Chirps of a bat echo off invisible granite 1500
feet up Middle Cathedral Rock in Yosemite. It is
very, very dark. My partner disappeared down our
rappel lines an eternity ago. Far below, I can see
a ghostly, bobbing orb of light pendulum back and
forth across the wall as John scours the night for
anything resembling anchors. The gusts of wind
serve notice of an impending storm as I use a tiny
penlight to probe through the jungle of brambles
and inspect our rap anchor one more time: A
prehistoric, fixed, rocking SLCD, cams frozen in
place, connected to our rope by a filthy, petrified
sling of unknown age. This terrifying piece is
backed up with a bombproof, three-piece
"chicken" anchor which could hold a falling truck.
As John rappels, I reach out and add my weight to
the rope. The ancient cam holds.
"Off Rappel Brutus!" floats up from below. I strip
the crack of our back-up anchors, hold my breath,
bowels quivering, and slide down into the black
void, off the lone, ancient fixed cam.
How did we end up here, a third of a mile up a
rock face on unfamiliar terrain, in the middle of
May 23, 1996: John Byrnes was in Yosemite,
impatient with the recent flooding and frustrated
by raptor nesting habits. Our plans for the North
Face of the Rostrum had been torpedoed by baby
birdies. [Note to add that to my "excuse list".]
As I motored into the Valley around midnight, I
reflected on how our abilities had diverged since
we climbed Astroman last fall: A winter of weekends
spent lazing about on portaledges, relaxing in
aiders, and cooling my heels on water ice and
backcountry snow ledges had left me overweight,
understrength, and somewhat burned out. John, ever
the hard-core free climber, had no such problems:
His intense training this winter had even included
a trip to the Cayman Islands, cranking horrific
sport routes on the incredibly steep limestone
roofs and caves of the Brac.
Friday we talked about goals. I related my
troubles with motivation, strength and weight,
patting my rotund tummy for reference, and John,
ever the tactful gentleman, suggested we climb the
Ho Chi Minh Trail on Middle Cathedral Rock. The
5.10c cruxes would be within my abilities on a good
day, and the 20 sustained difficult
pitches of the route offered enough of a challenge
to pique John's interest. I was supposedly
familiar with the descent, having climbed Direct
North Buttress of Middle Cathedral many years ago.
The remainder of Friday was spent relaxing on easy
short climbs near the road with the rest of a
loosely-knit group: Our names read like a thread
discussion from Internet's rec.climbing newsgroup:
John (formerly known as "Lord Slime") Byrnes, Eric
"Loose Cannon" Coomer, Inez "Real Women wear
kneepads" Drixelius, Robert "Rodenting on the edge"
Ternes, Amanda "too-hot-for-a-sundress" Tarr, and
me, Brutus of Wyde.
Saturday was yet another rest for John and I.
After a crack-o'-noon start and one lead apiece in
the Pat & Jack Pinnacle area, we called it a day,
bade goodbye to Tuan Quong-Luong and friends on the
adjacent route, and retreated to the truck amid
spattering raindrops from the afternoon storm.
Meanwhile, back at the newsgroup, Inez, Amanda,
Robert and Eric were rapelling off Arrowhead Arete
in the face of the impending deluge.
Evening. Evil Grape and tall tales flowed
profusely. I finally stumbled away from the fire
and into bed. Sleep was long in coming, and in my
unsettled slumber I was tortured by a demon named
Too soon, the alarm pestered me awake. I started
coffee, threw a few last-minute items into
Kalahari-the-daypack, and we were off.
First light. John led 200 feet up the wall,
reaching the end of the rope ten feet from the
belay bolts. Another party waited as I powered up
his linked chimney pitches, spending excess energy
to move fast. I leapfrogged past, combining the
next two pitches, carefully crafting my protection
to minimize rope drag as I worked my way through
the puzzling face moves that are the crux of the
Direct North Buttress route. John blasted up to
the belay in minimum time, and we re-racked for his
pitch. "Awesome lead, Brutus, if that's 5.10b, I
wonder what we have in store on the 5.10c!"
John never fails to compliment me after a good
lead. That, and his willingness to put up with my
epics, (not to mention his incredible climbing
ability,) are some of the attributes that make him
a truly great partner.
I reflected on this as he worked his way up a thin,
straightforward 5.10 fingertips-only dihedral and
traversed a desperate, inobvious 5.8 roof to the
next belay. Due to the roof traverse, this was one
of few pitches on the route which we chose not to
combine. "Thanks for the pro on that traverse,
man. That was sweet. What's next?" After I pulled
onto the tiny stance and John clipped me to the
anchors, we paused for three minutes to munch on a
bit of food, take a few swallows of tang, glance at
the topo. Then, back to the vertical race.
I drew an easy pitch-and-a-half, momentarily
startled by the sounds of sirens in El Cap Meadows
behind me. "This doesn't look good. I hope those
ambulances weren't going to a climbing accident."
John muttered, with a note of concern.
John's next lead was one of our cruxes. 5.10c
face, wild and steep, protected by a 1/4" bolt with
some spall sign around the split shaft. Yeech.
More crux followed. John, as usual, floated it.
The Medevac chopper worked its way up the valley,
over the forest, swept in a broad half circle and
finally settled down in El Cap Meadows. The wind
from its rotors fanned the emerald grass of the
meadows outward a multi-hued pattern as it touched
down. There it waited, perched like some huge
insect, as our day passed by, to evacuate the
casualties of an accident on Bev's Tower on Cookie
Cliff. Much later (the following week) we would
discover that the fatality was someone I knew.
My turn yet again. 5.10a, 5.10a. Cool. I could
handle that, both pitches. But the second pitch
was a dirty, wet dihedral capped by a roof. I
emptied the rack into the effort, moving delicately
up the filthy corner. Belayed at the end of the
rope, 200 feet out.
John flew up to stance, arrived wide-eyed, with
black ooze dripping down his forearms. "Great
The day, and the climb, continued. The climbing
blurred, John and I running the pitches together
when we could. A lieback that our topo rated 5.10c
lichen stuck in my memory. I chimneyed behind a
huge flake to find myself above the crux, 5.9.
Another pitch, John's lead, involved runout face
moves on the bald edge of nothing to switch crack
systems, and struck me as the most desperate on the
route. Topo rating: 5.8.
Somewhen during the early afternoon the ambulances
sirened up to El Cap Meadows, and victims were
loaded aboard the chopper to the trauma unit in
Modesto. Not a good sign.
Summit. Or at least, top of the route. In the
waning daylight I opted for a ledge system
traversing left, rather than repeat the final four
pitches to the actual summit of the rock. I hoped
to connect with the Katwalk and have us at the
truck by dark. A bad decision, and a vain hope.
As I finally grope my way to the bottom of the 200-
foot rappel, I find John at a good stance but with
no fixed anchors. Fifty feet below us in the night
is a good ledge with a substantial-sized tree.
John is on the radio.
"KC70NK, KC70NK, this is KB0UNC"
"This is KC70NK. Where are you John?"
"Glen! we could use your help. We're in the middle
of some rappels on the face of Middle Cathedral
Rock, and are not really sure of our location. If
you could locate a guidebook, we'd like to try to
connect with the top of the Kor-Beck or Central
Pillar of Frenzy routes and follow those belay
stations to the ground."
Our friends roll into action on the valley floor,
making a valiant effort to assist us, including
hiking up to the base of the rock to illuminate the
bottoms of the requested routes, spotting our
location from El Cap meadows, transmitting beta,
and locating knowledgeable climbers who have
climbed the routes in question.
As we continue to seek information, we rappel to
the tree, locate an additional anchor, and set up
yet another rappel. Two hundred feet lower, after
an eternity in the dark, I stumble onto a
traversing flat ledge cutting across the wall to
the right, back towards the DNB. Finally a
familiar landmark. I remember from a topo of the
DNB (which I saw in 1991), that there is a
connection to the flat, sandy Powell Reed Ledges
where I now stand. I know where we are, at last.
We are a long, long ways from the ground, on the
only large ledge for a thousand feet.
It is now 11:30 pm.
John arrives at the ledge. Our council of war
consists of few words:
He radios the decision to our friends on the
ground, and they depart for Crane Flat to pass the
information of our whereabouts.
A number of climbers sipping brews or wine in camp
at Crane Flat, upon hearing the news, snuggle
closer to the fire in sympathy. It will be a long,
We burrow into Kalahari to see what, if any, of the
knick-knacks therein will help make the six hour
ordeal until daylight more bearable: Survival
ensolite pads. Wool hats. Fleece jackets and
wind/rain shells. "walk-off" shoes and socks.
Food. Our remaining 1/2 liter of water. I let out
a "YES!" as I find a "Hot-Pad" (a chemical warmer
left over from my walls this winter, but the pad
turned out to be spent, and useless.) And, good
luck for one of us, a mylar "emergency space bag"
for forced bivies. We put on every thread of
clothing, and I slide my feet into Kalahari.
Tonight we are stalked by the demon named
First light. In that eerie land between sleep and
wakefullness, we are withdrawn deeply into
ourselves, huddling for warmth. Encased in mylar,
John resembles nothing so much as a large
The storm has kindly held off, dousing Curry
village but leaving us dry. The wind has gusted
only occasionally. As the new day gains strength,
its grey skies congealed with clouds, we begin to
move out of the focused "*NOW*" of an unplanned
night out. We can finally look ahead once again.
Still shivering, we rub crust from our eyes and
glance about, amazed at our unearthly position. A
thousand feet of wall remain, then it will be over.
The familiar territory of DNB rappels is an easy
In the growing light of a cold grey dawn, we
stretch, cramp, pull the ropes, and pack Kalahari.
We munch the last bits of granola bar, drink the
last precious drops of water, and resume the march.
Soon we will reunite with our friends, luxuriate in
a scalding shower, and wolf a huge breakfast.
After that, a lazy meadow afternoon stretches
before us. It's time to get moving. Our schedule
for the day is fully booked.
The Direct North Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock
in Yosemite Valley, California is a significant
challenge in any climber's career. Depending on
whether the summit is reached, this route requires
eighteen to twenty-two pitches of sustained free
climbing up to 5.10 in difficulty. Climbers who
complete the "DNB" in a day have passed a major
milestone on the road to hard, long free climbs.
From 1986 to 1989, Clint Cummins et. al.
established a major new variation on this Buttress.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail departs the DNB at the sixth
pitch, striking out to the right, straight up the
very prow of the Buttress: wild, balancey "over the
border" face climbing linking incredible steep
cracks ranging from 1/4" tips-only fissures to
delicate liebacks, knee-eating chimneys and flared
slots. Never harder than 5.10c, the moves seldom
feel easier. Even the 5.6 and 5.8 pitches seem
desperate. The first continuous ascent was in 1991.
The fatality at Cookie Cliff on May 26, 1996 was
Stephen Ross, who died when a piece pulled in a
leader fall on Bev's Tower. Stephen was a well-
respected and experienced climber, a mentor, and a
good friend to many San Francisco Bay Area climbers.
The stars in tonight's sky shine for you, Stephen, you have
headed out on the greatest adventure of them all.
We'll expect one helluva trip report from you when
we meet again.