The time was late August, 1965. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and opposition to the Vietnam War was growing. A gallon of gasoline cost well less than a dollar and fueled my father’s Volkswagen Beetle for 33 miles. Bob Dylan had recently plugged in. A Kansasan named Jim Ryun was about to become the first high schooler to run a mile in less than four minutes. “Transistor” radios were popular; personal computers were a thing of the future. In a couple of weeks I would begin my last year of high school.
The place was the Gunks, where Jim McCarthy was the leading climber and we all hammered pitons into the rock for protection. The shoes (mountain boots and kletter shoes) still had hard rubber soles, but the carabineers were made of aluminum and the new nylon ropes of core and sheath design stretched to absorb energy in a fall. The Art Gran guide book, the area’s first, had been published the year before. The hardest climbs Gran described were grade 5.10; there were only a few.
John Parker, a student at Yale, and I were spending a week climbing. We started with Gelsa, a great 5.4 in the Near Trapps and worked our way up the grades. 5.7 seemed to be our limit: about what John could lead and I could follow. One day, John suggested we try top roping a 5.8 called Jacobs Ladder. It is a thin face climb put in near the Uberfall by Phil Jacobus. We spent a full afternoon trying, but neither of us could climb it. I couldn’t get more than a few feet up. It seemed impossible. There was no question of needing to be just a little stronger or a bit more flexible. I simply could not imagine how a human being could climb it.
John and I went back to easier things, including my first trad lead (the second pitch of Baby). But the lesson of Jacobs’s Ladder stuck with me: there was no way on God’s green earth that I would ever be able to climb Gunk’s 5.8. In succeeding years I climbed the Grand Teton and Mount Rainier. In winter I did Mount Washington and the three main peaks of the Northern Presidentials. I led 5.8 cracks in Yosemite. But I never again tried a Gunks 5.8. I had [over] learned my lesson.
When my older daughter Karen got me back into rock climbing two years ago, I happily decided I would spend my second-time-around climbing career doing those wonderful, easy 5.3s and 5.4s which abound at the Gunks. But as I climbed and my skills developed, I led a few slightly harder routes. By the spring of 2008, I had, much to my surprise, led a few 5.7s, a couple on sight. I had noticed in the latest Dick Williams Guidebook that my old nemesis, Jacobs Ladder, was not a 5.8 after all. Williams now rated it 5.10b. Richafrd Goldstone explained that Gran tended to rate the climber, rather than the climb. He thought Jacobus couldn't climb harder than 5.8, so Jacob's Ladder had to be a 5.8. Nonetheless, I stayed true to the lesson of 1965 and kept off Gunks 8s.
Then my friend Don suggested we do Arrow. He had previously followed it and assured me that he would lead the harder second pitch and that I would be able to follow the 5.8 crux move at the top. I reluctantly agreed to give it a try. Don led without trouble. I took several tries (and falls) to figure out the crux move; but I got it! At age 60, 43 years after I had failed on Jacobs Ladder, I had climbed my first Gunks 5.8. But, after the excitement of my achievement wore off, I decided that Arrow couldn’t be a “real” 5.8. I had climbed it, so it must be over rated. I went back and led it with my good friends Annie and Jean. That convinced me: Arrow can’t be a true 5.8, not if I could lead it.
[My younger daughter Valerie seems to have learned this habit of mind from me. A very good college rower, she is often heard to opine that any team she can make (e.g., the University of Pennsylvania's first varsity boat) can't be very good. She is quite wrong.]
On subsequent trips to New Paltz, I tried a few more Gunks 8s. After our misadventure on Columbia/Madame Gs (see below), Carolyn and I spent a day top roping on the Herdie Gerdie block. I got up Dirty Gerdie (5.8) and ¾ of the way up Herdie Gerdie (5.8+). I also did Red Cabbage (5.9-); but I think I cheated around the crux. A couple of weeks later, Lois kindly agreed to belay me on top rope attempts of the first pitches of Columbia and Hyjek’s Horror, both rated 5.8. I succeeded on both. Hmmm? Maybe, just maybe, I can climb Gunks 5.8 after all. But after a bit of quiet reflection, I decided no, I probably can’t. Hyjek’s and Columbia must be over-rated also.
Carolyn led me up City Lights, a 5.8 on which I took a couple of falls before turning the crux. She and I top roped the first pitch of Son of Easy O, a beautiful, thin face 5.8 I had been wanting to try for a while. I climbed it in good style without falling. Can all these 8s be over-graded? The same day we returned to the Herdie Gerdie block where I got all the way up Herdie Gerdie (5.8+) and Carolyn fought her way ¾ of the way up Dogs in Heat. It is a (gasp!) 5.11. That girl can climb!!
I climbed with Don again in early October. Among the routes we did was Main Line in the Near Trapps (thanks to Dick Williams for the new “Purple Dick” guidebook). Its first pitch is a tricky corner that Williams rates 5.7. I led it. Don led the second pitch, the crux of which is a 5.8 overhang. I found that overhang relatively easy. A week later, Don and I did Alphonse, another Near Trapps route with a 5.8 overhang crux on the second pitch. Don led and I found it very do-able. We also climbed Te Dum, a 5.7 I remember struggling to climb back in 1965. This time it was well within my ability.
After we finished Te Dum, Don left. I met up with Jean and Annie, newly arrived from Vermont for a week’s climbing. As evening fell, I watched Jean do a very impressive lead of Handy Andy. I think she did the 5.8 variation. Annie followed. We had dinner with Carolyn and spent Saturday night at the Creekview Campground, J and A in their very nifty VW camper van and I in my somewhat less spiffy, but much beloved, min-van Ezzie.
Sunday was a beautiful fall day with bright blue skies, cool temps and a quilt of red, gold, green and brown foliage laid out at the base of the cliffs. I was happy to spend a day doing mellow climbing with good friends. Jean did a nice lead of Te Dum; as sometimes happens, I found it harder the second time than it had seemed the day before. I often take a climb too casually on a second ascent and don’t focus as I should. Annie then led us up Gelsa, for me another repeat from the day before. She handled the lead well, effectively solving the problems posed by getting off-route and having to down-climb on the second pitch. The climbing was good, but the day stands out in my memory for the good friends and the airy ledges that let me feel a part of the beautiful sky, sun, rock and color. Gunks magic.
On the 7 hour drive home (bad traffic) I had time to think. Maybe I got it wrong back in 1965. Maybe I can climb Gunks 8s. I’ve done a bunch of them, even led one. Surely they can’t all be over-rated. Slowly it sank in: I’m ready to start leading gunks 8s. I think my next 5.8 lead will be Son of Easy O. I’ve done the first pitch and looked hard at the second from below. It looks very doable.
In the overall scheme of things, and even in the narrower world of rock climbing, leading 5.8 in the Gunks is not a big deal, certainly not in a world where kids are sent to kill and die in Iraq and teenagers with a year or two of climbing experience are leading 5.12 and harder. But for me it is a big deal. To be able to do a physical activity better and harder at age 61 than I could do it at ages 16 through 22 astonishes me. To be having more fun climbing now than I did 40 years ago is a gift. I feel almost as if I have been given a second chance at life. I can’t know how long this will last. But I am loving it while it does.