Monday, April 25, 2016

Learning the (Top) Ropes in Lost City

(Photo: That's me leading Resistance (5.10c) at Lost City. Photo by Connie.)

I'm getting frustrated.

"I don't think I can do this," I say.

We are in Lost City, in the area known as the Survival Block. It is ground zero for Gunks hard-man top-roping.

I'm just one move off of the ground and I'm already flailing on an "easy" 5.12 top-rope. I need to get up an overhanging arĂȘte, using invisible Houdini footholds. A juggy rail is just out of reach. I can't find a way to stay on the wall until I reach the good hold.

Perhaps I can forget about advanced footwork and throw for the jug? My partner Andy has just done it this way.

I try for the throw and come up short, swinging out and away from the wall. As I fly outward my feet barely clear the talus blocks.

"Maybe this is pointless," I wonder out loud.

"You'll never know if you don't actually try," Andy says. "You have to do it again, and COMMIT this time."

I know he's right. My throw was utterly half-assed. I set up to try again, and fail again. But I'm improving: I get my fingers on the good hold for half a second.

"You've almost got it and you're still not really going for it," Andy observes. "Stop being such a WIENER about it, and you've got it made."

Again, I know he is absolutely right. What am I afraid of? Is it the harmless swing out into space? Could it be the crowd of onlookers, every one of them (I assume) a better climber than me?

I psych myself up to try again.

"Just do the move, idiot."

Eventually I get the jug.

The rest of the climb goes more smoothly. I don't get it clean but I quickly work out the difficult bits and believe I could do these moves again. Once I am back on the ground, I feel okay about it all.

Resistoflex is a Gunks 5.12. And it isn't that bad! It can be accomplished by mortals.

(Photo: Gabe taking a quick top-rope run on Resistoflex (5.12), with Andy handling the belay. Gabe led the pitch earlier in the day.)

If I come back to Resistoflex and run through it a few more times I might even consider leading it.

I'm still not used to this style of working routes, but I am coming around to it.

*    *    * 

Years ago I dabbled a bit with the Gunks top-rope game and found it maddening, boring, even counter-productive. Twelves in the Gunks seemed cryptic and impossible. Why was I wasting my time shredding my tips on these climbs, which I couldn't do and did not enjoy? I had a mile-long list of easier, leadable routes I desperately wanted to climb.

I recognized that other people achieved rapid progress by working hard routes into submission. But I had a limited number of climbing days and I wanted to spend them doing full-length, world-class routes, not struggling for hours just to do a few hard moves. If slow improvement was the price I had to pay for adventure and on-sight leading, I could live with that.

My way of climbing was very satisfying... for a while. But then I seemed to stagnate at the 5.10 level. I fooled around with the tens for years, having occasional success with the easiest climbs in the grade but struggling with the harder ones. The most impressive tens in the Gunks seemed beyond me and too scary. Elevens? No way.

I wanted to get better, but I didn't want to sacrifice what I found most fun about climbing: going for the on-sight and trying new routes. So for a long time I just carried on in the same way, and didn't really get anywhere.

I finally broke through the plateau when I started treating my climbing as a series of projects. I picked climbs that I knew were pushing my limits. I hoped for the on-sight but if it didn't happen I did not give up and move on. Instead I thought about what I needed to do to come back and succeed. And then I made sure to return and put in the work.

This approach yielded dividends. I sent harder climbs than I'd ever considered possible before. And routes I used to struggle with seemed suddenly easy. I knocked off many of the legendary classics I'd always dreamed of doing. With my horizons broadened to include many climbs that were new and difficult for me, I didn't feel like I lost much in terms of adventure.

And now it is 2016, a new season. In order to keep improving, I know I have to keep picking climbs outside my comfort zone. And recently I've started thinking that if I really want to get significantly better, I need to reassess my antipathy towards working on seriously hard stuff on TR.

So when Andy and I headed up to the Gunks on a recent Sunday, I was thinking about Lost City, the home of the hard top-ropes. Our friends Connie and Alex were coming along, and they also had the same idea, so we were all on the same page.....


I had several climbs I wanted to lead. I figured we would probably get around to doing something on TR eventually. But first I had some unfinished business to take care of with Stannard's Roof (5.10).

(Photo: That's me on Stannard's Roof (5.10) in 2013, struggling to get the wrong cam off of my gear sling.)

I led this route in July of 2013 and I should have sent it on the first go. I fell because I wasted all of my energy trying (and failing) to get a cam off of my gear sling. I remember it as a comical scene. I was fully horizontal in the roof, hanging in there forever in the slimy summer heat. My cams were all behind my back, dangling off of my gear sling into space. I couldn't see the gear. I had to fumble blindly to get at the cam I wanted. Finally I got the cam loose, but then as I reached up to place it I saw to my horror that I'd fished out the wrong cam. It wouldn't fit, and I was screwed.

After this incident I swore off the gear sling forever. I have racked on my harness ever since.

Now, almost three years later, I hoped to run through Stannard's Roof as our warm-up, with no drama. This was April, not July, and there was a chill in the air. The rock felt fine in the sun, but as I approached the roof I went into the shade under the big ceiling. The rock under there was quite cold to the touch. But I wasn't worried about it (cold rock = good friction!), and I tried not to waste any time as I moved out under the roof. I placed one cam, moved out some more, and placed another.

Everything was going great as I grabbed the holds at the lip of the overhang. I just had to rotate my body and reach up to the higher holds so I could stand up above the roof.

I was almost done. Easy peasy.

(Photo: Andy coming up Stannard's Roof (5.10).)

But then I couldn't move. The rope seemed stuck. I looked down under the roof to see what the problem was, and I realized, once again to my horror, that I'd messed up. I had Z-clipped my two cams under the roof! This was a nightmare. Talk about a comical scene. What was I going to do now?

Moving up was not an option. I had to downclimb back under the roof to fix the cams. I couldn't see any alternative. So that's what I did. I reversed the moves, unclipped the second cam, and re-clipped it correctly. Then I had to climb back up and out again, and by this time the tips of my fingers were freezing. They were starting to burn. But I was determined not to blow it and I got out without falling.

(Photo: Andy making it over the lip on Stannard's Roof (5.10).)

I was furious with myself for making such a stupid mistake, but happy I was able to hang in there. I was so relieved to get to the stance above the roof.

(Photo: Andy leading an unnamed (?) 5.10 to the right of Stannard's. This is a good route, with a fun crux at the triangular overlap.)

Andy and I did a few more 5.10 leads and then went looking for Connie and Alex. They had started out climbing nearby, but at some point they'd wandered off. We found them at the Survival Block with some other folks we know from our gym, the Cliffs at LIC.

Gabe, a strong climber who is less than half my age, seemed to be leading the group. He'd set up ropes on Resistoflex as well as on Persistent (5.11d) and Survival of the Fittest (5.13a), and on Gold Streaks (5.11) over on the next wall to the right.

Connie was gamely going for it on Survival when we showed up. The climb looked brutally hard. But Connie was thrilled to be trying something that was a real challenge for her. Kat, another LIC regular, was taking multiple burns on Persistent, trying to pink-point it on lead with pre-placed gear.

(Photo: Kat on Persistent (5.11d), with Gabe belaying her.)

As I watched them gleefully working these routes, I knew that I should be doing exactly what they were doing. If I had the same attitude, I would improve. I felt shamed. So Andy and I did some top-roping.

It went fine. The world did not come crashing down around us. We had fun. Andy and I ran up Gold Streaks (5.11), a wonderful route with poor protection. Then we gave Resistoflex a good effort, which in the end was very worthwhile, and not pointless at all.

Gabe offered me a run on Persistent, but I begged off. I had reasons, of course. I told myself that the climb has great gear; it seemed like I should save it for an on-sight attempt. But the real reason was that there were so many people around. Several of them were strangers to me. Such a big audience made me self-conscious. I felt like I didn't belong.

Honestly, I was being silly. But Connie and Alex had wandered off again, and this provided as good an excuse as any for us to clear out too. We wanted to find our friends. So we moved on.

(Photo: Alex on Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).)

We located them at the far right end of Lost City, laying siege to another 5.12. I'd never ventured this far over to the right before. The trail here comes much closer to the cliff, and most of the rock is on little free-standing buttresses. I don't know the names of any of the routes in this area, but it looks like there are a bunch of easy scrambles... and one imposing, overhanging climb up a smooth face.

This is Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).

When Andy and I arrived, Alex had already set it up on TR. He was now climbing it, and was almost at the top, having figured out the hard bits. He was thinking about leading it at some time in the near future.

(Photo: Connie on Gravity's Rainbow (5.12).)

Once he was done, I watched Connie work her way up the route. It seemed like there were two very very hard cruxes. And one of them was wet.

I started thinking about finding something else to do. I could see a crack climb over yonder. It didn't look too bad, probably 5.9 or 5.10. Maybe Andy and I could go do that one...

But it was too late. Connie was finished. The rope was free. There was to be no escape.

It was my turn to man up and do some more 5.12 top-roping.

*    *    *

I'm getting frustrated again.

Is this really the move?

I'm supposed to hold on to this ridiculously small, greasy crimp? And then I have to rock up over a high heel hook?

This crux is heinous!

I find myself saying it again: "I don't think I can do this."

Andy says he's heard that one before.

But this time I'm doing my best to prove that I mean it. I really, truly, can't do it. I'm failing over and over again. My fingers won't stay on the hold. I can't find the flexibility to get my heel up. When I manage to get the heel up, I'm frozen. I have no leverage to rock up over the heel.

I keep on falling.

I'm conscious of the fact that it's about to get dark. We have to hike out of here soon.

I hate this.

But I have to admit I'm slowly getting better. When I first tried the crux I couldn't hold the crimp at all, but now I can step up, just so, and grab it as if it is an actual hold.

I keep working the angle on the heel hook and finally, after who knows how many attempts, it all clicks. I grab the crimp; I raise my heel; I lock it in. Somehow I'm shifting my weight over the heel hook and I find myself standing, not falling. I have done it.

My three friends cheer, mostly because now we can get our gear back and go home.

But never mind, I take it as validation.

I'm learning.

I can do this.

I can top-rope.


  1. I had the same problem as you did getting on hard stuff at the Survival Block. Too many spectators. I wished I never let that stop me from getting on Survival, as I would have sent it a couple years sooner than I did. Doing thsi will make you stronger and a better climber!

    1. I remember that story from your book, Don! I thought of you later that day and was pretty sure you had the same experience at the same climb. Thank you for reading!