With every fall I had to psych myself up to go back above that roof again.

Why was this so much easier on top rope?

Finally I realized I was totally missing a crucial handhold. Once I found it I figured out the sequence and finished the route.

When it was over I was a little bit disappointed that I'd had such a tough time at the crux and that it had turned into such an epic struggle. I wished I'd read the route better. But, on the other hand, I was overjoyed that I'd just led Graveyard Shift, because it meant that OH MY GOD, I AM CAPABLE OF LEADING GRAVEYARD SHIFT.

A year ago I would not have believed that this was possible.

(Photo: Julia approaching the crux roof on Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a).)

As we left the cliff I hoped that the weather would hold out so I could come back soon. I had to return to get the send. A successful lead of Graveyard Shift would really put an exclamation point on the year.

As luck would have it, we had some unseasonably warm temperatures into mid-November. I got back up to the Gunks with Andy on Sunday the 15th, and we went right back to the Mac Wall.

I was debating whether to hop on Graveyard Shift to start our day but there was a party already on it. This was fine by me. I could fill the time by doing the rest of the Mac Wall routes I hadn't led.

I started us off with Men At Arms, which was totally new to me. This climb is supposedly 5.10b. It starts at the same corner as Try Again and then heads left and wanders up the face, past the right side of a big overhang. From below it looks like nothing much. The face appears dirty in places and it is hard to tell where you'll be going.

It went well enough, but the climbing is thin and the gear is spaced and consistently small/fiddly. It seemed like I was stepping above marginal gear to do cruxy moves in the 5.8/5.9 range over and over again.

(Photo: Andy on Men at Arms (5.10b).)

I never found any 5.10 on Men At Arms. Maybe I skipped it? The route wanders a bit and I may have moved right and then left to avoid the "direct" crux climbing. If I'm right about where the direct climbing is, then it doesn't get done much. It is covered in moss.

Also I did the route in one pitch, climbing up until I could traverse over to the Try Again anchor. Doing the climb as one pitch makes for a nice outing of consistent 5.9 climbing-- it is also the way the Trapps App and some users on Mountain Project recommend doing the route. In Dick's book he says you should stop and build a belay at a stance where I wasn't happy with the gear.

I enjoyed Men At Arms, but this route is heady, and very different from all the other Mac Wall climbs. I'm not sure I should admit this, but I have really come to enjoy this type of climbing: thin 5.9 face climbing with marginal gear. I don't know why, but I like the mental challenge. If this type of climbing isn't your bag then you might want to stay away from Men At Arms.

Late in the day I saw someone else on Men At Arms. It was funny: I'd never before seen anyone on this route and then on the same day I decided to finally do it, another person had the same idea. I saw this leader get a little bit lost and then he took a fall. He ripped three pieces, eventually falling thirty feet! He finally came to a stop about fifteen feet off the ground. Luckily it all worked out okay, but it was a close one. I don't know what this says about the route, but please be careful out there, folks.

(Photo: That's me, getting gear for the crux on Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a). Photo by Andy.)

After Andy put up Higher Stannard Direct (5.9), we went back over to Graveyard Shift.

I tried really hard but I felt nervous. The scary 5.8 part seemed scarier the second time around. The handholds were slippery and the footholds seemed very very small. Nevertheless I made it up to the roof, got my gear in place and tried my best to get over it. As I stood up to reach for the undercling hold above the roof-- the last hard move-- I realized, to my dismay, that I'd misplaced my feet. I wasn't set up right. I couldn't release my right hand and I couldn't fix my feet. I fell, cursing.

After a rest I went back up and sailed over the crux, furious that I'd blown it because of a single toe placement. I'll have to go back and try again.

Once we were done with Graveyard, I took a long look at the climb next door: Tough Shift (5.10a).

This was it: the last Mac Wall 5.10; the only one that I'd never tried.

The final frontier.

I'd racked up for Tough Shift once before, back in July, but on that day after checking out the start I decided I wasn't feeling it, and walked away. Though Tough Shift is far from the hardest of the tens on the Mac Wall, it is one of the more frightening leads in the area. It has a reputation for having lots of run-out climbing. In the guidebook, Dick says that Tough Shift is "not for the meek." I'd never seen anyone dare to lead it. It seems that most people are scared away by the orange face at the top, across which you do a rising traverse with no gear until you reach the big overhang. If you mess up here on this upper face you risk a swinging, sideways fall onto an old piton.

Standing there with Andy I felt ready. This was my favorite type of climbing, right? Anyway, I'd just led Graveyard Shift, which had to be more scary than this, surely.

(Photo: Trying to figure out the opening crack on Tough Shift (5.10a). Photo by Debra Beattie.)

Getting started, I had a bit of trouble working out the move to get established in the vertical crack at the bottom of the face. There are great nuts here, so it wasn't a big worry. And it turned out that getting established in this crack is the only 5.10 climbing on the route. Once I finally worked out this move it was smooth sailing up the crack to a ledge where a right-facing corner begins.

If you ever decide to lead Tough Shift, I advise you to get gear as high as you can when you are standing at the base of this corner, because there is no more gear until you are almost level with the piton at the upper crux. The climbing here through the middle is very run out, worse than the at the top of the pitch, though the climbing is also easier. There was little risk that I would fall but there was no question that a fall in this part of the route would have been bad.

(Photo: Andy resembling a rock ninja in the opening crack on Tough Shift (5.10a).)

Once I got through it and clipped the pin I spent quite a while at the top of the corner, contemplating the exit. I could see where I had to go but it took several trips up and down before I committed to moving left and putting myself out there. I backed up the pin by making another move up past it, placing a good nut in the crack at the roof atop the corner, and then stepping back down.

When I finally reached for the jug out left, it went fine. The move to the jug, and the next interesting move afterwards, are reasonably well-protected, I think. Then it gets into more risky territory as you keep climbing up but I felt with each successive move it got easier until I was level with the roof, where I could exhale and put in a bomber blue Camalot. The rest of the way was all gravy, moving further left to go over the roof above Graveyard Shift.

(Photo: Andy about to embark on the upper face portion of Tough Shift (5.10a).)

I liked Tough Shift and I would do it again. There is great climbing up the initial crack and on the orange face up high. The route has significant runouts, but they are in relatively easy territory. Because the unprotected climbing is pretty straightforward I think Tough Shift is less mentally challenging than either Men At Arms or Graveyard Shift. I expect others might disagree with me on this. All three of these climbs are serious, to some degree.

After we finished with Tough Shift, Andy was looking for a ten to lead and since we were standing right there I sent him up Star Action. As I've mentioned before, Andy is a very strong climber but his background contains more sport than trad climbing. He seemed nervous through the middle of the pitch, where there is gear to be had but it is a little bit tricky to place. At the crux, by contrast, he made the big reach over the roof look like child's play. As soon as he gets used to the sporty pro at the Gunks he's going to be unstoppable. I won't be able to keep up with him.

At the end of the day, I was a little bit sad that I couldn't say I'd capped the year off with a send of Graveyard Shift. But it will come, maybe this year, maybe next year. And now, after two days' work, I can say that I've done all of the Mac Wall tens. I still haven't led MF Direct (5.10a R), but I top-roped it easily earlier this year and I think I'm ready to lead it now. (I also have not done the roof pitches on the three tens that are just to the left of MF.)

The next-level challenge that I am mulling over is to lead them all, from left to right, in a day! This would involve:

Still Crazy After All These Years (5.10a)
Interstice (5.10b; 5.10d if you include the pitch two roof)
Mother's Day Party (5.10b)
MF Direct (5.10a; 5.10b if you tack on the Birdie Party roof)
Men At Arms (5.10b but not really)
Try Again (5.10b)
Coexistence (5.10d)
Star Action (5.10b)
Graveyard Shift (5.10d/5.11a) and
Tough Shift (5.10a)

A worthy project for next year? When the days get longer I may give it a try.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Feeling Crass (5.10b) in Fat City (5.10d), & More!

(Photo: The Gunks in Autumn.)

I was very excited to get back to the Gunks after my trip to Indian Creek.

Don't get me wrong. The trip was nice, but I was out of my element there, struggling on the vertical cracks. I was eager to return to my home turf, where I was comfortable on my feet and where things have been going so very well lately.

I felt like I'd been away from the Gunks for a long time, even though it had only been a few weeks.

The high season was passing me by! Or not really. But I felt the itch. You climbing psychos know what I mean.

The year would soon end. I needed to hit something big with every day at the cliff. Who knew when a given climbing day would turn out to be the last one of the year?

I made plans with Adam to go to the Nears. I had one route in my sights:

Fat City Direct (5.10d).

This was a biggie, for sure.

It had been on "the list" all year. It was a must-do for 2015 as far as I was concerned. And we didn't have too much of 2015 left to play around with. I needed to get on it, and soon.

So Adam and I drove up on a Sunday morning, ready to hit it.

And then, as we careened down the road towards our destiny... it began raining.

This hadn't been in the forecast.

As we bravely carried on, it kept on coming down. We persevered in the face of the storm, only to arrive at the West Trapps lot in the midst of a misty sprinkle. It was cold too. Our little pocket computers promised us that the rain would pass over soon, so we optimistically went ahead and gathered up our crap, hiking over to the closest part of the Near Trapps, where the routes tend to stay dry under huge roofs.

Standing at the cliff we were sheltered from the falling rain but our spirits were nevertheless slightly dampened. The rock felt cold to the touch. We took our time getting started.

We thought about warming up on Outer Space (5.8) or Le PliƩ (5.7), but after we looked around a bit my eye fell on a roof problem about fifteen feet off the ground. I had never noticed this line before.

Taking my phone out of my pocket, I checked the Nears App and found out that this was Crass (5.10b), a short climb which goes over the crux roof just off the ground and then does a traverse around a corner to join Le PliƩ. The roof appeared to be well-protected. It looked fun. Why not give it a try?

(Photo: Adam on Crass (5.10b).)

I liked Crass. There isn't any gear for the first move up onto the easy slab but there is dynamite protection as soon as it gets difficult. The roof itself is tricky. I had to take a hang to figure it out. Once I sussed out the move it wasn't so hard. Above the crux overhang you reach another roof where there is good gear for the exciting traverse out and around the corner. This part is probably 5.8. And then it's over.

Crass is no classic but it provided good fun while we waited out the rain.

By the time we were finished things were looking up. The rain had passed and the cliff didn't seem too wet. There were a few other intrepid souls around but Adam and I had our pick of lines to do.

Adam had expressed an interest in Grand Central (5.9), so we did it. I led up the easy 5.6 part and built a belay so that Adam could take it the rest of the way to the top in one pitch covering both of the route's cruxes.

Grand Central is a good 5.9 and while it isn't the hardest nine out there-- the crux climbing is just a couple of steep moves on small holds-- it tests the budding 5.9 leader because the gear is small/fiddly and you have to commit to moving above your protection through the crux moves. Adam did well, hanging in to make sure he was happy with his placements and then climbing on through. And he made quick work of the upper crux, a reachy overhang which for me always requires a little lunge off of greasy feet.

(Photo: A blanket of fall colors, seen from the top of the Near Trapps.)

After we rapped off of the Alphonse tree (with my 70 meter rope; be careful folks!), it was decision time.

Was I ready to attack Fat City Direct?

In what is becoming a tradition for us, Adam suggested we go over and "just have a look at it."

This has come to mean that we are definitely going to do whatever climb we are "looking" at.

Fat City Direct ascends a most impressive portion of the cliff, winding steeply through a kaleidoscopic series of orange roofs. Like Erect Direction (5.10c), another legendary climb which I did last month, Fat City has hard crux climbing that no one talks about, which is then followed by slightly easier but more spectacular climbing that gets all the attention.

After walking over, I tried to scope out the hardest bits. I figured the initial 5.9 roof wouldn't be too bad. I tried to spot the 5.10d crux just above but I couldn't really tell where it was. I could see a bulging section above a notch and guessed that this had to be it. Then, looking higher, it was pretty easy to find the intimidating upper crux, where a sloping diagonal rail led to the lip of a big overhang. You can't see it from the ground, but I knew that an ancient, hard-to-clip piton was sitting at the lip of this roof, providing the only pro for getting over it. Dick Williams says that this part of the climb is 5.10b R.

I racked up, taking as many slings as I could dig out of my bag. This climb is often done in one super-long pitch. There is the option to stop and belay between the cruxes but I hoped to take it all the way to the top if I still had any gear left.

(Photo: Here I'm just getting started on Fat City Direct (5.10d), heading for the 5.9 roof. Photo by Adam.)

Getting started, I felt a little bit shaky at the initial 5.9 roof. There was a lot of chalk all over the place and I initially went at it the wrong way. But eventually I changed tactics and it went fine.

Pretty soon after that I came to a shallow overhang. There were some fixed nuts. I thought this must be it: the 5.10d business. I experimented with working out the move, going this way and that. Placing more gear. Eventually I did a committing layback up over the little roof. It was a success. Thinking I'd just done the hard bit, I was feeling good.

But then I quickly found myself in a little notch under yet another overhang, with tiny crimps leading to the left.

Oops, my bad. This was obviously the real crux.

I took a long time there, checking my gear (small Aliens), testing the crimps. Every time I tried to commit to going left I felt like I didn't have it and I came back. Luckily there was a stance there, where I could chicken-wing my arm in the notch and reset.

Finally on my umpteenth foray I worked out a way to get my feet higher, and I found myself committed. My right hand was on a bad crimp; my left was on a sloping vertical feature. Standing up and reaching higher, I prayed the horizontal I was reaching for would offer a little more security.

Eureka! It was a jug. With a "woo hoo!" and an "oh yeah!" I was out of the woods.

(Photo: Emerging from the 5.10d crux on Fat City Direct. Photo by Adam.)

The bolted belay station was a short distance above me and to the left but I thought I had just enough slings to keep going, so I scampered straight up to the final challenge, the famous Fat City upper roof.

I vowed to keep calm and to try to execute. I didn't want a repeat of my Erect Direction experience, where I on-sighted the hardest parts and then blew it when I got nervous in easier territory.

Also I needed to get on with it. This lead was taking forever.

(Photo: At the upper crux roof on Fat City Direct. Photo by Adam.)

It went really well. There is a fixed pin right before the difficulties. I backed this up with two cams. Then it was go time. I breathed deeply and willed myself into "the zone." I only needed to test the holds once or twice before I moved out to the overhang. I had no trouble clipping the well-known sketchy piton at the lip (which I cannot believe was placed on the lead by Gary Brown in 1968!). Then I moved up and over the roof without hesitation, knowing somehow, without a doubt, that this move was going to be fine. Standing above the roof, I put in a piece to protect the second and exhaled, secure in the knowledge that Fat City was finally in the bag.

The 5.8 climbing which followed, winding through several more overhangs, went by in a blur.

I couldn't wait for Adam to join me up top so I could thank him for patiently belaying me on the greatest on-sight of my life.

Fat City Direct is a wonderful climb, with many awesome moments. It is definitely worthy of its legendary status. Done in a single lead it is a monster pitch, nearly 200 feet long. I was psyched to do it that way but I felt compelled to run it out in between the hard parts, both to avoid drag and to conserve gear. At one point Adam was begging me to place a piece. Don't be too alarmed-- he didn't know how easy the climbing was in that section. Nevertheless, I think if I go back I will probably break it up by stopping at the bolted anchor. It is a natural stopping point and it's surely safer to do it that way.

Regarding the exposed upper crux, I think it might be easier than 5.10b. Maybe it's 5.10 minus? And I'm not sure why Dick gives it an R rating. It seems to me that it isn't R if the pin at the lip is good. On the other hand, if the pin is not good it is certainly R; blowing the roof and pulling the pin would be bad news. And who can say whether that pin is at all trustworthy? It has been there a long long time.

(Photo: Adam getting ready to rap off at the Alphonse tree.)

We still had time for more climbing. Adam wanted to lead Broken Sling (5.8) and I wanted to do whatever Adam wanted to do. After Fat City I was cool with anything.

I had only been on Broken Sling once, in 2013. I really liked it then but I thought the first pitch was awkward and in your face, and that the second pitch was hard to protect well.

Adam did a super job leading both pitches.

(Photo: Adam over the first hard moves on Broken Sling (5.8).)

My opinion of Broken Sling remains basically the same. It is sometimes awkward, and at times a bit necky. But wow, this route is really great. So varied and challenging, with tons of climbing packed into two short pitches. It is a worthy classic, and a proud lead.

With the sun going down, I decided to run up Disneyland (5.6-) for a fun, easy end to our day. Apparently I've never written about this very popular climb, but it is a favorite of mine, and just another example of how deep the 5.6 grade is in the Gunks.

Sitting atop the cliff, gazing at the leaves, I started to think about the next big target. What would it be? Would there be any more highlights I could squeeze out of 2015?

Who knows?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cracking Under Pressure at The Spider's Web & Indian Creek

(Photo: Indian Creek.)

I recently spent four days in the crack-climbing capital of the world: Indian Creek, Utah.

The trip was in the works for a while. My longtime partner Adrian went to the Creek last October with some of his Squamish buddies. This year, a similar crew planned to reunite for another visit.

With the exception of Adrian, I hadn't met any of the participants before, but I felt like I knew some of them already from the many times I'd heard Adrian speak about them.

There was Lee, one of Adrian's longtime Vancouver partners. He is super fit and very experienced. He seems to manage balancing his home life and climbing life in a way that I envy-- he has five children yet still manages to get out for a ton of climbing days. I'd like to pick his brain about how he does it, though with my kids verging on high school I guess I'm nearing the end of my own tour through the child-rearing years.

Also in attendance was Patrick, another veteran of the Vancouver scene, who came with his wife Diane. They too are fitness buffs-- they are active hikers and triathletes/Tough Mudder participant types. Diane doesn't climb but she and Patrick are always traveling the country together in their camper. They have mastered the art of living on the road to such an extent that Diane can whip up a gourmet meal for a large party out of the camper, night after night, without breaking a sweat. They have all the modern conveniences: folding chairs, a portable campfire unit, a carpet on which to gather... Pat and Diane really make a campsite feel like home.

All of the people I've mentioned so far (including Adrian and me) are, you might say, "of a certain age." We've all made the long journey 'round the sun a few times. But there were a couple of younger folks along for the ride as well. There was Adi, a regular whippersnapper-- I'm guessing he's probably in his thirties. He too lives in Vancouver. He recently took some time off from work to devote himself solely to climbing. Over the last several months he's gotten really strong.

And last but not least was Chelsey, a young climber from Montreal, who has only been climbing for a couple of years but you'd never know it. She's so much better than I was after a couple of years. Not that I'm any kind of barometer. My climbing career is evidence that rank mediocrity can be extended over an endless span of time.

The gang planned to be in Utah for a whole week, but I didn't have that kind of time to spare. I was flying out to join them in the middle of their trip. I'd have about three and a half days with which to climb before making the long drive back to Salt Lake City for my overnight flight back east.

It seemed like plenty of time with which to get thrashed on the Creek's steep hand cracks.

In the months leading up to the trip I tried to prepare. I really did.

I knew from my isolated past attempts at crack climbing that I have no natural talent for it.

I am not being modest. I am just keeping it real. Whether at Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, in the Adirondacks, at Squamish, or in Yosemite, I've made occasional, halting attempts to climb hand cracks, and over the years I've made little progress. Whenever I have had the opportunity to climb a hand crack, I've found the climbing to be insecure. I've had a hard time getting good jams. I've ended up hanging and backing off a lot. Whatever improvement I make during one trip seems to evaporate before the next one. It isn't like riding a bike for me. I'm always starting over from zero.

This year I wanted it to be different. I hoped to get something meaningful out of Indian Creek. I had to finally learn how to do this thing.

I bought the recent book, The Crack Climber's Technique Manual, by Kent Pease. It is an extremely thorough treatise. I read it from cover to cover, and then reread several chapters multiple times, trying to absorb the information.

Book learnin' was all well and good, but for the lessons to make a meaningful difference I needed to practice on some actual cracks.

Unfortunately, there aren't any outdoor crack climbs around NYC. I would have to do most of my practicing indoors, at the Cliffs at Long Island City. This gym has three crack climbs. I spent months working at them, eventually getting pretty good at the two easier ones. I would devote part of every gym session to these cracks, altering my hand positions so as to work on them in multiple ways.

My gym practice was better than nothing, but I knew it couldn't prepare me for the stresses of managing a lead on real rock. Before heading to Indian Creek I needed to make a trip to the Adirondacks or New Hampshire to get mileage on some real crack climbs.

But I couldn't seem to find the time.

My big chance finally came on Columbus Day weekend. I went up to Keene Valley, in the Adirondacks, with my wife and kids. We did a little hiking and I got to do a little climbing. Adrian came down from Montreal to meet me at the Spider's Web, a wall full of overhanging vertical crack climbs.

(Photo: Adrian warming us up on Slim Pickins (5.9+).)

We had a nice, leisurely day at the Web. We only did four pitches. I sent Adrian up the technical corner of Slim Pickins (5.9+) to start us off. After that we did three 5.10a crack climbs: Esthesia (which I had followed once before), TR, and On the Loose. Adrian and I both were interested in leading all of them, so that's what we did.

(Photo: I'm leading Esthesia (5.10a).)

Esthesia went well. I was happy to lead it clean. But it doesn't require any jamming-- both cruxes can be done as laybacks. Adrian, crack climber that he is, chose to jam through the upper crux crack, making me wish I'd at least tried to do the same, for practice.

TR also went pretty smoothly for both of us. But again I didn't feel like this was a real test of jamming skill. I used the occasional hand jam to rest and place gear, but there wasn't much pure hand jamming on the route. There were lots of finger locks and jugs.

(Photo: Adrian on TR (5.10a).)

The moves on TR are pretty straightforward, but (like most of the climbs at the Web) it is steep! I found it striking that the guidebook describes this pitch as the "warm-up" climb on the wall. Pumpy and sustained, it did not seem like a warm-up to me. I was happy to on-sight it.

Finally we hit On the Loose, which turned out to be the only climb of the day that required hand jamming most of the time. Adrian was in his element and led it comfortably, proclaiming it easier than TR.

For me, it was harder. I got good jams but it took a conscious effort to commit to moving up on them. I felt insecure. After a few steep moves I had to take a hang. It got better from there and my confidence seemed to improve as I got higher.

(Photo: That's me on On the Loose (5.10a).)

I wasn't sure what this all meant for my upcoming trip to Indian Creek. I would find out in a few days.

As the trip approached I paid little attention to weather forecast. I assumed that since we were traveling to the desert, in the high season, we would be looking at favorable temperatures and clear skies.

These assumptions turned out to be ill-founded. Shortly before I left NYC I found out from the guys that it had been raining on and off during the first few days of their trip! On the day I arrived in Utah it was similarly spotty. I reached the campground in the evening, got set up in my tent, and then I lay awake for hours, listening to the rain come down.

Luckily this was a last gasp of the bad weather. We ended up canceling the next day's climbing so the cliffs could dry out and went to Moab to hang out instead.

Though I lost one day, we eventually got plenty of climbing in. And the weather cooperated for the rest of the trip.

I didn't have any specific goals in mind. I had decided long before I got to Utah that this trip was going to be a learning experience for me. Also I knew that the other guys had already been there for a while. I didn't want to get my heart set on a particular climb and then have to fight to go do it because everyone else had already done it earlier in the same week. It seemed better to just go with the flow and do whatever everyone else wanted to do.

Adrian was shocked at my lack of direction. For some strange reason he was expecting me to show up with an ambitious tick list. I don't know why he would expect something like that from me.

Since I didn't have any concrete demands, Adrian proposed that I should start out by leading The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10), the most popular route at Indian Creek, which is at Supercrack Buttress, the Creek's most popular cliff. Several members of our crew had routes there that they wanted to red-point, so they were amenable to heading there for the day. For me this was a dream come true. I of course wanted to go there but I didn't want to make everyone else return to this cliff if they were already sick of it.

When we arrived and marched up to the Supercrack Buttress I was pretty impressed. The cliffs at the Creek don't appear to be all that tall from the road. But when you stand directly beneath the walls they seem to soar upwards forever into the sky. And while most of the climbs are just one pitch they are long, steep, and unrelenting. The cracks just go on and on.

Looking up at Incredible Hand Crack put a knot in my stomach. The early bits looked easy, with two short sections of vertical crack broken up by good ledges. But then the crux climbing loomed above: a lengthy section of steeply overhanging hand crack in a corner.

(Photo: Getting some beta on The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10).)

It did not go well. I got over the bouldery first move and put my mitts in the crack. Nervously I threw in two pieces of gear before I reached the first shelf. I was making the moves but with every step I had to will myself to continue, to move up. Shakily I made it to the stance before the crux section. But then I couldn't get through the overhang. I kept failing at getting both hands locked in the crack. I took at least a half a dozen falls and then finally gave up and handed the lead over to Adrian.

(Photo: That's me attempting The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10).)

After Adrian led up through my gear and finished it, I tried it again on top rope. It still took some figuring out but after a fall or two I worked out how to get established in the overhanging crack and I made it to the anchor.

I wasn't too disappointed. I came here to learn, right? At least I went for it. For the rest of the day I followed other people up some of the best 5.10 cracks at Indian Creek. I found out that when I didn't have to worry about leading, I wasn't quite so terrible at crack climbing. My months of practice paid off-- to some extent.

(Photo: Lee leading Supercrack (5.10).)

I watched Adi and Lee both lead Supercrack, a steep splitter crack that passes a small roof and then goes on for miles. Watching both of them send it, I could understand the endurance that was required to lead the route. When my turn came I was thrilled just to do it cleanly on top rope. It turned out I felt pretty comfortable jamming when the crack was in the range of Number 2 and 3 Camalots.

(Photo: Adi leading No Name Crack (5.10).)

I was able to successfully follow two more beautiful 5.10 hand cracks at the Supercrack Buttress, one of them known as the No Name Crack and the other one called 3 AM Crack. These were rather similar to each other, both of them being right facing corner cracks. Each route had its own unique challenges, such as a small overhang or a thin or wide section. On top rope I found I could manage these challenges. I'm sure if I'd been leading them it would have been a different story.

(Photo: That's me leading Three Pigs in a Slot (5.10), with Adrian belaying.)

By the end of the day I'd made enough progress that I thought maybe I could try to lead The Incredible Hand Crack again. But it was occupied. So instead I tried to lead another 5.10 called Three Pigs in a Slot. This climb is short (45 feet) and features a wider vertical crack than the ones I'd been doing all day. I hadn't done any cracks of this size but the group provided me with a whole bunch of Number 4 Camalots so there was no reason not to go for it.

It didn't go as badly as my first lead but it was still a struggle. I just felt insecure, for no reason that I could articulate. The climb was very safe and I could pause anywhere I wanted. I could shove my leg into the crack at will. It should have felt easy. But I had to force myself to commit, even when I had a big fat Number 4 Camalot over my head. It was slow going, and tense.

The next day we all went to the Reservoir Wall. I attempted another 5.10 lead; it was just another great crack in a corner. Indian Creek has so many of these that people don't even bother giving them names half the time. This crack took Number 3 Camalots the whole way up and therefore should have been in my comfort zone. And I suppose it was. For the most part I did fine, except at one point right in the middle where the insecurity came randomly over me again and I stopped to take a hang.

(Photo: I'm leading another 5.10 corner, again with Adrian belaying.)

I watched Adrian lead a somewhat atypical (for the Creek) 5.10 climb called Dr. Karl. This climb mostly featured finger cracks, with the feet spanning two opposing flakes. It reminded me a bit of Bloody Mary at Poke-O. Adrian did a good job on it. I elected just to follow it but later kicked myself for not leading it too. It was my kind of climbing and felt pretty straightforward to me.

(Photo: View out from the Reservoir Wall to Bridger Jack (the jagged wall on the left) and the two Six Shooter towers in the distance at the horizon.)

The highlight of the day was Pente (5.11-), which Adi did a great job of leading. The climb ascends 160 feet in a single pitch. The meat of the route involves thin hand jamming (Number 1 Camalots) up a steep headwall. Then in the second half the angle eases but the crack narrows to the horrible .75 size. This pitch just goes and goes. Adi brought more cams than the guidebook recommended but towards the end he still ran out of gear. We had to send more cams up to him using the tag line. It was an epic effort.

(Photo: Adi leading Pente (5.11-).)

No one else in the group ended up leading it but Adrian looked almost casual as he strolled up the climb on top rope. It seemed like he could easily lead it. I was wholly unfamiliar with this crack size and I really struggled just to get started in the crack, falling out of it several times. Once I finally got in it, though, I was able to get a rhythm going and was pretty successful the rest of the way. For me to lead this route would take a lot of work, I think.

I was amazed to watch Chelsey follow Pente easily, without a single moment of uncertainty. I'd heard that before I arrived she'd been following every climb in the Creek without much trouble, and she was even experimenting with some leading. This was her first trip to the Creek, and her first time crack climbing. She only recently started leading trad. Watching her I was very impressed. And jealous! She is clearly one of those lucky people for whom crack climbing comes naturally. I was exhausted by Pente but for her it wasn't a big deal.

After just two full days in the Creek I was feeling worn down by the effort involved in climbing these long, steep cracks. I had so many scrapes on my arms and legs I resembled a leper. We were all driving out by the early afternoon the next day so there wouldn't be time for more than a few pitches anyway. I didn't mind.

We went to Donnelly Canyon, which is another very popular wall. It shares a parking area with the Supercrack Buttress. A highlight of this wall is the popular Generic Crack (5.10). This is a straight-in splitter with a few challenging wide pods. Lee and Adi both wanted to red-point it before they left for home.

Before I came to Indian Creek I had thought that maybe I'd lead Generic Crack but on our final day I was content to follow it. I hoped to do it clean but I struggled to get into the first wide pod. Once I worked that out the rest of it went well.

(Photo: Chelsey leading Chocolate Corner (5.9) on our last day.)

I didn't come to Indian Creek expecting to rip it up. Instead I wanted to get some experience on splitter cracks and to progress a bit in my crack climbing. The trip definitely provided the training I was hoping for, so from that perspective it was an unqualified success. And I got to experience some of the most legendary climbs in the world, all in an amazing desert setting. Plus I got to meet a whole bunch of wonderful people. So it was a great little vacation and I had a very enjoyable time there.

I did, in the back of my mind, have a hope that after a day or two of pumping cracks something would "click" and I'd suddenly feel as comfortable leading sandstone cracks as I do leading climbs on Gunks conglomerate. This obviously didn't happen, so I left feeling a little bit frustrated. I tried to remind myself that crack climbing really is a distinct discipline from the type of climbing I'm used to. I need more mileage, and then the progress will come.

It's as if you are an experienced trumpet player. You've been doing it for years and you've forgotten what it was like when you weren't good at it. And then one day you decide to play around with a trombone. You ask yourself "How different can it be?" But then you try it and your embouchure is all wrong and you have to figure out how to work the slide; as a result the sounds you produce are closer to noise than to music. And you can't fix it right away. You've forgotten how long you worked at the trumpet to get proficient at it, and back then you didn't mind how bad you sounded. Starting over on the trombone is like torture, because now you know better. You know how it should sound, and you know what you can do. But you can't execute yet in this new medium.

That's what crack climbing is like for me. I'm a trumpet player who is trying to pick up the trombone. Or worse: the oboe. I wish it came more easily to me.

I think I made some incremental moves forward in the Creek. My third 5.10 lead was much better than my first. I hope the experience will translate to other climbing areas, and that when I travel to the Adirondacks or New Hampshire I will be more comfortable than before on the vertical cracks there.

And some day I'll go back to the Creek. I will return and I will try again.