It had rained hard that night. As we cruised westward from Warrenton the overcast drizzle began to lift in patches, and as we drove west from the speck of buildings that the elves call Etlan, the clouds drifted slow and low, obscuring the mountain, but revealing glimpses of the Blue Ridge behind, sporadically sunlit. As we hiked up from Berry Hollow and approached the Old Rag shelter on the fire road, the odd shaft of gold burned through and caused the doomed ferns of the forest floor to glow molten, water vapor rising through them. Soon we met two young men carrying heavy packs encased in garbage bags; I asked them how they liked the camping, and they said it was seriously wet last night, and that the mountain was a great place and a serious one, essentially. They seemed disposed to talk of their adventure, but we forged on. Halfway up at the outlook I frantically snapped the entire western horizon, mottled as it was with clouds of vapor cruising slowly through the various permutations of the Ridge. At the summit, around 11 am, a fine breeze was blowing and the many rainwater pools looked fresh enough to drink, instead of the usual algae soup. My legs felt fine and we went right on down to the mysterious and rarely-visited Gutterballs crag, pioneered, if I am not mistaken (and please correct me if I am wrong) by local demigod Sandy Fleming and crew.
Regardless of my marginal performance following Simple Man, I wanted to lead Gutterballs, and I did, mostly. The first half consists of three bolts just to the right of a shallow, rounded flaring seam with no crack at all; there is almost nothing useful to the face to either side. Basic technique for this consists of tiptoeing up the seam in short steps, while jumping the hands desperately to certain sparsely distributed side-cling edges, mandating a weird mixture of friction, face and subtle laybacking. Not unlike riding a unicycle down the gutter at the bowling alley. If you could stay right in the middle and had superhumanly perfect balance, it would be a cruise, but you can't; hence my unhesitating lead gave me great satisfaction. Then after that there is a rather horrible, vertical finger crack in a short dihedral set just above a small overhang in such a way that I could not find the start to it, regardless of the excellent nut I had placed above my head. Tape your fingers for this crack, unless you have the skill and strength of Chris, who went right up it on top belay (though using a small cheat stone that happened to be lying there) after I had bugged out and finished the lead on the easier climb. I very much doubt that any cheat stone would have helped me lead that on that day.
Chris then led Jabba Left, the supposed 5.8, which I remembered from those dim ages of prehistory as disappointingly easy, because I had been expecting a 5.9 as listed in the old Rock and Ice guide, not knowing then that the ratings of the right and left climbs had been reversed. But now both climbs are nearly buried in black lichen in the last fifteen feet or so, and when Chris emerged from the rather stiff layback-crack start, did the leftward step-across and headed toward the single bolt a good ways up in the clean rock directly above, he found a much greater resistance than expected, and the bolt about a foot farther up than any logical stance-related placement would have placed it. He did a hard move, clipped it, and worked for a while on the next hard move before finally deciding to do the “French Free” and grab the quick-draw; the move would have been pretty much standing up on one big toe, on a fairly small item, with the hands just posing existentially here and there on meaningless bumps. I found it tough enough with his top-belay removing all risk. And then there are a couple more interesting, harder-than-5.8 moves to finally top out. Hence this makes the climb better; this is the finish to the 5.10 overhang start, but it also becomes the 5.9+ direct finish to the crack start. I might like to go back and try to lead it. In any case the nice little 5.9 on the right deserves to have the lichens cleaned from the top section. So gear list for the next expedition must include (as it always should at Old Rag) a wire brush and a pair of hand clippers. A machete would be helpful also, though heavy to lug along.