It was all set and planned out ahead of time: Mark Flood and I were to meet in the Yosemite Valley on a warm summer night, say hello, eat, and find a soft place to sleep before assaulting a long route up one of the Valley’s walls EARLY the next morning. It sounded simple enough, but the implementation of said plan proved problematic. Flood and his girlfriend Amy flew into San Jose and drove to Yosemite one Friday morning. Laurel and I also started our trip north on Friday, but got stuck in LA traffic for an extra 4+ hours. I dropped her off in Oakland at a friend’s house for the weekend and took off toward the park, hoping to be there by midnight. All was going great until a “Road-Closed” sign started blinking at me. Highway 140 and the western park portal were closed due to a rockslide. Crap. I had to drive back roads all the way to the southern entrance portal, getting a speeding ticket along the way, and didn’t arrive in Curry Village Campground to meet up with Flood and Amy until 3:20 AM (Although I did get to see a blond bear on the road in!) After a game of cell phone tag we finally hooked up at 4:00 – the exact time that we were supposed to start the climb that morning. There was no way I was getting on an all day route with absolutely no sleep. Flood seeing the benefit of having a partner who was awake and alert agreed just as I fell into deep drooling sleep.
We climbed four or five single pitch routes the next day in Tuolumne Meadows. As we were getting set up on our first route a small garter snake tumbled from a crack in the rock about ten-feet up on the face and landed at my feet. Oh, how I love snakes! After jumping a little bit (nary a girly-scream left my throat as has happened on previous snake sightings), I recognized the thing and just side stepped it until it slithered away. We ate an early dinner and turned in just after 10:00. The alarm on my cell phone started buzzing at 04:00 the next morning. I rolled over and stared at my flashing phone and decided that it was just way too damn early for a vacation wake-up call! After rolling out of bed, Flood and I got our gear together and headed for the Ahwahnee Hotel parking lot, from where the short trail to the base of the Royal Arches route began. Flood and Amy (she wanted no part of Royal Arches and went hiking in the Valley while we scaled the route) had scoped out the start just after they drove into the park and we both had route maps and beta from buddies that had been on the rock there recently. Flood took it a step father and printed out the route and rappel topo maps on post card sized sheets of paper, water proofing them with packing tape. I cannot emphasize how helpful it was to have those cards while on lead and while trying to find the route as it meandered all over the rock face.
I took the first lead up a funky, slick, off width chimney. I suspect that I was given this “honor” because Flood had tried it a couple of days before and experienced its crappiness without being encumbered by a pack and heavy twin ropes. I got two feet off the ground and had to drop my pack down between my legs, anchoring it to my harness via a two foot sling. Once free of that beast, I inched up the side of the crack, praying that my sticky rubber shoes would hold and that I wouldn’t tumble into Flood’s waiting arms or a big pointy rock. After 25 feet I reached a tree growing out of the crack, which was my first good standing position and from there, I kept going up and right, placing sparse gear, until I ran out of rope 215 feet later. We were climbing on Flood’s twin 8.2mm X 70 meter ropes and had agreed to use them as fully as possible. Flood came up quickly after me and took off from my belay toward a series of water falls and slimy off-width cracks. After getting though the worst of them, he radioed back that I could tear down the anchor and we could start simo-climbing (two people climbing at the same time, roped up with gear between them to protect against a fall on easy climbing terrain). We simo-ed a rope pitch and a half before we started getting into an area where we built anchors and then leap-froged our way up the route. We had both been told and had read that route finding on Royal Arches had been a problem from some teams, but we didn’t have much of an issue and were able to follow piton scars in the questionable areas.
For me the hardest pitch of the day was the first, but Flood tackled a pitch after the pendulum that he might argue with me about. It was a slick dirty slab to the right that he stayed on the left side of and had to clean moss and mud out of the small thin pockets that he placed micro-cams in. I went to the right on the slab after seeing that crappy time he had on lead and had a much better experience on that section overall.
We made really good time that morning and afternoon with only the occasional stop for a Clif Bar and a picture. We both ran the pitches as far as the ropes would let us, breaking down a couple of anchors so that the leader could have “just five more feet…” We talked back and forth all day on Flood’s radios (I left mine sitting on the couch by the door), which made a fast ascent even faster. Flood tried really hard to lead the last pitch, but he came up seventy feet short of rope. I climbed up to his position, grabbed the cams and took off for the rap ring anchors. I put in a piece about ten feet up from him and that was the only one I had in for the whole seventy feet. I came over and around a small rise and stood on a triangular flat patch of dirt about the size of a dinner plate. Up and to the left on a slabby face I could see the anchors. I glanced up just before I started moving and almost had a heart attack!! Not five feet from me and headed my way via a mossy crack was a three foot long black and white banded snake. I screamed my little head off! I didn’t know what it was and if it had fangs and if it had hate in its heart for me. Mark “it’s docile” Flood rambled on about it being OK and that it was more scared of me blah, blah, blah... His reassurance didn’t help as the foul thing inched closer to me. I found out after the fact that it was a harmless California Common Kingsnake, but I didn’t know it at the time. I could have stayed there, run back to Flood, or cross the unprotectable slab hoping for the safety of the anchors. I chose the slab. Once anchored in, I stopped screaming and started yelling into the radio to Flood about the snake. I may have used some naughty words during my rant… During a momentary lull in our one-sided conversation about what the black-souled beast was doing on “MY” route, the radio cracked with the sound of a woman’s voice. She had a van full of kids in the park and had been enjoying the free entertainment of listening to the climbers as they ascended the valley walls. Freedom has its price. Her bill came due when her impressionable children heard my reaction to a snake 1,600 feet off the ground – not a family friendly show! I apologized and was nice from then on, but I have the feeling that she switched radios off just in case.
Have you ever known someone that you can’t take fishing? A person that no matter where you take them there are no fish to be had: even if the day before and the day after you catch your limit in the very same spot with the very same bait, but in their absence? A person that seems to produce a substance or aura that repels fish from 500 yards away? I have come to believe that I have the opposite affect/ability on snakes. I attract the damn things where ever I go. Running at lunch, walking trails, driving down the road, riding my bike, thousands of feet up the side of a mountain, etc… I know in my heart of hearts that if I were to vacation in Hawaii or Ireland or even Antarctica that I would find snakes there. It is my curse.
The rappel off the route was trickier than the climbing in a lot of ways. We ran out of water about halfway down. I figured we would be on the ground soon and just suffered a little. After fighting his way down a tricky section, having to ascend the ropes back up because he had done the wrong “tricky section” as he got off the rap route, and trying to keep the ropes out of the trees Flood was parched. The face of Royal Arches is a series of waterfalls in the Spring, but by late June when we were there they had all subsided into a trickle here and there. Once Mark got to firm ground on a wide ledge he bent down and took a drink from a natural catch basin full of questionable water on the ledge. When I asked if he was worried about parasites he said matter-of-factly that it would take a couple of days for those to get him and he was thirsty “now.” By then he would be back at work and could take a sick day. There is no arguing with that kind of logic. I radioed that he would probably be OK anyway because the source of the trickle filling his trough was most probably the spring that we walked over on the last pitch. Upon hearing that, he looked up at me and smiled his big, happy grin and went back for seconds and thirds. About thirty minutes later we passed a team backing off the route. Flood got a rope unstuck for them and they stared at him in horror as he took a drink from yet another pothole on the way down. (While drinking unfiltered water is not something that I recommend, Flood didn’t get sick at all from it. Someone who knows him though might argue it was because his intestines were already so foul that any waterborne nasties felt right at home or were devoured by something primeval living in his gut.)
The two long ropes that we used that day were great for climbing long pitches, but it sucked pulling all that extra rope length through the rap rings and it was just as much of a pain trying to keep the ropes from tangling as they fell. That small detail aside, we rocked on the route and did it in eight hours. No other group passed us or even got close. Two groups of friends that have done it took 16 hours each and one group ended up bivouacking on the summit because it was too dark for them to rappel off. Where most people climbed the thing in a series of fifteen pitches, Mark and I climbed it in five, plus our simo climbing. Flood and I have very similar styles and have climbed together for years. It had been 12 months since we had been on a rock together, but all the experience and shared ascents/cold ledges made it so we just slipped right back into our usual climbing rhythm. I had been dreading the climb a little in the months leading up to it as Flood had mentioned that he didn’t feel strong, my own doubt, a mention of climbing in the dark, and a crazy plan to bivy on a ledge half way up, etc… My anxiety was completely put to rest once he charged up to me at my first belay looking strong and like a kid with a new toy. I had a hell of a weekend largely because of Mark’s planning and personal will to climb that certain lump of earth. THANKS, MARK!!