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Competitive Free Soloing in the Gunks in 1985

A quiet "third-classing" competition took place in the summer of 1985 in the Gunks, culminating in the author's free solo of the ultra-classic "Supercrack" 5.12c.

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Editor’s note

 First published in Climbing No. 95 in April 1986, Russ Clune’s “Fool’s Goal” told the story of an escalating series of bold free solos that occurred in the Gunks in 1985—the result of a friendly (if perhaps foolish) competition between Clune and his friends Jeff Gruenberg and Barry Rugo. We’re delighted to be bring this Climbing classic to our online readers accompanied with a new preface by Clune himself.

—The editors

Preface

Soloing in the Gunks was nothing new in the 1980s. Climbers had been at it for decades, usually on routes well within their capabilities and without true risk involved. Gunks rock is solid stuff and there is little need to worry about a hold snapping off, especially on the well-traveled climbs most folks soloed. But something changed, briefly, in 1985.

Jeff Gruenberg and I teamed up for new routes a lot in the 80s, all done in the traditional method of the era—yo-yo style, ground up, no hangdogging. Jeff was the boldest climber I knew. He didn’t blink at taking off into terra incognita; scary-looking blank walls that were obviously going to be unprotectable, and I was always happy to let him take the sharp end in those instances. In addition to climbing these adventurous new routes, we trained and did laps on the previous generation’s test pieces, including classics like Foops (5.11), Open Cockpit (5.11+) and Supercrack (5.12c). We did these climbs so often a blindfold wouldn’t have hindered an ascent. Gradually the question arose: Why not solo them?

Well, neither Jeff nor I considered ourselves solo climbers; it’s something we did occasionally, even on difficult routes when they had cruxes near the ground, but soloing was not our regular passion by any means.

Still, we talked about it, eventually agreeing there were four ultra-classic climbs—the cutting edge of climbing in the early 70s—that would be rad solos; the three above-mentioned routes and Kansas City, a twenty-foot 5.12 roof. Of the four climbs, Kansas City was the most absurd. It was just too scary, and there’d be no way to downclimb mid-roof if something went wrong.

At first, mind you, this was just idle chatter, shooting the shit around the table or during rests between burns at the crag. But we were both thinking the same thing without saying it—who’s gonna go first? We never divulged anything to each other about any plans we may have had in our noggins, but there was a bit of a competition brewing—and in the summer of 1985 it flared to life. You can read about it in my story below.

Thankfully, the spate of hard solos flamed out as fast as it turned on, at least for us. After Supercrack, Jeff and I were over it, but it wouldn’t take long to be outdone by the next generation when Scott Franklin soloed of Survival of the Fittest (5.13-). That was over 35 years ago, and to my knowledge, nobody has topped Franklin’s soloing achievement in the Gunks. Nor would I encourage anyone to try.

I still enjoy the occasional ropeless jaunt on very easy routes here in the Gunks. The feeling of unencumbered movement is just plain fun. But I am painfully aware that most of the true soloists of my generation died soloing. The unfortunate empirical evidence points to one fact: If you keep pushing, eventually there will be pushback.

—Russ Clune, June 2022

Russ Clune on Gill Egg (V4) circa 1979 (Photo: Courtesy of Russ Clune)

Fool’s Goal

At the belay below the crux roof of Fat City, a Gunks 5.10, Jeff Gruenberg announced to his partners, “Someday I’m gonna solo this thing.” But when he followed it, he popped off the down-sloping holds. Jeff dangled in the air and looked up at his friends.

“Well, maybe I’ll make that a roped solo.”

On a warm Friday evening about a year later, Jeff was again at the crux roof of Fat City; this time he didn’t have his rope. It was an impressive solo. Soon afterward, Dan McMillan climbed Erect Direction, another 5.10, sans kernmantel. The feat had been attempted before by another climber; his efforts had left him stranded light-years off the deck, hanging by a single small Stopper in a corner below massive roofs. Dan had done the route a week earlier with a partner.

“It felt so casual, I just wanted to solo it.”

A new game had come to town. Although nothing was overt, a third-classing competition had started within a small clique of Gunks regulars.

Jeff and I agreed there were three ultra-classic solos: Foops, Open Cockpit, and Supercrack.

Whenever we were at Skytop, we found ourselves doing the three routes again and again. Foops, a famous 5.11 roof, felt solid. Open Cockpit, a slightly overhung, 40-foot, 5.11 + face climb, was dicey. Supercrack, a 5.12 finger-wrencher, was out of the question: We still fell on it.

A young Alex Lowe climbing at Millbrook. (Photo: Courtesy of Russ Clune)

A sunny autumn afternoon brought me out to Skytop. I decided to give Foops a look. No one was around and I enjoyed the solitude. I climbed the 50-foot 5.9 wall to the base of the ‘hang and contemplated the chalk marks extending to the lip. After testing the first couple of holds, I returned to the rest and thought some more.

I heard boisterous conversation—a small group of tourists appeared in the talus below. Someone exclaimed, “Look!” I glanced down and saw a finger pointed at me. They became silent and sat down among the boulders. I imagined I was in an auto race, the spectators just waiting for me to crash and burst into flames. I waited them out. It felt an eternity. After they bored of watching paint dry, they left. I down climbed; the mood was shattered.

Once again, it was a warm Friday evening when Jeff found himself alone on Foops. Once again, it was a momentous accomplishment: He’d ticked the first of the masterpiece solos.

That stirred the scene up. All the talk was becoming action. Naturally, we denied there was any competition involved. After all, what’s the fascination in soloing something that’s been unmercifully wired? But while we said, “No big deal,” we thought to ourselves, “Holy shit!” Nothing much was said about coming attractions, but the clique knew what was bound to happen, sometime in the foreseeable future.

Jeff and I were on Supercrack. I redpointed it, set up a toprope and lowered down. Jeff waltzed through and belayed me from the top. I did another lap, removing the gear along the way. “This is really getting easy,” I thought. Jeff had a smirk on his face when I pulled over the top. “So, when ya gonna solo it, Spencer?” he asked expectantly. “Oh, never. What’s the point? What would it prove?” I said. “I have it so wired. Now, if somebody third-classed it onsight, that’d be impressive.” Regardless of what I told Jeff, the idea of soloing the thing became a goal.

Jeff pulled another coup when he broke from the sacred three. Open Cockpit was the natural successor to Foops. Instead, he opted for Yellow Wall, a 5.11 that weaves through forbidding overhangs on less-than-the-best rock. It was a brilliant solo.

On a cloudy day midweek, I meandered out to Skytop with just my shoes and chalk bag. I told myself I’d look for friends and climb whatever people were doing, but I knew the place would be deserted. Well, it almost was. John Harlin and his wife, Adele, were climbing a route in the vicinity of Open Cockpit.

“Hmm, Open Cockpit,” I thought. I stood below it, then slipped my shoes on. Adele came around. I started up, chatting with her. Somehow her presence made me feel at ease. Whether it was because it kept my mind off what I was doing or it was just nice to have company, I’m not sure. I kept going; we kept talking.

Russ Clune soloing Open Cockpit (5.11) in 1985 (Photo: Courtesy of Russ Clune)

When I was three quarters up the face, Adele made a concerned inquiry. “Are you going to solo it?”

“Well, it’d be easier going up than climbing down at this point,” I replied.

Three days later, Barry Rugo soloed Open Cockpit. He knew nothing of my undertaking and thought he’d bagged the first solo. His inspired ascent produced an ironic situation.

The heat was on: two down and one to go. Open Cockpit had been somewhat spontaneous; Supercrack was totally premeditated.

Dick was home. My headlights flashed against his car as I pulled into the driveway. It dawned on me that this was the end of the summer. Tomorrow would be my last day in the Gunks before classes started. Tomorrow would be it.

I had been housesitting in New Paltz for Dick Williams and Rosie Andrews while they visited Britain. Exceptionally fine August weather allowed for daily rituals of pulling, pumping, and tweaking on solid quartzite. The result was a confidence, which only comes from familiarity. Once my attention turned to school, the spell would be broken.

I greeted Dick in the living room and we talked about his trip. My attention was only partially on the conversation. Whisks of tomorrow’s plan swept through my head and I felt like a kid with a secret.

Dick went to bed and I slouched down on the couch, draping my bag loosely over me. The night was warm, the insects noisy. I closed my eyes and saw Supercrack in front of me. I envisioned my hands and feet on each move until I stood on top. Back at the base, I climbed it again. Perfect. Again. Perfect. Again . . .

The aroma of freshly ground French roast coffee filled the house at an obscenely early hour. Dick, unable to sleep well because of jet lag, joined me for a cup as we exchanged goodbyes. He thought I was headed directly home. I knew better. My truck puttered uphill toward the Trapps. I parked, pulled my bike out of the back, strapped my pack to my back, and turned on the Walkman. Cool air rushed against my face as The Smiths blared through the headphones:

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“All men have secrets and here is mine, so let it be known . . .”

I pedaled fast toward Skytop. At the base of Supercrack I was sweating and breathing hard from the ride. The crack looked long. I pictured myself on it; watched myself climb it from the perspective of an observer. Then I mentally climbed it as the climber, watching my feet and hands on each hold.

My breathing slowed down. Now the climb looked short. I liked that. My Walkman was off, but The Smiths still swirled in my head. I pulled my shoes on and laced them with the care of a diamond cutter, letting each toe find its favorite indentation before locking it into place. I squeezed my full chalk bag a few times, breaking the chunks down to the right consistency. I started up, went several moves, and came down. The Smiths sang:

“What difference does it make? Ohhh, what difference does it make?”

Enough that I had to erase every iota of doubt. I went back to my pack and pulled out a rope and a couple of units. I climbed around the back of the pinnacle and anchored the toprope. At the bottom, I rigged a jumar to my harness.

I shot up the crack. It felt good and secure; just right. I dropped the rope and pulled the anchors. Back at the base, I sat and rubbed the soles of my shoes clean.

Automatic pilot switched on. The crack had the feel of a well-worn glove, every rugosity clicking into place. Footholds appeared with acute clarity, looking overly large. Thumb pinch with the right, index finger down with the left, feet stemmed, butterfly jam with the right, right foot pebble, left foot edge . . .

Internal dialogue made an uninvited appearance when my left hand clutched the jug above the roof. “What the hell are you doing?!” it exclaimed in shocked horror. I squashed the thought like a troublesome insect, and with a surge of adrenaline laybacked to the stance. A wave of relief washed over me. I chalked each hand thoroughly and continued up on steel-solid locks. On top I looked out over the valley toward town. My heart thumped audibly and a tumultuous shudder ran the length of my body. Internal dialogue returned with two thoughts: “God, I love this place” and “I’m retired.”

Jimmy Surette in the Near Trapps. (Photo: Courtesy of Russ Clune)

“Oh, the devil will find work for idle hands to do . . .”

I met Jimmy Surette in North Conway the next day. Jim is a talented 17-year-old climber with a bright future. He glowed in delight when I told him about Supercrack.

“Wow, awesome!” he said. “I’m really glad you did that.”

We went to the Airation Buttress on Cathedral Ledge for the day’s climbing. Jimmy silently put his shoes on. Next thing I knew he was soloing Airation, a 40-foot 5.11 finger crack. I watched in concern, but he had it in control. A few words of encouragement were all I gave.

Even as I worried, the competitive streak in me said, “Go for it.” I squelched it. I realized my following would only spur him on. We had a talk when he came back down.

“Good job, man.”

“Thanks.”

“Listen, I don’t want to sound like your old man, but it concerns me you did that right after I told you about Supercrack.”

I told him that soloing was great, but asked him to keep it in perspective.

“Don’t do it to impress anyone but yourself, it’s not a shortcut to grandeur. It’s a shortcut to nowhere.” Jimmy listened, then assured me it was no problem. He’d been wanting to do Airation for a while. I felt responsible, but could hardly say much more, being the pot calling the kettle black. I remembered “Noddy,” a British climber, a Moffatt groupie, who decided that soloing was the hot ticket to fame. It wasn’t. John Kirk wrote in Noddy’s obit: “He will never be famous. He was the guy who held Jerry Moffatt’s ropes . . . Another life finished before it had really begun.”

As people started hearing about Supercrack, the compliments and congratulations flowed thick and fast. It bothered me a little then and still does. What I did was not glorious, was no amazing feat of derring-do. I had the thing wired into submission. It was simply the proper state of mind.

About a month later, I was at Supercrack. Todd Skinner had just led it and offered a toprope. I thought about what it would be like to fall off it. Last time I was here, falling had never entered my head. I tied in and started up. The butterfly jam popped out; I was off, and everybody screamed.

I’m definitely retired.

I think.

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