When I tell people that I began climbing in the Gunks, a fairly typical response is: “I’ve heard that place is sandbagged.”

Some of the most sandbagged places that I have had the pleasure of plugging gear in include Seneca Rocks, WV and Vedauwoo, WY. This is, of course, just my opinion based on my own personal experiences rock climbing, and the fact of the matter is that grades, in general, are so subjective. Additionally, it often depends on when the route was first put up. When that 5.9 (you know, the one that feels like 5.9+) that you’re about to chuff all over was put up, that might have been at the limit of what climbers were doing at the time.

Anyway, what the hell is a “sandbagged” climb supposed to feel like, anyway? Does it mean that the route felt hard when someone gave you the impression that it was supposed to feel easy? Do you have to be climbing at a fairly similar level for an accurate spray down? I’ve been climbing about six years now and I still don’t have a clue (and it all feels sandbagged.) From the ground, everything looks reasonable until you’re halfway up the route with uncontrollable sewing machine leg. While you struggle barge the rest of the way upward, maybe you can take some solace in the fact that the FA was done in steel-toed boots and with pitons.

My first trip to Seneca Rocks. I got scared on a lot of things here.

Truthfully, both Seneca Rocks and Vedauwoo felt sandbagged to me because, at the time, I’d only climbed in the Gunks and therefore, had only been exposed to one style. Since then, every place I’ve traveled to, I’ve accepted local advice but I have also learned to take it with a grain of salt. Climbing routes will always feel either much easier or much harder than what you are used to, because of what you are used to.

And so, for many climbers (including myself) who cut their teeth on the white quartzite conglomerate ridges of the Gunks, those cliffs might not seem quite so “sandbagged”.

Climbing, in general, can have a steep and slow learning curve, and when it comes to its distinct style, like most areas, the Gunks is no different. This can be especially true for out-of-state visitors—but if you’re paying a visit from out west, there are certainly more than a few crack climbs that nobody talks about. You’re almost guaranteed to have them all to yourself, too.

The long-awaited double D day

I figured that this would be the case as I had plans to finally undertake the big roof crack of Disco Death March (5.10d) in the Trapps. In all my time climbing in the Gunks, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another person on it. Its giant gaping chasm has stared at me, time and time again, as I passed it on my way to other walls. Before I even owned a number 6, I’d wanted to try it. After considering the fact that I had no 6, no offwidth technique, and watching a burly video of Thea Blodgett-Gallahan sending it with style, I chickened out—I mean, I never got around to it.

Well, now I own three 6s and had no excuses (except that I thought I’d packed the third one and made Sam run back to the Trapps parking lot to retrieve it). Chris Vultaggio, photographer and Gunks local, had suggested some brilliant climbs in the 5.10 range that would get great light, some of which I had never tried and wanted to, but I remained unwavering in my decision. Chris kindly humored me, as did Sam.

There was no chickening out, this time.

You don’t really need a lot of gear for this route, but you do need big gear. It’s been done with two 6s, which I tried during my first burn, bumping my second piece again and again. Having three pieces made me much happier and feel more confident on my second attempt.

Committing to the traverse. Photograph by Chris Vultaggio

Over birthday sushi the night before, I told my best friend, Scott Albright, that I thought it was a good idea to try it inverted. Bashfully, I said: “I know, I know. It might be dumb. It might not work.” And he told me that I should absolutely do it in a style that was right for me. So what if nobody had tried climbing the crack, legs first? It didn’t mean that it wasn’t going to work, and I wouldn’t know until I tried.

And so, after placing a Yates 6, I buried a right hand into the far crack and established a good left chicken wing. My feet scuttled across the rock for a moment as I hoisted myself up and into the crack, pushing further and further for eventually what would be two good feet. The heel/toe cams crushed my left foot, and I cursed every second I held it—but I managed to hold it. Previously, the crack that leads all the way to the lip of the climb had been done by traversing and underclinging—basically, one long and strenuous layback.

I argued that laying the entire traverse back seemed exhausting, not to mention that the undercling didn’t feel supremely great. Also, being 5’, my feet came nowhere near the tiny foot rail. I thought that if I were to layback the crack without decent feet, my shoes would for sure skate and I would pop off. And while a combination of butt scooting, mantling, and chicken wings (for rests and taking weight off of my previously injured left foot) were also exhausting, I felt confident that this was the right way for me to approach the route.

Left or right wing? Decisions, decisions. Photograph by Chris Vultaggio
“I learned a new climbing technique yesterday called the ‘invert’ for climbing overhanging offwidths. I told Kathy I wanted an easy day at the Gunks, so she puts up this 5.10d called Disco Death March. Basically, the idea is to shove your legs as deep as possible inside the crack so you can make a wedge with your heels and toes and then somehow bat-hang your entire body weight upside down on your feet. It feels as awful as it looks.” — Sam Cervantas. Photograph by Chris Vultaggio

Maybe this classic 1977 line was not done the same way. In fact, it’s unlikely. But after spending some time climbing out west, I came back to Disco Death March and saw an entirely different route. I’ve started seeing a lot of things differently since I’ve been out west because, with each new experience, our current perspective shifts a little bit—and then a lot. Our standards are set by our own personal experiences—so don’t let people sandbag you. Or rather, don’t allow yourself to feel sandbagged by others. You can be attentive to what people have to say, but remember that their experience is absolutely and perfectly their own, and so is yours.

When I left the east coast to stretch my legs out west a bit, I had the intention of becoming a more well-rounded climber. I am not the greatest climber, but sometimes, I am successful. I have been the most successful when I have been able to apply technique learned from other climbing areas, as unconventional as it may feel. But in climbing, what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. My beta might not be his beta; what feels sandbagged to him might not feel sandbagged to her.

Initially, I felt afraid and silly to try something in my own style, but the truth is that you don’t have to make decisions based on how things were formally done. Don’t let others tell you that things must be done in a certain way because they really don’t. Don’t let people tell you how hard or easy something is going to be—go and see for yourself.

Cover photograph courtesy of Chris Vultaggio

3 thoughts

  1. Great article, im from Minnesota and the sand baging here is “real” but it also makes u much more open to try anything and everything you never know what ur gonna get until ur on the boulder or at the chains. Thanks for the fantastic article!!!

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