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