Thursday, July 3, 2014


It's funny that I could live four hours from such an incredible climbing area and not have made the time to visit yet.  Actually, that seems to be the pattern.  My climbing has mostly revolved around the local, both the well-travelled and the newly discovered, with trips in between to far away areas like Yosemite, Font, and Squamish. I've made the occasional trip to places like Coopers, Seneca, or Gretna, but have somehow never visited the truly world class areas that I can reach within half a day's drive.  Last week I finally made it to the Gunks.

With technical climbing in the area going back to the '30s and fully taking off in the '40s, Chris Irwin and I were excited to repeat some of the early ascents, as well as check out a few of the newer routes while we were around.  Despite the easy grades by modern standards, these early routes often represented the limits of what was then believed possible, and can still be intimidating even with the vastly improved equipment now available to us.

The most well known example of this is probably High Exposure.  First climbed in 1941 by Hans Kraus and Fritz Weissner, the route follows an easy corner system before traversing out to a ledge under a large roof. Originally done in two pitches, Chris chose to link the beginning into a single pitch, as well as to diagonal across the face in the second pitch for more interesting climbing and better views.

Chris heading into the corner, with the roof visible at upper right
However the first two pitches are done, the beginning of the third is where the climber encounters "The Move." I'm really glad that Chris made me lead it, though at the time I was wishing I had more than one lead under my belt since Squamish two summers ago.  When I looked up and saw the small gap I was moving through at the right side of the roof, with treetops swaying far below me and a blind reach to the holds on the other side, I couldn't even comprehend the confidence required to have turned that corner almost 75 years ago.

I kept telling myself, "it's only 5.6, and it was done in the '40s."  At least, that was the internal monologue, though Chris assures me that the words coming out were not nearly as clean.  I'm just glad my nausea remained in check while I was still directly above him.  Finally I pulled myself together and made the move, exiting onto a beautiful face full of good holds and great gear options, with a gorgeous view waiting above. Even after making a wrong turn onto the slightly harder finish of Directtississima, that single move remains in my memory as the hardest thing I did the entire trip, and solidifies Kraus and Weissner as two of the boldest men I've had the pleasure of belatedly following.

Going into the trip, I thought I was going to get a fair amount of bouldering in, and was particularly looking forward to Boxcar Arete.  Had I known how sharp the crimps were, I wouldn't have gotten my hopes up so much.  After about 20 minutes of working it without controlling the last left pinch, my fingertips were already starting to open up, and I decided that it wasn't worth ruining my skin with two full days still remaining.  Next time.

In hindsight, I'm really glad I made that choice, with so many more great routes out there to do.  Horsemen, another 1941 edition Kraus&Weissner masterpiece, made a great single pitch linkup that went from an easy corner and crack system out to an airy arete, then finished through a juggy vertical face.  The climbing was fun the whole way, but my favorite part was probably the gear graveyard near the top, memories of the decades of climbers who have since passed through.

I also enjoyed the collection of routes from the '60s and '70s that we climbed at the end of our first day in a corner near High Exposure.

Chris started by climbing the first pitch of Sleepwalk, which started on the vertical face and then traversed left on horizontals to turn the corner and finish up the slab.

From the Sleepwalk anchor, we toproped both Ent Line and Ant's Line, the latter of which I particularly liked. First climbed in the '60s by Ants Leemets, it combines perfect stemming and jamming moves up a crack and corner system and through a couple of small overhangs.  With such enjoyable movement and solid looking gear the whole way, I think I'd actually prefer to lead that one over Sleepwalk.

Another especially memorable set of climbs came on our final day, when we went to the Near Trapps rather to the more popular Trapps where we had spent our previous days.  I warmed up on Roseland, a 1958 Jim McCarthy and Hans Kraus line that had all the stemming and jamming fun of Ant's Line, but finished with an exciting traverse along a good horizontal and somewhat technical feet.

From there, we toproped a couple of the routes around the corner, and I got my first taste of harder Gunks climbing on Eraserhead, a Russ Raffa and Russ Clune route from 1983.  With a fun mix of the thin technical climbing that I prefer and the big moves to big holds that often challenge me, I only managed the onsight because there were enough good rests to counteract the pump.  Anything more sustained and I would found myself taking a fun pendulum ride!

I also led Birdland (Jim McCarthy, John Rupley, Jim Andress, 1958), a gorgeous face climb that for me involved stemmy moves, high steps, and big gaston presses.  From there I toproped Slammin the Salmon, another Russ Clune route full of powerful crimp sequences between good jugs on a much steeper wall than I'm used to.  I think I got through the actual crux, but still ended up pumping out and falling as I mantled up onto easier ground.  In addition to being a good lesson in harder Gunks movement, it also made me want to get down to areas like the Red where I can force myself to face that kind of terrain more often.

We finished the trip with  the 1944 classic Yellow Ridge (Fritz Weissner, Edward and Ann Gross), with Chris taking the right start variation up a hand crack to the short offwidth and linking immediately into the second pitch rising traverse.  He turned it over to me with vague directions of "go that way," and I found myself on a fantastic ledge walk to a large corner, and then up through small roofs to a finish on slab jugs.

Yellow Ridge starts center and goes up and left to the obvious large corner
If that weren't already a perfect enough way to end our day, we found the descent lined with blueberry bushes. Just enough to hold us over until our stop at Mountain Brauhaus.

I'm not sure how it took me so long to make the trip up to the Gunks, but now I can't wait to get back.  Going during the week was especially nice, since we had the campground almost to ourselves and never had to wait for a climb, even on super classics like High Exposure.  I'm also looking forward to exploring the town a little more, even though we spent our fair share of time at places like Bacchus (hands down the best beer place we visited), Gilded Otter, and had what I'm pretty sure was the world's best pork belly taco at Mexicali Blue.

So many things to do, and summer is just beginning.

Here's the complete list of what we climbed, in order:
Pas de Deux
Ent Line (TR)
Ant's Line (TR)
High Exposure (Directtississima finish)
Ken's Crack
Phoebe (TR)
Phoebe (direct finish) (TR)
Freebie (TR)
Fitchen's Folly (TR)
Shitface (TR)
Eraserhead (TR)
Slammin the Salmon (TR attempt)
Yellow Ridge

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