Thursday, April 20, 2017

Highly Exposed (5.6+) on Enduro Man (5.11c)

(Photo: Climbers finishing the second pitch of High Exposure (5.6+) in 2011.)

In the fall of 2008, I led the crux pitch of High Exposure (5.6+).

I'm sure you already know all about this classic climb. It is one of the most popular moderate routes in the United States. Leading "High E" is a right of passage for many Gunks climbers. It may not be quite as cutting-edge today as it was at the time of its first ascent in 1941, but the climb still delivers a thrill. Making "the move" out from under the third-pitch overhang and stepping onto the steep face, high above the talus, requires commitment. The juggy climbing to the top goes through exciting territory, on a pointed buttress sticking out from the main wall of the Trapps.

(Photo: A leader on the crux pitch of High Exposure (5.6+) in 2013.)

When I did High E, I was a beginner of the most traditional sort. My progress had been slow. I'd been climbing in the gym for two years with a small group of friends, none of whom had much more outdoor experience than I did.

I had been to the Gunks and had begun taking the sharp end on some of the easiest routes. I found these routes a little too easy, but having no real guidelines to tell me what I should do, I erred on the side of caution.

Whenever I went to the Gunks I saw lots of newbies just like me, lining up to fumble their way through classics like Three Pines (5.3) or Beginner's Delight (5.4). This seemed like the way it was done in the Gunks. It was a noble tradition. 

I had no idea that in some circles, it was considered normal to send 5.12 after just a year or two of climbing experience. Or that to many climbers, 5.10 was regarded as a casual grade.

In my world, you moved slowly up the grades, one at a time. And I was just getting started. I couldn't imagine what 5.10 would feel like. 

I was fine with that.

But I wanted to make SOME progress. I was hungry. I wasn't always sure that the other climbers I saw around me felt that same hunger. 

I remember one illustrative occasion during my earliest climbing days at the Gunks, with my first climbing partner, Greg. 

On this particular day, we were setting up to climb Ursula (5.5). While we were getting organized we watched another climber struggling in the crux of the nearby Bonnie's Roof (5.9). As I recall, the leader looked a bit sketchy as he muscled his way through the overhang. His footwork wasn't what I'd call graceful, but he persevered and eventually made it up over the roof. He let out a cry of joy and relief as he reached the rest stance.

(Photo: Adrian attacking Bonnie's Roof (5.9) with pristine footwork, in 2015.)

Greg and I were both captivated by this performance. I assumed that the two of us were similarly drawn to what we had just witnessed. This was the real deal! I aspired to do things just like this. 

But then Greg spoke, revealing just how different our mindsets really were.

He said "I'm never going up there, but that looked pretty cool."

I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that I would NOT want to go up there. I wasn't ready yet, of course-- I wasn't good enough-- but some day I would be. No one was going to stop me from going up there eventually. That was the whole point of mucking about on 5.5's like Ursula, wasn't it? To get ready for climbs like Bonnie's Roof. 

I was determined to go up there. 

I just had to figure out the best way in which to work up to it.

I needed someone who would support me and push me along.

I found that person in Vass. He had lived in Boulder before moving to New York and he had years of trad experience in places like Lumpy Ridge and Eldorado Canyon, in addition to the Gunks. He had been on routes far beyond the extremely modest beginner's climbs I had so far encountered. On his first day in the Gunks, before he and I met, he had climbed Modern Times (5.8+), a feat that seemed extraordinary to me at the time.

Vass had an easygoing competence with the systems used in climbing, and he was familiar with the routes I dreamed of doing. I quickly came to see him as a mentor and to trust his judgment. After just a few gym sessions together he told me that he thought I was ready to tackle Gunks classics like Shockley's Ceiling (5.6) and High E (5.6+).

This was a great gift. Vass gave me permission to make progress. On our next trip to the Gunks, we did Shockley's Ceiling, and when that went off without a hitch we turned our sights to High E. 

I don't know if I slept well the night before we planned to hit High E. And I can't tell you how I felt as I stared up at the route from the ground. The truth is that I don't remember. In fact, I can't say much about the first two pitches. I am pretty sure Vass led them, to set me up to lead the crux third pitch. 

(Photo: Climbers on High Exposure (5.6+) in 2014.)

But I recall what came next as clearly as if it happened yesterday. I was excited just to be up on the pointed, triangular belay ledge for the first time, enjoying the panoramic views down the cliff face in both directions.

After taking possession of our huge rack, I took a deep breath and began climbing, moving off the ledge, and up a slab to the right, until I was at a somewhat awkward stance beneath the edge of the overhang. After burying a cam under the lip and slinging it long, I reached blindly above the roof, feeling around for something to hang on to. Finding a juggy hold, I grabbed it tightly and swung out from underneath.

"Congratulations," Vass said. "You just did 'THE MOVE.'"

"Really?" I thought. It hadn't been a big deal. It felt a bit anticlimactic. I had built it up so much in my mind.

(Photo: A climber making "the move" out from under the overhang on High Exposure (5.6+) in 2015.)

I kept on climbing. The rest of the pitch was steep, with lots of positive holds and gear available pretty much everywhere. I found it exciting to be up there, to be sure, but most of my excitement derived from the fact that I was doing such a legendary climb, and not so much from the climbing itself. The actual moves weren't particularly noteworthy. Unlike Shockley's Ceiling, which has an unusual crux, High E struck me as more like a gym climb, overhanging but not mysterious.

On the other hand, it was remarkable that such a steep face could be so friendly, with so many holds. And the position was everything it was cracked up to be. As I ascended, I made sure to look around. I tried to take my time and savor the breeze as I took in the view.

(Photo: Leader on High Exposure (5.6+) in 2017.)

When I reached the top I was overjoyed. I had just led High E. It had turned out to be well within my abilities. Vass' faith in me was justified. I was on my way to becoming a real Gunks climber.

I couldn't wait to tell anyone and everyone what I'd climbed that day. That evening, at a family gathering, I dragged out my guidebook so I could show my brother-in-law (who knew nothing of climbing) a photo of what we'd done.

He didn't know enough to be impressed.

(Photo: Climber in the distance on the High E belay ledge in 2014.)

Vass and I went on to do a lot more climbing in the Gunks over the next couple of years, until he moved back to Boulder. He was there with me when I led my first 5.7 (Classic), as well as my first 5.8 (Arrow) and 5.9 (Ants' Line) the following year. And of course, in the years since then I've gone on to break into new grades, with new legendary climbs to experience at every level.

But seldom have I felt the same excitement, the same tingly feeling of anticipation mixed with glowing satisfaction, that I felt on the day I first climbed High Exposure.

I'm always chasing that feeling, hoping to find it again. I found it on the day in 2009 on which I led Bonnie's Roof, sending the route by the skin of my teeth in just as sloppy a fashion as that climber Greg and I had watched a few years before.

And I got there again just over a week ago when I returned to the High E buttress for the umpteenth time, with my current partner Andy.

We were not there for High E, but for another classic route called Enduro Man's Longest Hangout (5.11c). I wanted to lead the third pitch.

A route like Enduro Man is not considered super hard by today's climbing standards, but in the world of your average trad guy like me, it is pretty serious business, a major milestone sort of climb.

At 5.11c, it was uncharted territory for me, but I believed that I could do it. It looked to be very steep, with many tiers of overhangs (crux #1), followed by a technical traverse to the right (crux #2), and then easier moves to the finish. I hoped that it would turn out to be similar to No Man's Land (5.11b), a climb that I did last year: relentlessly overhanging but with moves that aren't all that hard, relatively speaking.

I knew Andy would be up for it. 

Andy is in many ways the yin to my climbing yang. He started climbing around the same time I did. But while I was very slowly working my way up the trad ladder, Andy moved quickly to hard sport climbing and never looked back. He is one of those types of guys I mentioned above, progressing to 5.12 within a short time and staying there for the better part of a decade, while I've spent years and years fiddling with gear and fighting my way through the 5.10 grade.

I often describe Andy as a sport climber on this blog, though that really isn't fair to him.  He can lead trad and he does. On his first day in the Gunks he led Try Again (5.10b), and it went down easily! But his real love is clipping bolts, and when he goes to the Gunks to trad climb with me he tends to let me set the agenda.

Lucky for him that's what I like.

As we drove up to the Gunks, I told him about my plan to climb Enduro Man. It didn't mean much to him but he was supportive.  For my part, I started to get that tingly feeling of anticipation before we even hit the parking lot. 

I decided to get up to Enduro Man by doing the first pitch of Lakatakissima (5.10b). This pitch gets no stars in the guidebook and I've never seen anyone on it. But I had heard that it is actually good. 

Lakatakissima is overshadowed by the two popular climbs to its left, Ridicullissima (5.10d) and Doubleissima (5.10b); understandably so, since these are two of the best 5.10 pitches anywhere. (Four out of five dentists agree: Doubleissima and Ridicullissima are the best!) Since the climbs next door are so good, most people don't even bother to look at Lakatakissima.

(Photo: This is Andy leading Doubleissima in 2016. He is at the initial ledge where Doubleissima goes left and Lakatakissima goes a few feet to the right.)

The start is the same as Doubleissima, but after forty feet when you reach the small ledge, Lakatakissima jogs right a few feet to a vertical crack system that is next to a small tree in the gully. From here the climb goes pretty much straight up the face to a roof. I thought this part of the route was excellent, with interesting steep moves.

In the guidebook, Dick Williams suggests that you should step left and briefly join Doubleissima just before the roof but I found this to be totally unnecessary. I kept the line independent and went straight up (with one fairly big move) to the obvious 5.10 notch, where I could bust through the roof about five feet to the right of Doubleissima.  After you clear the roof it is nothing but fun, juggy 5.8 climbing up to the GT Ledge.

(Photo: Another shot of Andy leading Doubleissima (5.10b), in 2016. While Andy's route will break through the roof directly over his head, the Lakatakissima notch is also visible just a few feet to Andy's right.)

Lakatakissima is absolutely worth doing. It is very similar in style to its more beloved neighbors on the same wall, which makes it very good indeed. You should do this route. I felt great warming up on it. It gave me confidence for our real objective: Enduro Man.

(Photo: Andy making the final moves on Lakatakissima (5.10b).)

When Andy joined me on the ledge I pointed up at the cascading series of overhangs that we were about to climb.

Andy took one look and said "holy shitballs!"

I have to admit, I felt the same way. It was pretty daunting.

I told myself that the gear would be good and that the falls would be clean. And I headed upward.

The early going is easy until you reach the first of the several overhanging tiers. I plugged in a couple of good pieces and then spent a fair amount of time testing holds, moving up and down, checking the gear, and trying to figure out where I was supposed to go. Occasionally I climbed down out of the roofs to the stance where I could shake out and think about my options some more.

Eventually I decided I had to commit to something. I moved up on a sidepull that was reasonably positive and was overjoyed to find more holds above it. With a few more reaches I got to a dead end beneath a larger roof. Plugging in more gear, I realized that I must have cleared crux #1. 

Now I had to move to the right, and there was no rest stance to retreat to any more. The clock was ticking. It was time for crux #2. I could see a great-looking handhold about six feet to my right, but how to get there? I kept testing some slopers. I didn't feel great about them, but I knew if I didn't move soon I would flame out. So once again I committed to what I had. After a somewhat dicey hand match I made it through. I was almost astonished to find myself latching on to the good hold. 

I had to suppress a shout of exhilaration. I knew I'd just completed all of the 5.11 climbing. If I could just hold on through the easier moves to the top I'd have a successful on-sight of Enduro Man! 

Good lord, I thought. This would be big. I could retire from climbing and be happy. I could have a button printed up with the words "Ask me about Enduro Man!" printed on it, and I could sit in the Trapps parking lot telling everyone about it for the rest of my life.

But it was not to be. I couldn't find the easy moves. I'd gone too far to the right. I was burning out and I was lost. I searched for the path upwards but I couldn't locate it. I had a cam right in front of my face, so there was no safety issue. But as the seconds ticked away I knew I couldn't hold on any more. I had to take a hang. 

As soon as I gave up I saw where I was supposed to go. Doesn't it always work out that way?

(Photo: A party on Modern Times (5.8+), seen from the topout on Enduro Man (5.11c). Look closely (click to enlarge!)-- you can see both climbers.) 

In one sense, it was heartbreaking. I don't think I've ever come so close to an on-sight victory on something I wanted so badly, so close to my limit, only to come up short.

But I didn't feel sad. As I belayed Andy up, I was energized, even giddy. It was like the day on which I first did High E, or later when I did Bonnie's. This was what it was all about. It didn't matter that I hadn't gotten the send. What mattered was that I'd taken the leap. I'd tried really hard and left it all out there. And I'd done so responsibly. I'd placed good gear. The route had been totally safe. I'd proven to myself that I belonged up there. 

And that I could do it. 

Just not on this day. 

I have to go back and actually get it done cleanly, but I will. 

I know I will. 

(Photo: That's me standing at the top of Enduro Man (5.11c). The photo was taken by Bob, who is the leader in the photo of Modern Times that I posted above. You can also see a tiny piece of Andy coming up Enduro Man below me, as well as a person from another party on the ledge belaying a leader on High Exposure.)

Andy and I did some more climbing that day, some of it very good, but for me the rest of our time in the Gunks was mostly an opportunity to talk to other people who might understand what it meant that I'd just attempted Enduro Man. 

I wanted to discuss it with anyone and everyone. It was just like High E in 2008.

I found myself chatting up every climber we met-- why not?-- and asking them "so what have you been climbing today??"

They would tell me.

"Oh that sounds great," I would say. "I love the [whatever move] on [whatever climb]."

"And you?" they would politely reply.

"What did we climb? Us?" I would ask, as if I had to think back to remember. "I thought you'd never ask!"

The next time you see me in the parking lot, you should ask me. I won't be tired of talking about it, I promise.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Criss Cross-eyed in the Early Season

(Photo: Gail reaching for the arete on the fun link-up Basking Ridge (5.7).)

"Ugh. I'm never doing THAT again!"

So I said, to Gail, as I got past the undercling crux on Inverted Layback (5.9).

I meant it, too. I'd not been happy confronting this challenge. I hesitated and repeatedly stepped up and down before throwing myself into the crux. I built a three-piece anchor under the big downward-facing, off-width flake, trying with each new placement to conjure some confidence. Worried I'd slip off of the face and slam sideways into the wall, I'd contorted myself as far to the right as I could before bringing both feet up, trying to minimize the number of moves I'd need to make on the slab under the flake.

I knew it would be like this. I'd put this climb off for years, scared of the crux, and now here I was, in the crux, acting scared.

But when I finally committed, it was over in a flash. It was just one move, not that bad, and I was through it.

I was relieved. I had done it and I never needed to go back up there again.

(Photo: I'm up there behind the branches, just past the crux of Inverted Layback (5.9). Photo by Gail.)

Of course, with a few days' perspective I see the climb in a totally different way. I remember the fun moves up a vertical crack at the base of the cliff and then the cool wide crack in the center of the wall. Good climbing all the way, and the crux, while committing and tenuous, is unusual for the Gunks. It is like something you'd find in Yosemite. It is good practice.

You should try Inverted Layback! I'm going to do it again. Some day, I swear.

(Photo: Gail following me up a slightly drippy Baskerville Terrace (5.7).)

This was last Sunday, the first really nice day of Spring. A new season was just under way.There was a feeling of great possibility in the air. And moisture. Lots of moisture. Everything was kind of wet.

But I couldn't let the occasional drippage on the cliff get me down. 

I had goals. 

I had a list.

Late last year I decided I needed to successfully lead every "star-worthy" 5.10 in the Gunks. I looked through the guidebooks and found that there weren't too many left for me to do. I resolved to knock them all off in 2017. It wouldn't be that hard to accomplish, if I made an effort to tick something off the list every time I went to the Gunks. 

Already this year I have managed to do some of them.

In February, I got together with a new partner named Sudha. Unlike me, she is a real alpinist. She has gotten frostbite. She plans to climb K2. 

I may have come off as a little intense to Sudha and her friends. When we got together, everyone was still in a wintry mode, sipping cocoa, complaining about the cold, talking about the snow that was still on the ground.

Except for me, that is. I was saying "Let's go! It's sending weather! I have a list!" 

I hope I didn't seem insane.

With Sudha, I led Directissima Direct (5.10b/c). This variation on Directissima (5.9) takes the traditional 5.8 start off the ground and around the nose of the High E buttress, but then goes straight up the face past a piton instead of ascending the easy ramp to the right. After some steep, thin 5.10 moves up a pair of vertical cracks, the Direct rejoins the regular route about halfway through its 5.9 finger-rail traverse. 

(Photo: I've just gone around the nose on Directissima, and I'm about to head up through the 5.10b moves on the Direct. Photo by Sudha.)

Though I'd done Directissima several times, I'd never gotten around to trying this 5.10 variation. I really liked it. The hard climbing is brief, but it is technical and demanding. And it is sandwiched between the best parts of the traditional Directissima. The variation makes a great route even better.

I got out again with Sudha in early March and we knocked two more of my tens off the list. 

First, I led Stirrup Trouble (5.10b). This climb wasn't new for me, but last year when I attempted it I was spooked by the opening moves off the block and I turned the lead over to my partner Andy. Then after he led it, I followed it easily and felt like a yellow-bellied, chicken-hearted loser-face.

(Photo: I'm plugging gear, past the steep start of Stirrup Trouble (5.10b). Photo by Sudha.)

This year I did better. I got on the wall and placed a blue Alien over my head. Then I stepped back down to the block and inspected the piece. Once I was satisfied with it, I stepped back up and climbed the route. It went well, and man, what a climb! So many challenges, so many great moves. This is one of the best tens in the Trapps. It is too good for the Uberfall. And despite its reputation as a challenging lead, there is gear literally everywhere after the opening moves. I will return to this route again and again.

(Photo: Sudha getting close to the finish on Stirrup Trouble (5.10b).)

Sudha and I also did Nemesis (5.10a). I'd checked this route out from the ground before. I hadn't liked the apparent lack of gear. But now? It was on my list of star-worthy tens, so I HAD to do it... or not really. Of course I didn't have to. But I thought I could get on the wall and see how it went. Dick Williams says it's PG, and I'd felt really good on Stirrup Trouble, after all.

(Photo: Past the hard bits on Nemesis (5.10a). See all the gear? Photo by Sudha.)

The climb offers bouldery thin face moves for about twenty feet. The climbing is decent, but the pro isn't. I got an Alien in a little slot about two moves up. This protected the hardest bit, but there were some non-trivial moves that followed with no additional gear. You get back in groundfall range well before you find any more pro. I would say Nemesis is 5.10(a) PG, as Dick says, but there are some moves of 5.9 R. And the climbing is just okay. I can't fathom why Dick gives this climb two stars. Maybe the second pitch is better than it appears; we didn't do it. It looks dirty and loose. I wouldn't bother with this climb again. 

(Photo: Sudha dancing her way up Nemesis (5.10a).)

Last Sunday, with Gail, I had to find another ten to put away. But everything seemed damp. The crux notch on Outer Space Direct (5.10b) was dripping wet, as was Fat Stick Direct's (5.10b) roof. The mossy corner at the bottom of Criss Cross Direct (5.10a) was seeping.

But then again, isn't it always?

I guessed I had to do Criss Cross Direct. It appeared to be dry in the crux crack. It was on my list. And it's a three-star classic.

This climb is similar to Inverted Layback, in that I've avoided it for years. I've walked past it a million times, scared to confront the unusual climbing challenges contained within it.

When I say that I've "walked past" it, I'm not being entirely honest. It would be more accurate to say I've walked right up to it.... and then I've slinked away. I've racked up for it and stood beneath it, sincerely intending to climb it. And then after looking it over, I've chickened out. On one occasion I actually placed some gear in the opening crack and tested some jams before deciding I had no idea how I was going to get up this thing. And then I walked away.

Criss Cross is often described as an "entry-level" 5.10, and I can't understand why. I think people consider it an approachable ten because the crux is right off the ground and there is gear. But to me, the low crux is not a selling point. The climbing is slippery and strange, up a severely overhung water-polished vertical crack in a corner. Although you can place a piece over your head before you start, I'm not sure this piece will keep you from decking if you fall out of the crack after a few moves.

(Photo: Wondering how I'm going to climb Criss-Cross Direct (5.10a). Photo by Gail.)

On Sunday, as I stood there with Gail, I still didn't know how I was going to get up it. I wanted to jam it. I figured that if I were a decent climber, I would definitely jam it, rather than gamble on a slippery layback up the crack. My granite-loving friend Adrian would SURELY jam his way up it-- and he would declare it easy.

If there were any justice in the world, it would be easy for me too. I have jammed before. I have been to Indian Creek, for goodness' sake. I have been to Squamish. I don't like to brag about it, but I have even sent the medium-hard hand crack at my local gym! I should know how to do this.

But I couldn't find the jams on Criss Cross Direct, nor could I figure out how to use my feet beneath such theoretical handjams. Jamming just doesn't come naturally to me. After much testing, rearranging gear, and stepping up and down, I wasn't any closer to a solution, but I finally found myself with both feet on the wall and both hands in the crack, one of them jamming and the other laying back.

It was on.

After releasing my one jam and placing more gear, I resorted to laying back the rest of the way. The jamming was over. I tip-toed my feet carefully up the wall.

I felt like a fraud. I should have been jamming.

The layback was pretty sketchy. The rock was slippery, and at one point I said to Gail "I don't have it," thinking I was on the verge of sliding out of the crack. But I kept moving and managed to reach the jug next to the fixed piton without falling. I was happy to have made it.

(Photo: Working it out on Criss-Cross Direct (5.10a). Photo by Gail.)

After clipping the pin I tried to regroup and stop shaking so I could focus on the next sequence, a smeary step up onto a slab with some blocky features for the hands.

This move was surprisingly hard. I stood up on the slab and was looking in vain for a decent handhold when my toe popped off.

For a split second I was falling, but somehow I held on to the jug below and slid down to some kind of toehold. I was still on the wall, though I wasn't sure how.

Had I weighted the rope? I didn't think so. Gail scolded me for not taking the fall; she thought I risked injuring my shoulders by hanging on like that.

At any rate, I stepped back up, very thoughtfully, and after a couple of moves the climbing eased off enough that I could relax and say:

"I'm never doing THAT again!"

But there was still a lot of climbing left to do. In order to take this climb off my list I had to do both pitches. I elected to do the whole thing in one pitch to the top.

And I really enjoyed the rest of Criss Cross Direct.

I loved the thin face climbing just after the traditional pitch one belay. The climbing here is pretty run out but probably no harder than 5.8+. After a few delicate moves off the belay I got a single tiny nut, and then there was practically nothing until I reached the overhangs. From there I found it well-protected through the two roofs. The second roof is a puzzler. It is hard to figure out where to exit, but once you spot the holds, the climbing isn't too bad.

(Photo: Close to the first pitch anchor on Criss Cross Direct (5.10a). You can see the final roof at the top of the cliff, above my head. Photo by Gail.)

By the time I reached the trees I was ready to endure the whole thing all over again. Criss Cross Direct has a ton of great climbing on it, and it calls for a wide variety of techniques. I am proud to have on-sighted it, though I did so by the thinnest of margins. (I'm counting it!) And I don't think you can say you've done Criss Cross Direct unless you've done the whole climb.

I feel like I'm in pretty good shape as 2017 gets officially under way. I am climbing decently and I seem to be in good health. I'm excited to keep working through my 5.10 list and to soon resume hitting the elevens in the Gunks. I even have a couple of 5.12 projects in mind, which I'd like to work with an eye towards a head-point lead. 

I also have a trip planned in the late spring with my old buddy Adrian. The plan is to go to the California Needles, which has been a long-time dream of mine. But the record snow pack in California this year is raising doubts that we'll be able to get to the Needles, so we may have to shift our sights to another southern California target like J-Tree or Tahquitz/Suicide.

Wherever we end up going, I'm looking forward to big adventures in a new place. And some more practice hand-jamming!