Thursday, November 10, 2016

Oceans of Elevens in the Gunks

(Photo: That's me, setting off with some trepidation toward the many roofs of No Man's Land (5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

I've been feeling good lately. I'm climbing better than I have all year.

And it's high season! We've had some beautiful fall days in the Gunks.

I am a man in a hurry.

For me the goal is simple: I want to push into the 5.11's. For real.

I've done very few of them. I have my pick of the lot. As of a few weeks ago, I'd sent just three elevens in the Gunks. It shouldn't be hard for me to find some more. I can walk up to the best ones and try leading them. 

If only it were so easy. These climbs are at my limit. Not so long ago, I thought leading trad 5.11 was something I was incapable of doing. It should go without saying that I need to explore these routes safely.

The problem is that in the Gunks, a lot of the climbs that are harder than 5.10 have pretty sparse gear. It isn't like other areas such as, say, Indian Creek, where a harder grade just means the cracks aren't the right size for your hand. In the Gunks, the harder grades often signify that there aren't any cracks at all. With difficulty comes extra commitment.

But I know there are many Gunks elevens that have more than adequate gear. I just have to find them.

In my last two visits to the Gunks I starting wading into the 5.11 pool with a purpose. I tried to on-sight some elevens, and to check out some others on top rope to see if I could find a way to lead them with adequate protection.

I got out with Andy on an October day that was supposed to be rainy. But at 6:00 a.m. the weather in NYC looked good enough for the time being, and after driving up to the Gunks we headed straight down to the area near the Yellow Wall.

There are several 5.11 climbs nearby.

(Photo: Andy resembling a climbing ninja on Ent Line (5.11b).)

We started out by warming up on Ants' Line (5.9) and then we used its bolted anchor to take a top rope run on Ent Line (5.11b).

I'd done Ent Line on TR once before, and I remembered the initial 5.10d face as kind of tricky. And then, as I recalled, the 5.11 roof above wasn't too hard. I'd never seen anyone lead the climb. The guidebook says it is PG-R during the 5.10 part, and just plain R for the 5.11 at the top. I wanted to check out the placements for myself.

As I climbed the route with the security of the top rope, I was surprised to find lots of spots for gear all the way through the (very nice!) 5.10 climbing up the steep face to the rooflet. This part of the climb would be a great 5.10d lead on its own. And at the top of the face, there is gear at the 5.11 roof as well, at the bottom of the overlap where the handholds are. Above the roof there is another hard move or two on the upper face, and this is where it gets complicated: I'm not sure there is any pro for these last moves. It would be a big whip if you blew it at the top.

Despite the runout at the end, I think that I will lead Ent Line. It appears safe to lead the climb up to and over the roof (just watch out for the tree next to the wall). After the overhang, you can step to the right and finish on Ants' Line, or place some gear over on Ants' Line and then step back to the left to do the final moves on Ent Line. Either way it is a good 5.11 lead.

Now it was time for our big target for the day: No Man's Land (5.11b). I'd been talking about hitting this route for a while.

Like all the routes at the Yellow Wall, No Man's Land climbs through an impressive and intimidating multi-tiered roof system. Standing beneath the wall, you can feel the aura of the place wash over you. The overhangs are immense. I'd previously done one of the routes here, Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). It had been tough and it had taken me a few tries to get it cleanly. And when I attempted Carbs, I knew there were bolts protecting the technical crux moves. This knowledge took away some of the fear, though later in the climb when I did the mental crux, moving out a hanging corner with no footholds (and no bolts), it was still plenty scary.

As far as No Man's Land was concerned, I knew that there would be no bolts. The bottom part of the pitch was reputed to be easy but poorly protected. And in the hard climbing above, I expected the pro to be difficult to place as I moved through the three tiers of the big roof system.

I racked up and dove in. 

The climb begins up an easy slab past a tree, with good pro in some cracks. Then the wall steepens and you climb 40-50 feet in 5.7-ish terrain on orange rock with almost no gear. The climbing is fun and casual but you have to be careful. As you approach the first giant overhang the pro situation improves; I was relieved to find great gear the entire rest of the way.

(Photo: That's me past the runout face and into the first tier of the overhang on No Man's Land (5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

I ended up taking a couple of hangs. I made it through the first tier, which is probably 5.10. Then I found harder moves to get over the second and third tiers. For me, the only issue at tier number two was commitment. Once I really went for it and found gear up there, the move was no problem. At the final ceiling I had more trouble. I had to hang to figure out the move, but once I did, I was pretty sure I would get it the next time.

My partner Andy had no issues at all as the second.

(Photo: Andy in the midst of the overhangs on No Man's Land (5.11b).)

Walking away from No Man's Land, I felt like maybe I would have been more successful if I'd been more aggressive. But I also felt pretty positive about how it went. I'd sorted it all out, the gear was good where it counted, and I knew I could come back and get the send. It wasn't THAT hard. I thought maybe it was easier than Carbs and Caffeine. It is a great line, with a thrilling atmosphere.

Next I ran up the first pitch of Airy Aria (5.8) so we could throw a rope over yet another 5.11b: the first pitch of Scary Area.

Now, I don't pretend to have enough experience in the 5.11 grade to be an expert, but this thing felt much harder to me then either Ent Line or No Man's Land. The pitch isn't long, but the wall is steep and the holds are small and sloping. There are several bouldery, hard moves.

And it is a dangerous lead. There are two protection bolts, but the first one comes after two very difficult sequences. There is a potential placement in between the two hard moves but I think you'd still hit the boulders on the ground if you blew it during either of the hard bits below the bolt. After the first bolt, the gear is adequate for the difficult moves that follow. The second bolt is completely unnecessary; it is slightly off-line and comes in between two good horizontals.

(Photo: Top-roping Scary Area (P1 5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

Andy got Scary Area cleanly on his first try on top rope. I didn't, but I felt like I worked it out and I could see coming back and setting it up again to take a few more runs on it. Then I could either leave the first bolt stick-clipped and lead it with the rope above me for the first cruxes, or if I felt like I really had it dialed I could try to lead it from the ground up. It is doable but I'd want to know for certain that I have it in the bag before taking on the initial moves without gear.

In any event, this first pitch of Scary Area is worthwhile. There is a lot of good climbing on it, even if you just do it on top rope.

Scary Area ended up being our last climb of the day. The rain finally arrived, sending us running for cover. Even though our day was cut short, I felt like we'd done some excellent work.

I now had some new projects to complete.

Andy and I were soon back in the Gunks for another day. I was pumped to hop back on No Man's Land... eventually. At some point.

Why rush? We had a full day ahead of us.

While I got mentally prepared for No Man's Land, there were plenty of other options.

I've been meaning to attempt Matinee (5.10d) all year. It remains one of the few big tens that I haven't tried. So with Matinee in mind, we started our day on Pink Laurel (5.9), which is right around the corner.

(Photo: Andy coming up the final bits of Pink Laurel (5.9).)

This was actually my first time leading Pink Laurel, after all these years. And my first time doing the pitch two roof. I ran it from the ground to the top in one pitch. I thought the first pitch was great. The crux move out of the alcove is awkward, and there is good exposure during the easier climbing up the corner to the ledge. I thought the second pitch was kind of a waste of time. It wasn't that interesting and felt easier than 5.9.

When we finished with Pink Laurel we found Matinee occupied. So we shifted gears and walked on down to the Seasons area.

(Photo: I'm in the early going on The Winter (5.10d). Photo by Andy.)

I was excited to do The Winter (5.10d). I'd been on this route before, but needed to get the redpoint on pitch one. And I wanted to try the second pitch of The Spring (5.10b/c), which sits directly above pitch one of The Winter. (It is confusing. The second pitches criss-cross above the first pitches.) The Winter/Spring link-up, done together in one long pitch, is sometimes called The Winter Direct. I'd never done the second half of the link-up.

It went very well, and man oh man, what a climb! The first pitch of The Winter is excellent and demanding, with a tough move off the deck just to get established and then wonderful thin climbing up a corner with tiny nuts for gear. When you throw in the second pitch of The Spring in one lead, you add a completely different challenge; a big roof in a corner. It too is mentally challenging, with a committing move out into space to get established in the roofs. The guidebook gives this pitch a PG-R rating, but I think the gear is good once you commit.

I was psyched to get the send on pitch one and the on-sight on pitch two. I think this double-length pitch is one of the best tens in the Gunks.

(Photo: Andy finishing the difficulties on pitch one of The Winter/Spring, with the challenging roof/corner of pitch two looming above.)

The Spring (P1 5.9) was sitting there open to our right so we did that one too, and again I led straight up at the end of pitch one and tacked on pitch two of The Winter. This upper pitch is rated 5.10b/c or d depending on how you do the crux. Dick Williams says in the guidebook that if you go straight up at the crux it is 5.10d, but if you hand traverse five feet to the left it is 5.10b/c, a little easier.

For most of its length, The Spring/Winter link-up features good, technical 5.9 corner climbing. Then there is a great slot for protection just below the obvious 5.10 move but you do have to step up above the gear. A couple of seasons ago I led up to this point and chickened out, traversing off to the right when I wasn't feeling it. But this time I wasn't worried. I followed the little handholds upward and was through it in no time.

I thought that I'd done the direct 5.10d version, but when Andy followed he reached to his right for a sidepull that I didn't use, so maybe I did it the 5.10 b/c way? The two options are within easy reach of each other, without anything that seemed like a "hand traverse."

(Photo: Andy at the second pitch crux of The Spring/Winter link-up (5.10d).)

Whichever way you finish it, the climbing on The Spring/The Winter link-up is nice, but not remotely as challenging as The Winter/Spring link-up to the left. The climb has a lot of good 5.9 on it and just one sequence of 5.10.

Andy and I had now ticked off six guidebook pitches pretty quickly. We were well into our short day and I still hadn't hopped on No Man's Land.

I figured we had to do it now. I told myself that I knew what to do.

Racking up, I felt a little bit nervous, but once I started climbing everything went off without a hitch. I negotiated the runout section without much worry. I remembered my beta for each of the three overhangs. The gear was good. The moves went fine.

I sent it in 17 minutes.

It is definitely easier than Carbs and Caffeine. Or maybe I'm better now? Who can say?

What a thrill! I was very very happy about it.

While Andy cleaned the pitch, I took a quick look at the namesake route for the area, The Yellow Wall (5.11c), just to our right. I thought about getting on it.  This would REALLY be the big one.

Staring up at the gargantuan roofs, I thought that I should do it. I had to do it. It would be a dereliction of duty NOT to do it.

But I came up with a million excuses and reasons not to... and then I remembered Matinee.

This was my out.

"Hey Andy, let's go back to Matinee!" I said.

We walked back down there but it was still occupied.

I decided to try another nearby climb: A-Gape (5.11b). This one has a crux roof with good gear, right next to the classic 5.8 Ape Call.

(Photo: That's me at the 5.9 move protected by an old pin on A-Gape (5.11b). The crux roof is above me in the upper left-hand portion of the picture. Photo by Andy.)

I thought the climbing at the start was interesting, up a layback crack. Then a 5.9 step to the right with only a very rusty old pin for pro was a little bit dicey. After that it was easy climbing up and further right (almost touching Ape Call) and then back left up the slab to the obvious big roof with a pointed flake underneath.

I was relieved to get good gear in the roof. I started out with two pieces, and then bumped it up to three after I fell off.

And I kept falling off. This is a hard roof.

(Photo: Attempting the roof on A-Gape (5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

There are some poor-to-middling holds above the lip. I could reach them. But I couldn't figure out how to get my feet up. I kept flaming out and taking the whip, several times. This was a real lead fall past the gear and down the slab, but it was clean. I must have taken the ride at least five or six times. Eventually I decided it wasn't going to happen. I gave up and traversed over to finish on Ape Call. I had to leave my blue Alien behind, hopelessly fixed at the ceiling.

I'm not sorry I tried A-Gape. It may be no Yellow Wall but it is a quality route. I'm pleased I made a game effort at it. My only regret (apart from the lost Alien) is that I never figured out the move. This was my fourth 5.11b in recent weeks and it felt much more mysterious to me than the others. I must have missed some kind of heel trickery or something. Since I traversed off and never finished the lead, Andy never got to try the roof. I'm sure he would have figured out what I was doing wrong.

(Photo: That's me, finishing our day on some obscure 5.9. Photo by Andy.)

As we walked out in the twilight I felt pretty darn good about our day, despite my semi-epic on A-Gape. I'd had some amazing sends on The Winter Direct and No Man's Land, and I felt like I had laid a foundation to make real progress into the 5.11 grade in the Gunks.

I don't know how much more climbing I'll get done at my home crag this season. Next week I am headed to Red Rocks for four days with my old pal Adrian. I have some big goals in mind. My enthusiasm is surging. I feel lucky to be going there before they turn the Bureau of Land Management into a mining company. Given recent developments in the real world, I may be tempted to hike into one of those big canyons and never come out...

Sorry. This is not a blog about politics.

I shall return. And if the weather permits, I may yet find some more 5.11's to attempt in the Gunks in 2016!

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