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!


  1. Nice to see you and the season back in action Anna is heading to school in buffalo soon so I sure hope to catch up with you this year! Ps nemesis is terrible but i love cross cross and it's super well protected start and I always look bad going through that roof!!!

    1. This must be Rob? Thanks for your comment! Would love to climb with you more this year! I will keep you in mind.

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