This is a controversial topic among Mather Gorge climbers, and one of rather specialized interest; perhaps my store of experience in this area could be helpful to younger trad climbers, first, in deciding whether to even do it at all, and second, to approach it with knowledge that will make it safer and more enjoyable. Of course, when I was younger, safety was not the top item on my list, and the opinions of experienced climbers held little interest for me. Go jump off a cliff, you fusty old farts! What kept me alive while leading a fairly long list of Mather Gorge climbs was fear of death, plenty of cautious preparation, decent ability in placing traditional gear, and good familiarity with the peculiar rock of this area gained through much bouldering and toproping. And, I freely admit, my share of luck, when I made some foolish bets at the Life and Death Casino and barely squeaked by the house odds.
Leading in the Gorge has a bad reputation. The quality of the rock is unusual: it is semi-metamorphosed, half-melted, very hard and often very smooth, with random quartz inclusions, weird incuts here and there, and some cracks that are rough and nasty while others are parallel and polished. The classic true story that illustrates the apparent danger is well-known: a climber attempted to lead the short but muscular overhanging 5.9 dihedral called Armbuster, fell near the top, had at least one cam fail in flaking rock, and cratered. He was seriously injured, and gave up climbing, according to accounts. It was this very incident that caused me to consider the problem of leading here, and I then continued to lead occasionally whenever I thought a climb would go, and sometimes when I wasn’t as sure as I ought to have been. Such is youth. However, with the perspective of more than a quarter century, I feel qualified to bombastically pontificate as to which climbs can be safely led and which should not be attempted except by stronger and crazier climbers than myself. Take that as a total disclaimer: I am no more an ‘authority’ than anyone else; you must be your own authority in the end, as with all climbing.
The basic knock on the schist is that cams will skate out of the hard, parallel cracks; some say the teeth can’t bite on the surface of the rock, and others that the intense forces of a lead fall can cause the surface of the rock just under the teeth to become powder, thus allowing an instant Astro-Glide right out of the crack. I can't be sure which of these theories is correct, but I am forced to accept the possibility and allow for it in my placement strategy. When the locals at Wingate tell you to get yourself two sets of fat cams, you'd better just do it. But if cams are totally suspect at Mather Gorge, you need to go retro, and use only nuts, and, if you know how to use them, Tri-Cams. (Advanced gear-heads have been known to use the weird and exotic Ballnutz to good effect.) As it happens there are many excellent placements to be found on some of the more classic lines, and when you slot a perfect nut, properly oriented to the appropriate force vector and tugged to be snug, there is no reason that the schist will spit out the piece any sooner than in any other type of rock.
|These equalized Tri-Cams form a directional anchor at the base of Armbuster. I wanged the sling up, down, sideways and every which way with enthusiasm, and they didn't budge.|
Reasoning thusly, I went down to Armbuster one day and led it on a few excellent Tri-Cam and nut placements and one totally bomber medium wired nut just before the crux at the top. Although I was in good shape, I was not so strong that I was absolutely sure of making that last move. But in this instance I did not fall, and my placements were not tested.
|A perfect nut crack, not far up Armbuster...|
|...and another one; both of which can take several sizes.|
This is a safe lead, assuming as always that you size and place the Tri-Cams properly, so that the point cannot skate out, and that you remember to stem the dihedral's middle section so that you won't be painfully hanging on a jam, wasting grip, while trying to get the gear just right. In the Gorge I am not a true trad purist; I had already toproped all my leads at least once, and before embarking I usually examined them closely on rappel to plan the whole gear sequence.
|The last good placement before the desperate final push. This one is strong...|
|...but this smaller one, equally strong, leaves more room on this key hold for your hand to grasp it.|
By the way – if you have just arrived from Latvia, local custom forbids the placing of bolts or the use of pitons. One or two feeble attempts to establish bolting have happened in past years, but they were quickly suppressed with a heavy hand. The rock is just too limited in scope, and valuable in its original configuration. It is true that the climb Lost Arrow/Terrapin Station was originally made possible by pin scars, but no one has proposed that that would justify any piton use now. Sometimes aimless talk arises of the parks installing bolt anchors for toproping, for safety and to spare the trees, but nothing seems to come of it. Most of the climbs have healthy tree anchors readily available as well as opportunities for good gear anchors in cracks. For detailed blathering about proper toprope anchors at Great Falls, consult the 2001 edition of the Climber's Guide to the Great Falls of the Potomac, page 17. What a crusty old Victorian relic the writer of that essay must have been! I can see him in knickers and nailed boots, carrying a piolet about four feet long and wearing a bowler. Nevertheless his pithy advice is reasonably accurate.
I have not yet fallen on lead in the Gorge, nor will I, as I've done all the nice leads within my ability range. So my placements have not been tested by fire; but I've fallen often enough elsewhere, and they've held up; and I've learned better placements, more patient craftsmanship, from those embarrassing incidents over the years when pieces spontaneously fell out. The worst of these is probably the time I led the short, pretty 5.9 called Possibilities on the lower tier of the Juliet's Balcony area.
|Another strong nut for downward pull only.|
I had an anchor at the lip and had scoped the pro with intense concentration on rappel; I then led it without falls or hangs on about 5 small to small-ish nuts, all of them satisfying placements, clipped the rope into the toprope anchor to be lowered, and of course, when my belayer tightened up, he being just a few feet out from the base, all the pieces zippered instantly and slid onto his belay device. I had neglected the most basic tenet of trad leading: get a good directional at the bottom. If you wish to lead this climb, do not skip that step! It would not be good to just have the belayer directly underneath, either, as this climb demands strong fingers and some ingenuity almost right off the deck.
It is quite possible to learn trad leading in the Gorge, but I do not recommend the system I employed in 1980 with a couple of partners hardly any more experienced than myself. We (out in Washington State) would go out and fiddle around as much as we dared, using slipshod research, mostly avoiding too much bravado and risk, experiencing trial and error in the typical pattern. Much better, regardless of the rock you have to learn on, is to work with an experienced leader, practice as much as you can at a level that is quite easy physically for you, get real expertise to answer your questions, and if you like have a toprope backup so you can really test your techniques. Here are a few excellent practice leads for those who find 5.8 toproping reliably easy:
Epigone. 5.6. Short, easy, good hand jamming. As much pro as you want. Rough texture.
Romeo's Ladder. 5.6 with nice vertical finish. Takes large pieces in quantity; teaches one not to place gear in the best jams at the top. More strenuous when led, like many climbs. One thing that toproping doesn't necessarily teach is finding rest stances from which to place gear.
Last Exit, 5.6. Wanders enough to help teach rope-drag management through sling lengths. Take a full set of nuts.
Snowflake, 5.6. Gobbles up large and medium nuts; good practice for setting a multiple-piece equalized hanging belay just before the end if desired.
When those seem simplistic, go on to Bird's Nest (seriously sidewinds, can be used to teach double rope techniques as well as dealing with rope drag), 5.7.
When you've mastered hand jamming and can easily toprope 5.9, try leading Backslider, an unusually stiff 5.7.
|This #8 DMM nut on Backslider would hold an elephant, or at the very least a hippopotamus.|
But proceed with great caution at the start, where the crack is very smooth and somewhat flaring, and the first move peculiar; a great place to sprain an ankle, or worse. Crack takes large stuff and often needs gardening and cleaning beforehand due to the high water of winter filling it with sticks and whatnot.
|Another large and perfect nut on Backslider. If you don't trust this one then maybe the trad leading game is not for you.|
Now that your nerve is a bit stronger, lead Cornice, the king of 5.7s. The start is slightly run out; be patient setting a good piece for the first crux down low, through the tiny chimney. Then just below the main overhang you have plenty of time to set large Tri-Cams and other pieces in a fine equalized anchor in the center crack before moving left a few feet to pull the hang. There is also a horizontal placement available a couple of feet to the left, a bit harder to place. Don't make the slings too short, of course, or the rope might bind against the lip as you are climbing above it. Resist the temptation to crouch on the ledge out to the right; setting pro from there is very awkward. Above the hang there are nice medium/small placements to protect the exit, and if your follower agrees, you can set a good nut anchor at the top to belay him up. Pretend there are no trees, and get a good strong anchor in the little vertical crack or farther up around boulders.
There are good leads across the river at this level, especially on the Knob, with variants, and Rock and Roll, 5.7, at the north end of the Rocky Islands. Creative moves and placements on the Knob on exceptionally polished rock, but lesser physical stress; Rock and Roll is thin jamming, fairly steep, a rough crack that takes gear well; here give care to anchoring the belayer as needed, just as anywhere along the river if the base is chaotic in conformation. The base is best accessed by rappel or by boat; there is a rather nervy and non-obvious downclimb, with a handy deathfall for the suicidal.
The best practice for multi-pitch technique in the region is the Ducks Traverse running along below Cow Hoof; not feasible if the river is unusually high. A fine three-pitch traverse at varying heights, teaches technique such as protecting the follower; the finish is a vertical, often dirty climb up into the woods, which has fewer good placements than you would want. One can also continue traversing downstream if that section is too dicey-looking. Supposedly 5.7 but a pretty nervy enterprise, especially turning a sharp corner after crossing a sort of garage-door alcove; weird move tosses people into the river here. Now you're starting to get a bit of genuine adventure in the tame old Gorge. I once found an old hard-shaft Friend deep in a crack here; after manufacturing a retrieval hook with wire I got it out, but never used it. Even then I was prejudiced against using an expensive all-purpose piece that can walk itself into trouble, but which seductively invites you to just shove it in quickly and carelessly. I do like some of the newer designs, (Omega Pacific Link Cams for example) but I just cadge their use from my friends.
When you start getting into the 5.8 leading level, you need to refine your placement skill, your equalization strategy and your overall judgment. For example, the River Wall at Purple Horse is a wandering small-hold and small-crack slab climb on a very smooth and very hard face, and demands creativity, strong fingers, precise footwork and nerve; but I consider it safe for anyone with these skills. But I once led the Seclusion Face, a thin 5.8 with good friction, which I had checked out for protection possibilities, but carelessly, with arrogance in my heart, because after all I had soloed it a couple of times. On a cold day I got to the crux under the little overhang with a questionable small nut probably 8 or 10 feet below me, and I had no protection worth mentioning at the hang, and spent so long fiddling hopelessly with a shallow, flaring little crack that would not have held a chihuahua on a leash, that I ended up almost running out of strength and just went up and did it, faking my way into the death zone like a moron. Well, these things happen, and we either learn from them and strengthen our characters, and correct our mistakes every so gradually, or, eventually the House wins, as we repeat our mistakes once too often.
Another climb much like that is the Dancing Climb at Boucher Rocks (now seemingly off limits) which is a very pleasant 5.8 friction/face slab toprope. DO NOT LEAD THIS CLIMB. If your particular mental disorder demands that you solo it, do so, but don't pretend to yourself, as I once did, that you are leading it as you fake your way up with three or four tiny, worthless wires. Just to the right of it, by the way, is the excellent 5.8 corner-crack called Long Corner, which is a fine and safe lead. Note: arrogant rich landowners above claim that this stretch of river is theirs, although the 'flood plain', as I understand it, is actually public property. They have a point, because unfortunately this has long been a party spot for yahoos to crap up. But perhaps it will open up again someday. If so be warned that the poison ivy is extremely menacing there.
Other 5.8s I have led: Center Ring is unexpectedly good for leading, small Tri-Cams useful, as they so often are; and it would not be considered cowardly by any means if a strong piece were to be set into the Rock and Roll crack just to the right at the higher crux. Caliban is moderately strenuous but straightforward, mostly medium and large (check for yellow jackets on top beforehand); and The Man's Route is short but steep and hard in the first half; this kind of climb demands that you work out your first and second placements before really committing yourself, if possible by a short up-and-down recon. No law says you can't climb three feet, place a good piece and immediately climb back down and think about it some more. The law just says you can't hang on it. In extreme cases like this I have been known to clip the first piece to a sling and onto the rope at my waist, and hold the piece in my teeth until I'm ready to drop it in. The second half of the climb is easier but runout, so step carefully.
Getting into the 5.9 arena we are accepting more risk and using more skill and strength, not to mention nerve; but the only reason that these might be considered more dangerous than 5.9s elsewhere is that they are short. You don't have the luxury of having several good pieces in the first thirty feet of moderate climbing, so that you have a nice cushion of rope and space if you fall, as, for example, you do on the perfect granite of Strawberry Jam at Old Rag. Instead you are already burning too much grip ten feet up with a piece at your feet and you'd better have a plan for getting that second piece in PDQ, as we old farts say without embarrassment. I've already talked about Armbuster; for that it's best if you can do ten pullups, know how to jam, layback and stem, and have the final piece already on a sling and easy to grab when you drop it in the beautiful slot. You still don't have any rest there, but at least you can blast for the giant finishing bucket with the last of your grip without crapping your pants about the pro.
Sickle's Edge is a very nice 5.9 that is completely different; the upper section is classic smooth friction and face climbing, not quite vertical, well protected by a few very specific pockets; the faster you solve the tricky little cruxes the less strenuous it will be. When you master the footwork for this climb (hint: work on Butterfly and Merv's at Carderock to tune up the toes) you will find friction work elsewhere on real granite to be laughably easy.
Pocket Pussy is a safe but nerve-racking vertical lead; the angled, jagged first half takes a couple of big pieces, like Romeo's, but then you are in a mini-cave looking awkwardly up at a smooth bit of crack with a couple of tough pocket-jams; you can't put your pro in those jams, remember.
Rock and Roll is an exciting lead with an overhang crux near the base, with some real oddball pro setups; check this one out very carefully before committing to it. I recently visited it (Rocky Islands North is one of the prettiest areas on the river) and was sobered to read in my PATC guidebook that, although it is listed at 5.9-, I had revised it for myself as 5.8. This is a clear incidence of arrogance and self-deception, done when I was much stronger; my partner toproped it and we are convinced that it is harder than 5.8, though easier than some 5.9s on the river. The lesson is obvious and well-known: subjectivity can creep in anywhere, even into well-done guidebooks at times. It is up to the climber to apply a safety-margin adjustment tailored to his or her circumstances. In addition there is the problem of the unreliability of memory itself. Over and over, as I revisit climbs last done (by me) in decades past, I find that the climb is very different from whatever tags I had placed on it in my head.
F.I.S.T. at Cow Hoof is one of my favorite leads on the river. Strong, awkward vertical hand jamming at the start is protected by a couple of well-set big Tri-Cams (3 to 5); fight through that, taking care not to dislodge your pieces as you go, and then rest as long as you like on the large grassy ledge, looking at the intermittent finger crack that splits the Hoof above you. It's nice because from here you can walk off if you don't feel like doing the scary final moves.
|Large Tri-Cams protect the start of F.I.S.T.|
You will be able to set more than one excellent nut here; slot your left fingers in the spot with the blade in the bottom, chalk like an addict and go high with the right to small face holds and then to the lip. A classic lead move.
I am now assuming that my readers at this level will employ good craftsmanship with setting and equalizing nuts. I once watched a stronger climber than I lead Lunging Ledges, patiently setting and equalizing two small nuts in the small flaky cracks. I didn't follow, but I am pretty sure that was a safe lead even though the climb was easy for this guy. If you can pull the climb on toprope ten times out of ten, rap down and look closely at those flakes, and you might find it worth doing.
I'll finish up this essay with three climbs that have more complex issues, climbs that perhaps I should not even have attempted. I led Eagle's Nest, 5.9+, on a hot and humid day. Getting to the alcove with a few more-or-less good nuts was not too bad, but the crux of course is traversing left, out, around and up on a weird boulder problem, which I had done only once, years before. AND protection at that point is not nearly as good as what you might like. A fall there will slam you back down on the right wall of the dihedral, too. I spent a long time just finding a funny contorted rest stance, and then a long time putting in some bullshit, and then even longer whipping my nerve into a froth so I could start the move. My belayer was sorry he agreed to belay me, and the whole experience was bogus, let us say, even though I ticked it. But we do get bored sometimes after a couple of decades at the Gorge, and want some new and stupid sensation.
Then there was the time I decided I could lead Bridge Too Far, a lovely one-move 5.10a. I used a whole group of shaky rationalizations to justify this one little move, and I succeeded in leading it, but I can't justify it, and I don't recommend it. The crux is fairly low down, but not a place you want to fall from, and it is protected by one rather tiny wire in a very smooth little crack. I instructed my belayer to stand to one side and be instantly ready to yard in one arm's length of rope if I fell, perhaps to reduce some of the acceleration as the wire pulled out. The move is smooth and weird. The rest of the climb is easy and well-protected. But don't lead it, it ain't worth it.
Years before that I led Two Lane, the classic 5.10-. I still regard it as one of my best leads ever, in spite of certain flaws. My preliminary examination was a little too cursory, and when I arrived at the last rest stance before the strenuous exit sequence, I found that the peculiar flaring crack I had assumed would be fine for a nut was not. It was pure creepy geometric hell. I finally nested two nuts in some ridiculous way and went for it. I knew very well that I would not have the strength to stop and put in a piece in the final finger crack, and that if I peeled off, those two nuts would snap out of there, and I'd fly a fair ways farther before my next piece, a strong one, would catch me. It is a very vertical climb, but I did not want to fall, and I also did not want to admit that I'd really like to be rescued with a rope from above, thank you very much, so I went for the finish with everything I had, in fear and trembling, but with all my power and what skill I had way back then, and I made it. I felt both triumphant and a little shamed: I had taken the risk and won my bid, but was it really worth it? Lying to yourself saps the true enjoyment of your triumphs; if you don't learn better, things just end up hollowed out.
|Where is the hard truth, behind the cluttered screen of emotion, under the smooth and perfect surface of the river?|
As with all the rest of these climbs, but especially with Two Lane, I strongly recommend that the climber know what the hell he is doing before he starts. But life is never perfect; our control, our judgment and power and skill are always flawed; we just have to do the best we can with what we have, taking full responsibility for ourselves as individuals. That's what climbing is. It isn't a sporty club activity with a safety code and a merit badge. It's you and your life, and me and my life. We watch out for each other, but still we each have to watch out for ourselves, which is the trickiest thing of all. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the coolest climber of us all? The mirror can and does lie.
I did a nice lead of Sciolist, 5.10+, once, not too many years ago. It is short and bouldery, and the only reason I don't call it a tick is because the last piece, which I needed, had to go in a finger-lock which I also needed, and being in there as I used the hold, it made the move somewhat easier. But you can't relax for a moment even on this short a climb, because if your pro is crap and you crater, you will bounce off the ledge you started from and go another nasty twenty feet down to the river's edge. Two craters for the price of one.
|The Treacherous Potomac River which drowns several incautious people per year. It should be ashamed of itself.|
At the far other end of the scale, Peg's Progress is a very nice and dramatic 5.4 that makes a fun beginner lead.