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.


  1. I felt like the toughest part of Graveyard Shift was keeping it together for those moves over the bulge. I think that I was closer to peeling off during that section than I was during the actual crux. To me it felt significantly harder than 5.8, so I may have botched the sequence.

    (PS: I'm the guy that was on Graveyard while you were doing Men at Arms)

    1. You did a great job! Thanks for your comment.