"Birdland" was a leftover goal from last year. I had fallen on both pitches, but I knew what I had to do this time. The moves on the first pitch, the mental crux where one preses the left foot on a slick knob and leans back on good side pulls in order to bring the right foot up high, had stumped me last year and I had been thinking about it all winter long. I was going to send, and I knew it, even if it was through deduction.
Layback (5.5) - Trad - Two pitches - Gear anchors(<-- Click here for guidebook info)
But first it was time for a warmup. "Ratherbe" had recommended "Layback", a chimney start with a juggy layback to the top for a good first pitch, and an easy traversing 5.1 for the second pitch. The second pitch is probably the best 5.1 pitch I have ever done. I know, it's only 5.1, but seriously, have you ever been on a 5.1 that had dynamic moves? This was such a pleasure. I highly recommend it.
However, this means that you'll have to do the first pitch. It was a slick chimney that I fell on, but not because it was difficult (OK, it was difficult, but that's not why I fell). Just as I got up into the hardest part of the chimney, where the gap in the rock became a full-on chimney with arms, legs, back, and body were fully tensioned, just as I was about to slide up and grab onto the block that caps the chimney, and just as I was feeling secure, the nastiest spider I had ever seen in the east crawled straight down toward me from behind the block above me. I don't like spiders, but I can deal with the spiders we have in the northeast. Other than Cambridge, MA, where the Chilean Recluse Spider lives as a result of someone accidentally bringing one back from Chile and allowing it set up shop in various locations in Harvard Square, there really aren't any poisonous spiders out here. There's copperhead snakes slithering in the cracks throughout the 'Gunks, but no nasty spiders (I hate snakes, too). Someone later suspected that it was a Wolf Spider, but those are brown. This was black, and it clearly had the venom bubble on its back with a menacing pattern for what appeared to be more than just decoration. He had successfully blocked me from moving any higher. Had I slithered up, I would have easily either squished him with my back, which would have probably hurt because I was sure he wasn't going down without a fight, or he was going to be quick enough to dodge my slow-moving body and crawl up my shoulder blade and rest right behind my ear, where I couldn't see him but could feel him, where I'd know that he was there and would wonder if his jaws were open and ready to rip open my flesh the moment I swung my hand behind my ear to brush him off. I imagined his open mouth sitting an eighth of an inch above my skin with his mind saying, "come on buddy, just try to knock me off, I dare you." And even if I had brushed him off, regardless of whether he bit me in retaliation or not, I would never be sure if I had brushed him off completely or if he was waiting somewhere else on my body where he would have the attacking advantage if I so much as hinted at any aggression.
I said "screw it" and hung on the rope. I don't have that much pride anyway. I tried to take a picture, but my hands were shaking too much and the photos were blurry. I wish that it was still there when we got down, but it was not.
Birdland (5.8) - Trad - Two pitches - Bolt / Gear anchor (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
I turned to "Ratherbe" and said:
- Me: I'm not sure if I'll send.
- "Ratherbe": You'll send.
- Me: I'm not nervous or anything, I just don't know.
- "Ratherbe": Well, go get it.
The truth is that I knew I would send. It wasn't because I knew it, I honestly wasn't sure, but it was more that I couldn't imagine not sending. It was an interesting feeling. I was cold, but not in the muscles. There was no fear and there was no love. I wanted it, but at the same time there was no ambition, no drive, and no barriers either. It felt like semantics, as if I was simply going through the motions of something I knew so well and needed no practice in order to achieve perfection, so I started up. The pumpy section at the bottom, where the first horizontals are gained, were easier than I expected. And so were the moves after that to mid-way up the lower face. All the crimps and side pulls felt fine. My feet were solid and the rock was not slick. I hit the mental crux, placed my left foot out wide on the slick knob, leaned back, pulled up my right foot up, bounced my right hand up the side pulls and stood up. Boom. That was it. The mental crux was over. I clipped the pin and backed it up for fun. The physical crux was next, but the invisible footholds were solid under my toes and my hands quickly found the jug to the right of the arrete. Only a nut that didn't stay in the upper crack slowed me down at the top. Within minutes "Ratherbe" was at my side flaking the rope so that I could take on the second pitch.
The second pitch of "Birdland" is completely different from the first. The first is very thin, crimpy, and technical, with tenuous moves in don't fall situations at several points in the first half of the pitch. But the second is all pump and pull. You get to the roofs and go. Once you commit there's no turning back, and the crux isn't even the first roof, but the first roof definitely takes something away, enough to make the second roof that much more difficult.
I got to the first roof and was immediately discouraged. All winter long I had imagined the first moves of the first roof to be a side pull up to a sloper that lead to a juggy side pull higher up. But I had remembered incorrectly. The first side pull was much higher than I had imagined, and that meant I was going to have to move off tricky feet and small fingers. The jug that I wanted was even higher than that. But oh well. Such were the circumstances. I moved my feet high, dug my fingers in, pulled, stepped up, and found myself at the second roof.
The second roof is less of a roof than it is a technical section with two crimps out wide to the right and thin feet leading up to a ledge. One can certainly pull the inside section of the little corner that one is standing in, but that is physically more difficult because it feels like a roof. The crimps are difficult because they aren't solid and are a bit airy, but they're definitely solid enough to trust. That's the thing, they have to be trusted. So that's what I did. I trusted them, leaned way out to my right, threw my left hand up to the ledge and scurried up. Easy. I was there.
All I had to do was walk right, climb the final bulge, and walk left back to the belay ledge. But I wanted more. I wanted the 5.9 finish, the last roof. I thought about spoiling the 5.8 clean ascent, but I wanted the 5.9, and so I moved up and searched around. I moved left and realized the route went to the right. The downclimb was pumpy, so I rested before going back up. I moved up on the right and couldn't find the jug to pull over. I climbed down again and was once again pumped from that. I rested another minute and went back up. I found the jug and started to mantle up, but I couldn't. I couldn't move my feet and I couldn't push upward anymore with my lower arm. My upper arm was maxed, too. I had found my limit. It wasn't difficult. In fact, I'm not sure the third roof was any harder than the first two, but it was definitely pumpy and I was pumped already from the first two roofs. I just didn't have the strength to finish, so I very tenuously "fell" back on each of the jugs that got me to my high point. I didn't fall on or weight the rope, but to say I down climbed is exactly correct either. Each move downward was as much of a hold-on-and-collapse than it was a down move. I stood on the ledge and decided that the 5.8 was enough. I walked right, pulled the final overhang (not very easily, mind you) and breathed a sigh of relief as I secured myself at the top. "Ratherbe" then came up behind me and easily pulled the final roof for the 5.9 finish. It was a good route for both of us. That route had haunted me for over a year. I had fallen on multiple occasions on different spots throughout. I was happy to have knocked it off, but now I want to go back for the third roof.
Yellow Belly (5.8) - Trad - Two pitches - Gear anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
I was too pumped to lead the first pitch of the next climb, but I felt OK to give the next route a go. I was a bit nervous, though. I wasn't sure if I had another 5.8 in me, but the second pitch of "Yellow Belly" loomed anyway. I had told "Ratherbe" that I wasn't sure, but we each took a wait and see approach. She led the first pitch easily, and I followed with relative ease. It was a little pumpy, but it was 5.8 after all. I chalked that up to the grade more than my own physical deficiency.
- "Ratherbe": You want the next pitch?
- Me: Uh, maybe.
- "Ratherbe": It's yours if you want it.
- Me: Where does it go?
She said it was supposed to go up the blank face to her left, but she said the corner way over to the left was easier. The face did indeed look blank, but the crack looked thin and without good pro. If I blew the stemming then it was going to be a nasty fall onto blocks below. But then again, the face was blank. I chose to do the pitch.
The first move off the ledge was OK, and it got me in a good position to scout the face. It was as blank as I expected. My only piece was a 0.4 Camalot at my waist that I wasn't overly confident with. If that blew then I'd plummet straight down onto "Ratherbe" who was sitting on a thin-but-good belay seat below. There was no need for both of us to get hurt, so I made the easy traverse left to the corner. But even then, I looked up at the corner and saw very little pro. The crack wasn't a jam crack, but more of a shallow finger crack used for balance more than anything. It would require good feet, and I couldn't see any let alone ones that were good. The face on either side of the corner was less than thin, too. Neither option looked good.
We usually climb with two ropes. I found a good placement that I felt comfortable with at the bottom of the crack (below my first piece, which was clipped with the right-hand rope), clipped the left-hand rope, and made two moves up to a good stance below where the face gets thin in the corner. Getting a better look things didn't help. The corner now seemed more blank than the face. And the exit from the corner back right to the top of face, where the route went, appeared unprotected and very awkward. All I could imagine was a barn door swing on sloper hands and then my feet cutting away before I'd get my hands secure. The fall would be nasty. I trusted the piece below me, but the moves were high enough that I'd likely deck out on a ledge below. Suddenly, the face seemed more reasonable.
I guess I should have done a better job of listening to myself. After what happened over Memorial Day weekend, I was sure that I had found a good way of identifying when I was ready and when I wasn't. It wasn't so much about the climb as it was about the decision-making. Last weekend I made the decision to do "Ant's Line" (5.9) and I did. And then I made the decision to not do "Birdland" and I didn't. Everything felt so good. I was so certain and secure with my decisions. But this time there was something hindering me. I wasn't sure what it was, but somehow my decision-making wasn't good. I actually knew I wasn't listening to myself, but I covered up the criticism with the "be bold" thoughts that were waving through my brain. Sometimes even when you know you're making a mistake you make it anyway because that's all you know what to do at that moment. It was as if my mind was sharp enough to realize I was doing something dumb and yet not focused enough to give me a reason why. Under most circumstances I would call this void "fear," but this felt more like stupidity.
I traversed back up to the right where the face was. Face climbing is typically my strength. It may take me a while to trust the feet and hands, but once I go I'm usually in good shape and make it up clean. The corner looked as it if was too risky. I probably could do it, but I didn't like the fall. If I was going to do something, anything at all, it was going to be on something that I felt I had a chance on. That was the face.
Closer inspection with my hands revealed that there were a few hidden and very positive slopers up high that couldn't be seen from below. But the feet were bad and would require smearing up to more slopers that I wasn't fond of. I moved farther right toward the initial moves off the belay ledge. I was about two feet higher than the start at this point, and so my perspective of the face was better. I found a way to get my right foot up high and crimp down on two tiny edges above. It worked. Two moves later and I was cruising through the jugs toward the infamous squeeze pod.
Infamous isn't quite the word I'd use today. More like woodchipperly painful. It was probably the most awkward position I've ever been in on a climb. Seriously, my knees were practically higher than my ears and I wasn't even sitting down. But that was the easy part. The hard part is moving out of the pod, out the slick traverse, and around the arrete to really crappy holds - all when you're nearly too pumped to hold on. There are about five very strenuous moves in a row that are nearly all hands at the crux. The gear is good, but the fall is scary. I sat in that pod for about 20 minutes trying to find a way to get around the arrete. I made it far enough to see around the arrete twice, out of several tries trying to get to the arrete itself, and I couldn't see where to go. I was too tired to be adventurous and bold. It was a stupid decision to take on this pitch. I jokingly blamed "Ratherbe" for the mess. "Listen," I said, "next time you decide to be cranky then we need to sit down and have a little talk before we climb."
I plugged another cam behind me (decidedly not that easy) and was lowered to the anchor. We left the ropes in the gear, switched rope ends, and "Ratherbe" went up instead. She got to the pod and found it difficult, too. But she had done it before and had admitted to being totally stoked for leading it the first time. I think she gave it two tries before she finally made it around the arrete on the third attempt. The pump hadn't ceased for her, though. It took nearly all she had to place her next piece. All she really wanted to do was to keep climbing to a better rest. But that would have required a bit of a run out with a dangerous fall below.
When she finally called off-belay I started up. I only tried once and got it clean as the second, and I was certainly happy with the decision to back off. I was too pumped, and where she was barely able to plug that first piece after the crux I was likely to have fallen or run it out the final 30 feet to the top. I wouldn't have been able to stop. I was barely able to stop as the second to clean her gear, and I had been resting at the anchor while she cleaned up my mess. The decision to back off was good, but it came too late. I really should have made that decision before starting up the second pitch. I kicked myself for having learned that lesson only a week before and having ignored it so soon after. I ran from the lion while someone else slayed my mess. We called it a day, and I was glad.
Bonnie's Roof (5.9) - Trad - Two pitches - Gear anchors (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
Sunday morning we awoke early. The parking lot was already filling up but we knew we were walking far enough down the path that we'd be avoiding the crowds. "Ratherbe" had been tossing in her head whether she wanted to do a warmup first, but she finally decided that the walk in would be enough of a warm up to jump right on her goal for the weekend.
She had tried this the weekend before and had fallen at the crux, the pumpy, hang-on-and-go roof midway up the first pitch. I really wanted her to warm up first, but she insisted and so we headed there for the first climb of the day.
As expected, there was no one there. She racked up and started right up the route. The first 20 feet to the ledge at the base of the corner felt hard for her, and I wasn't surprised. She said it was probably due to her head not being in the right place. I thought it was because she hadn't warmed up. It didn't matter though. Someone had left a rubber snake on a boulder up there and soon she was angry enough at the joke to forget about her lead head. She headed up the corner and looked fine, but this was a section of the climb that was fine. It didn't get hard or even scary until about 10 feet below the roof.
I advised her to take a good, long rest at the last ledge, and she did so, except that she claims she didn't hear me. It was kind of a funny thing to learn later because she seemed to be talking to me the whole time. Maybe she was but was really only talking to herself. I can't imagine what kind of responses I was giving her if she was imagining the conversation. It's kind of funny to look back on it now that I know neither of us had any clue we weren't actually talking to each other.
Anyway, she moved up from the rest and entered the section of the climb where the ten feet leading up to the crux are protected only by an old, sketchy sling attached to a melting cam in the corner. If you're fine with that as pro, then you're golden. But she wasn't happy with it, and so that meant she had to keep plugging toward the pumpy crux. She plugged a cam in the roof and moved left, further committing herself to the climb. The cam most likely would have held if she had fallen, but it's not the most secure feeling in the world with the ugly tat clipped below and nowhere to down climb and rest. The fall would have been big and not very clean. With her head playing games, her lack of a warm-up, and her having fallen at this point last weekend, I braced myself to catch her. One hand after another moved through the jugs. She got her feet up and further committed herself. There was only one way to go now, and that was straight up.
At first, I thought she wasn't going to make it. The hard part is the point where the short traverse ends and the pump up the jugs begins. But she worked through that section fine. Once she stood up on the traverse ledge I thought she was fine. She rested for a second and gathered herself for the final two moves, which were all pump and no technique. And I was happy for when she started to pull and push her way up. But it was much slower going than I anticipated and she was clearly struggling to get to the small ledge above the roof. The first few moves of the crux had gone by so quickly and here were the final two moves taking so long. I feared that she had the same problem I had on the 5.9 section of "Birdland" the day before; I was too tired to even move and had to "down fall" to my last rest. She didn't have that option, so it was get it clean now or fall all the way to below the roof. She grunted. She whimpered, and then she grunted some more. I wasn't confident that she had made it until she finally stood on the ledge and took several deep breaths.
The second half of the pitch was easy, and when she told me that she was off belay and that I was on belay, I started up. I hung at the roof, but not because it was hard. It was hard, but I couldn't get the cam out of the roof with one hand due to it being buried too deep and the crack being too thin. It took me a few minutes to get it out (I tried for a long time with one hand and eventually did get it out with one hand, but I was too pumped after hanging on my left arm for so long at the crux). Unlike "Caboose", who the previous weekend had to swing back on to the rock at the same spot for the same reason, I was able to more easily reach and get back on. I cruised up and she racked up for the famous final pitch.
For a 5.7 pitch, this last pitch has one helluva mind game it plays with you. I mean, it's easy climbing, but the entire traverse and the first few moves up the arrete are protected by three incredibly crappy pins and a green and blue Alien, with the blue Alien being the highest piece and the one protecting the most exposed section of the route. Even still, this was one of my most favorite pitches in the 'Gunks. I can't wait to go back and get this on lead. I think I may knock it off in a few weeks when "Caboose" and "Blow" meet us at the 'Gunks once again.
Ursula (5.5) - Trad - Two pitches - Gear anchor (<-- Click here for guidebook info)
"Ursula" was actually a test-piece for me at this point. I was really struggling after "Birdland" and "Yellow Belly" the day before and "Bonnie's Roof" first thing the that morning. When I get pumped I can barely hold on to anything - it doesn't matter how easy the route is. If I can't hold on then I can't hold on. And the first half of "Ursula" doesn't look like a gimme from the ground. But I racked up anyway and headed up the blank corner hoping there would be jugs on the way. It turned out that everything was there, but that didn't stop me from nearly falling about five times both in the slick (but juggy) corner and committing traverse. I was glad to have gained the ledge for a much needed rest. I put "Ratherbe" on belay and she joined me at the there.
- "Ratherbe": So are you taking the second pitch, too?
- Me: Yeah. I guess so. Haven't you done this?
- "Ratherbe": Yeah. I was hoping to do the second pitch, though.
- Me: That's OK, but I thought I'd take it since you got both pitches on "Bonnie's".
- "Ratherbe": Huh? Didn't I ask you if you wanted that pitch?
- Me: No. I might have taken it if you had offered, but I'm not sure. I just assumed that you'd get both of those pitches since I got both pitches on "Birdland" yesterday.
- "Ratherbe": Oh man. Sorry about that. I was totally going to offer you the second pitch. Wow. I absolutely forgot.
- Me: That's fine. Like I said, I just assumed you'd take it anyway. It was a good reward for doing the first pitch.
- "Ratherbe": Yeah, well, you can have this second pitch. That certainly seems fair.
When I started up it didn't seem fair at the time. The crux is right off the ledge and while this might have been a 5.5 20 years ago, it has become much more slick in both the hands and feet. The first 15 feet are nothing but greasy, off-angle jugs with only a little bit of gear. Oh yeah, it's overhanging, too, so for someone like me, who was pumped enough already, getting off the ledge is a dangerous situation. I really struggled through the start. At any moment my hands were about to slip off, and that was during holding, resting, moving, clipping, and transitioning my body, hands, and feet up the steap rock. But I finally made it up to the easier climbing only to find a surprising amount of loose rock. I made up my mind that I was going to buy a stick of chalk so that marking loose blocks would be easier. For some reason I'm not very good at making an "x" with my climbing chalk and finger. It always comes out blurry and faded.
When I finally got to the top I put "Ratherbe" on belay and brought her up. She topped out and we decided that we were both tired but wanted another climb before heading home. I told her it would have to be easy because I wasn't in any shape to push myself. She agreed, so we rapped down and took a few suggestions from some folks who had climbed a bit more in this area.
In the Groove (5.6) - Trad - One pitch - Gear anchor
The Williams guidebook suggests this climb as a two-pitch route, so "Ratherbe" took the lower pitch and I said I could do the easier second pitch. The route was wet at the beginning, and there were two bulges to pull past. Neither one turned out to be a problem (though the second bulge was the obvious crux), but I was glad to have not taken the lead. It wasn't a gimme even though it turned out to be a fun climb in the end. It's amazing how many fun routes without a lot of stars one can find in the 'Gunks. This was a route that surprised both of us, even the crappy climbing at the top was kind of fun.
I guess the big thing was that we discovered the second pitch wasn't worth breaking out into a second pitch. The distances noted in the guidebook weren't exactly the most precise, and each pitch was short anyway. "Ratherbe" ended up linking both pitches together, which we had agreed that she should do before she started if she found it wasn't worth making an anchor. When I finally cleared the final bulge on the first pitch, I could see why she chose to keep going. It was pretty straight up from there to the top, particularly with double ropes. There's a lot to play around on this upper pitch. One can go right, straight up, or left at different points and all the climbing is fun. "Ratherbe" went straight up through the lichen and, with my pump, the finishing moves felt more 5.7+ than 5.6, but that might have been the variation grade anyway.
We were done. All we had next was the walk down the Stairmaster to the lower parking lot and we were off. We changed in the parking lot, hopped in the car, and headed for lunch. After eating we pulled onto I-87 and I noticed that I had to keep switching which arm was on the wheel. I was so pumped from climbing that driving the car was difficult to do. Two days later I went to the gym with a friend and couldn't climb past my sixth climb of the day. My elbow was throbbing. I'd felt this before, and it was difficult to get rid of the pain because I work at a desk where my elbow is constantly moving between writing, typing, and moving the mouse. A few folks called it tendinitis. Whatever it was, I knew I'd need to rest, but I wondered if my summer would be ruined because of this. These injuries sometimes require weeks off, and even when one feels healthy, they can flare up again and cause another month-long rest when maybe only one more week of rest would have done the job. It's frustrating, but it is what it is and I'll deal. Gotta love the pumpy routes in the 'Gunks - they're the pump that keeps on giving.
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