Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Finding Inspiration at Poke-O Moonshine

(Photo: That's me on C-Tips (5.10c).)

I've been searching all year for my next big thing.

In 2015, my goal was simple. I wanted to attack every 5.10 climb in the Gunks that I'd ever been afraid to try. The choices were obvious, and they fell like dominoes over the course of the year. For me it was a dream season, including many ultra-classics, and I tacked on my first trad 5.11's to boot.

This year it hasn't been quite as easy to figure out "the way." There are still plenty of legendary targets left for me in the Gunks, of course, in the 5.10-5.11 range and beyond. I've continued to go after them, and I have managed a few 5.11 ticks so far this year. I knocked off Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a) back in March, and in June I got the send on a tricky face climb called Cars That Eat People (5.11a) out at Lost City.

But I don't want 2016 to be the year in which all I did was to climb the easiest 5.11's in the Gunks (as awesome as that is). I want to improve, to become a climber with broader range. And to do that I know I need to get out of the Trapps and the Nears and climb at other crags.

To that end, I've been trying to get around. I've climbed more at Lost City (it really is different!) and committed to doing more sport climbing. And recently I've made a concerted effort to climb in the Adirondacks.

One day in June I was to meet up with my longtime partner Adrian, who has been living in Montreal. He's made the long trip from Canada to the Gunks to meet me on many occasions, and once in a while I try to return the favor by heading north from Brooklyn to meet him on turf which is closer to him. The issue for me is that I can seldom take two days in a row, so for me to go the Dacks, even on a weekend, involves an "alpine start" very early in the morning and then a long drive home at night. If I get up early enough I can get in a reasonably full day of climbing, along with the nine or ten hours of driving.

When I was planning to meet with Adrian in June, the summer heat provided enough motivation for me to make the long drive. It is always at least a little bit cooler up in the Dacks. So Adrian and I planned to meet at Poke-O Moonshine, the big cliff which sits just off of the Northway at exit 33.

We'd both been there on several occasions, both separately and together, and we'd done a lot of the easier classics, like the FM (5.7+), Gamesmanship (5.8+), Bloody Mary (5.9+) and Fastest Gun (5.10a). I've enjoyed all of the climbing I've done at Poke-O. The routes tend to follow vertical crack systems but seldom involve pure crack climbing. The terrain is often steep, but slightly less than vertical, with technical, slabby moves and seemingly blank sections requiring commitment and creativity. The difficulties tend to be continuous and sustained. Especially on the multi-pitch routes, the climbs have an adventurous feel, with route-finding challenges and loose sections requiring a heads-up mentality.

Fastest Gun in particular really opened my eyes as to what the harder climbing at Poke-O is like. And I loved it. I also found it very challenging and I wanted to get better at it. I always felt sandbagged at Poke-O-- everything seemed hard. I thought that if I could learn the ways of the granite at Poke-O, I would feel more confident on my toes at other granite areas like Cathedral Ledges, Cannon Cliff, or Yosemite. 

On our hot day in June, I hoped to find other multi-pitch tens like Fastest Gun on which Adrian and I could struggle and find some adventure. We settled on Mayflower, a three pitch route that looked doable. The first pitch-- the hardest one, at 5.10c-- is entirely bolt-protected and we found it to be in the shade. How bad could it be? The second and third pitches were both 5.10 as well, but a little bit easier. I figured we'd be fine.

We got our butts kicked.

(Photo: Adrian confronting the blank, clean streak that is the first pitch of Mayflower (5.10c).)

Adrian tried leading pitch one and found the climbing extremely thin and tenuous, up a lonely clean streak on this dark, dirty wall. He worked his way up to the third or fourth bolt, but after several falls, he decided to take a break and offered me the lead, pronouncing this thing way harder than 5.10.

Upon taking over I sketched my way up to his high point with the security of the rope above me, and then proceeded to fall repeatedly where Adrian had given in. Finally I worked out a sequence and was able to lead up to the top of the pitch. This pitch is hard!

(Photo: I'm coming up pitch two (5.10a) of Mayflower.)

Our first pitch had taken a long time, and we still had two to go. Adrian resumed leading on the 5.10a pitch two and he got it cleanly. Following the pitch, I enjoyed the interesting face moves on clean rock. 

Now it was my turn to lead pitch three, which features an airy, hanging dihedral. This pitch, rated 5.10b, isn't the hardest one on the climb but the guidebook suggests it is the money pitch.

I was nervous and struggled in the early going, moving up and right off of the belay towards the open book looming above. After taking a hang I figured out how to get into the dihedral, and once I clipped a bolt on the left wall I breathed a sigh of relief.

(Photo: Heading up pitch three (5.10b) of Mayflower.)

But my stress was actually just beginning. I found as I moved above the bolt that the (dusty) rock at the back of the open book was crumbly. I managed to place a nut but I didn't have a lot of faith that it would hold if I tested it. As I continued to make the delicate moves up the open book, with plenty of air beneath my feet, the lone bolt started to feel very far away. By the time I got to the top I was well into do-not-fall territory.

I was psyched to reach the anchor. I was exhausted, but happy. This was a quality route in which (typical for Poke-O) the interesting challenges just kept on coming, one after another.

(Photo: Adrian emerging from the rope-eating Mayflower dihedral at the top of pitch three.)

I thought we'd finished with Mayflower but it wasn't finished with us. We rapped off of the route with my double ropes tied together. When we got down we found that the ropes were hopelessly stuck. Luckily we reached the ground in a single rap, so we weren't trapped on the wall.

We tried every which way to free the ropes but nothing worked. The struggle went on and on. At some point I looked at my watch and realized we'd spent our whole day on this one route. I had four or five hours of driving ahead of me and here we were, still dicking around with my ropes stuck on the cliff.

Adrian had a spare rope back in his car. We could go get it, and climb back up to free the ropes. Or we could ascend the stuck ropes with prussiks. Neither option seemed terribly appealing to me.

Eventually we left the ropes behind. I'm not proud of this decision. We didn't clean up our own mess. At the time, I was tired and I couldn't bring myself to make the effort to get the ropes down. I was willing to write them off. The ropes were in pretty good condition but they were at least nine years old. I was considering retiring them anyway. And Adrian thought he might be able to come back and get them the following weekend, though he didn't end up making it.

After a week or two a climber from Montreal retrieved the ropes and returned them to us. So the story has a happy ending. I got my ropes back and the good samaritan got some beer out of the bargain. But the ropes were hanging there for a while and they got quite bleached in the sun. They are definitely retired now!

Our misadventure on Mayflower made me hungry for more climbing at Poke-O. I felt like we'd been spanked, and I knew we could do better. I resolved to go back, but the opportunity didn't come for me until after Labor Day. I made the trek up there on a Sunday in early September, and liked the climbing we did so much that I took a day off from work and made the drive again on the following Thursday.

During these two September days I tried to figure out how to better climb these Poke-O tens. I made some progress. As always, for me I think the biggest challenge is psychological. I've found out out that I can do every move on these climbs, but I need to feel secure in the knowledge that my toes will stick or I fail in lots of ways: I rush, I over-grip, I refuse to commit.

(Photo: That's me in the early going on Cooney-Norton face (5.10b).)

I got things off to an inauspicious start with the Cooney-Norton Face (5.10b). This route has great climbing all the way, with cool moves up a shallow stem box followed by thin face climbing past two bolts. I felt insecure on my feet as a leader on this pitch, pressing the stems way too hard and clutching madly at whatever holds I could find. I wore myself out and, after hanging, offered Adrian the lead. He then led up through my gear and finished it.

Trying the route again on top rope, I thought it wasn't exactly easy but it was all there and it went fine. On TR I could easily stand in the stems, releasing both hands. If I'd relaxed like this on lead I would have been okay, I think. As I moved up on TR I found out that I'd given up on the lead one move from a jug and a good rest, which was infuriating. I will go back and send this route. It shouldn't even be a big deal.

(Photo: Adrian on Macho (5.11a).)

Adrian and I threw a top rope over Macho (5.11a) and while neither of us sent this one, either, I felt like this was where I finally started to find my way on Poke-O face climbing. I loved the moves on this pitch, and by the time we were done I started thinking this was a Poke-O 5.11 I could come back and send on the lead, though I might like to figure out my placements on top rope first. The positions are balancy and above the initial bolts the gear might be a real challenge to place.

(Photo: I'm stemming it out at the crux of pitch one (5.10a) of the Snatch.)

On our second September day we tried another ten called the Snatch (5.10b). This route ascends a left-facing corner for two pitches. It gets four stars in the guidebook but I wasn't expecting much, since I couldn't recall ever hearing anything about it.

It turned out to be an awesome route. Both pitches are really good. I led pitch one (5.10a), which wanders up a blocky face to the main corner system, and then ascends the super-cool technical stem corner until a ledge with an anchor appears on the left. I was happy to get the send, for once, as I led up the challenging corner to the belay without incident. Things were looking up.

(Photo: Adrian at the crux of pitch two (5.10b) of the Snatch.)

Adrian (who, it should be noted, was allegedly fighting a cold) started up the 5.10b pitch two, and got into the weeds pretty fast as he confronted the overhanging jam-crack crux on the right wall of the corner. After a couple of hangs he got through this section but then the difficulties continued with more thin moves up the corner. At one tough move Adrian decided he'd had enough and we did another hand-off of the lead. I lowered him back to the belay. Taking over, I too had to hang in the crux jam crack but then sent it the rest of the way. I felt okay about it. Like pitch one of Mayflower I thought this pitch was pretty darn tough for its grade.

(Photo: I'm doing some of the hardest bits on C-Tips (5.10c).)

We also took on C-Tips (5.10c), a bolt-protected line up a bulging, black face. From below it appears to be utterly blank. I took the lead again. I told myself to think of this as a 5.11 sport climb. No big deal. There are bolts!

But I was still a bit nervous after I clipped the second bolt. The third bolt seemed very far away, the slab beneath me was very close, and the next holds were so, so small. I was afraid I would hit the slab if I fell, so I called out "take" and took a hang.

Immediately I kicked myself for giving up. I resolved to go for it. And then everything went fine. This climb is full of beautiful sequences. After the hardest moves, around the third and fourth bolts, the angle of the wall kicks back a little and the climbing becomes a bit easier. I marvel at the vision of the first ascensionists, who saw a route here on this featureless face.

(Photo: Adrian leading Group Therapy (5.9).

Late in the afternoon of our weekday at Poke-O, Adrian and I decided to dial it back a little and do something more casual. We ended up picking out a link-up of the first pitch of Group Therapy (5.9) and the second pitch of Discord (5.8). It doesn't appear that these climbs get done all that often despite a recommendation in the guidebook and their convenient location right where the approach trail meets the cliff.

Neither of these pitches is fantastic but both are quite worthwhile. Adrian led Group Therapy, a route with some face moves over bulges which lead to a slab finish. The rock is good and all of the harder bits are well protected by bolts or solid gear placements. 

I took the lead for pitch two of Discord, and this pitch provided some full value Poke-O adventure. The crux came right away, after I stepped to the right from the belay and had to commit to pulling over a low roof and into a right-facing corner system.

(Photo: That's me fooling around past the initial roof on pitch two of Discord (5.8).)

Once I grunted my way past the (dirty, crumbling) overhang, I had to confront twenty feet of corner climbing with an off-width crack at the back. I'd just placed my largest cam beneath my feet, to protect the initial crux, and it looked like I'd have no gear big enough to place anything again until I reached the top of this corner. 

Luckily the climbing was pretty secure and easy. Cramming my foot and leg in the crack, I made sure there was no way I could fall out and inched my way up to the top of the corner, where I was relieved to find solid gear. Then a fun traverse under another roof and a final layback corner led to the belay.

(Photo: Adrian coming up the final bits of pitch two of Discord (5.8).)

Adrian got to the top of Discord and announced "that pitch was crazy!" I certainly thought it provided a bit of everything: route finding, questionable rock, fun moves, technical problems, spice....

In the end I think Group Therapy/Discord is a fun 5.9 linkup-- for the 5.10 leader.

The three days I've spent at Poke-O this year have been a challenge for me, and I've really enjoyed getting schooled on the routes at this big cliff. I've still only experienced a fraction of what the place has to offer and even as I sit here typing I'm racking my brain trying to figure out when I'll get another chance to go back.

By the end of the third day I started to feel like I was really getting the hang of the climbing there, which surely means I'm ready to have my butt kicked by another Poke-O multi-pitch route.

I can't wait.