The Ranger gives us a strange look. " You're going to climb the Grand Sentinel? I've been here 8 years and I've never seen anyone climb that route "!
I'm here in Kings Canyon with Duncan Laing to ascend the longest route in the Park and hopefully escape the Yosemite crowds. On this warm July day we seem to be the only climbers in all of Kings Canyon! I have a passion for the adventure to be found climbing obscure big walls. Since most of the Rangers weren't even aware there was a route on the North Face of the Grand Sentinel, I guess it could be considered obscure. Some of the possible reasons for this obscurity soon became apparent.
Just because it looks close to the road doesn't mean it's easy to get to - something I always seem to forget within 2 weeks of the last epic! The wall never seems to get closer, it just gets bigger. This is Duncans first big wall climb, and he's beginning to realize why he hasn't volunteered for one of these climbs before. Staggering under heavy packs in the hot sun can only be enjoyed by those climbers who are either masochistic or crazy. Duncan is fast realizing that I'm probably both! " Watch out for the stinging nettles " was what the Ranger told us. He should have said sea of nettles! " Hey Duncan, what does a stinging nettle look like "? Rip, " ouch ", bleed. I'm learning quickly! We reach the wall, locate the start of the route and start climbing. Whatever horrors await us on the wall above couldn't possibly compare to a retreat back through the sea of nettles ( at least we hope not )!
At the end of the first day we bivy on a small ledge 400' up the wall. When the North Face of the Grand Sentinel was 1st climbed in 1967 by Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard, it was rated V, 5.9, A2. We've already experienced 5.9, A2 in the 1st three pitches . nothing like getting down to business! Unfortunately, day 2 dawns grey and wet as i climb a perfect crack on a beautiful orange lichen speckled wall. The rain pours hard as I leave the dry comfort of a huge overhang to slog up 5.9 cracks interspersed with overhanging aid. As the rain continues I consider retreating, then remember the nettles waiting below. Although the visibility is less than 50', Duncan remembers them too and quickly disappears onto the moderately difficult mist enshrouded face above. A salvo of rocks through the clouds signals that Duncan's reached the belay ledge. I soon join him, soaked to the bone. I quickly create a bivy ledge on the grassy slope with my piton hammer. With visibility near zero, we'll have to wait until we can see where we're going. We relax under rain flys on our freshly made bivy terrace. So far there has been no evidence of previous climbers on the route.
The next day, after a late start drying out in the sun, we climb up into the main feature of the Grand Sentinel - the huge 800' open book that splits the upper half of the wall. The climbing in the dihedral is an interesting mixture of techniques. Fingertip to offwidth cracks and overhanging aid from everything from knifrblades to 4' bongs ending in sling belays! Free climbing is difficult as long sections are veritable hanging gardens requiring nailing if and when you find a crack. " Hey Duncan, nobodys been here for a long time ". " How do you know ?" replies Duncan. The anwser immediately rains down in the form of dirt, plants and branches. It's like an exploding greenhouse! It's slow progress, and by the end of the day we're almost at the top of the dihedral, hanging in our micro bivy with our feet in the air. The route above is much cleaner due to the fact that it is overhanging. Thats just fine with Duncan - all that dirt sifted through his shirt on the way to his shoes!
At dawn on the final day on the wall I start climbing what has to have been one of the strangest pitches of my life. Expanding aid cracks lead to the corner of a giant overhang clearly visible from the road. At first i fear for my life as it appears I'm going to have to enter an overhanging 7' wide death chimney when suddenly a wonderful sight appears. There's a perfect overhanging A1 crack running up the wall to the left of the chimney. From the top of the crack I pendulum into a more reasonable looking chimney which turns into an offwidth crack. Here I discover a new climbing technique - the MSR helmet jam. Yes, here I am standing on a chockstone with my head stuck 1800' above the ground! Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Using aid from a 4" bong placed endwise on crystals allows me to free my head from my jammed helmet. A few more feet of wild climbing up the offwidth and the hard climbing is over. 500' of moderate climbing and we reach the top.
Now all that remains is the descent. The Ranger said it was easy. How many times have I heard that before? A torrential downpour 1/2 mile from the car was the final touch to what may have been the 2nd or 3rd ascent of the North face of the Grand Sentinel. 2nd or 3rd ascent? I'll never know for sure. But one thing I do know - climbing one of these Kings Canyon big walls will always be a grand adventure!
A recounting of my climb of the original route on the Grand Sentinel, with Duncan Laing, from an article I wrote, originally published in Summit Magazine May / June 1986