The line is obvious from Tokopah Valley. Between the magnificent upper spire of the Watchtower and the lower tower to the west there is a broad gully that in winter occasionally fills with ice. Fed by meltwater from the west-facing snowfield above, it forms from the top down. From the valley bottom it is deceptively foreshortened. What appears to be 2-3 pitches is actually 1,000 vertical feet and six or seven pitches long.
Looking up at the start of Moonage Daydream. Clearly, this was one of those days when it began as a rock climb. But will it go?
According to Moser, Vernon and Hickey's Sequoia Kings Canyon guidebook, "the first pitch is rarely in shape, and can be bypassed by rock to the right." Today would be one of those days when bypassing on the rock would be necessary. But it didn't look too bad. A recon the day before revealed what looked like a straightforward line up to a left-leaning ramp that would, in a perfect world, deposit you at the base of reliable ice. The rest appeared (through binoculars) to be an exercise in following fat runnels meandering up to the steep snowfield that separated the lower half of the climb from the upper. The upper half comprises two beautiful steps of perfect water ice--the payoff for putting up with the thinness at the bottom.
Or so it seemed.
I met Dave at Lodgepole just before six, as the sky paled and the stars waned. We had never climbed together, and had spoken on the phone just twice before today. But he came recommended by two friends whose opinions I trust, and so after a quick jaunt up to Wolverton to stash a vehicle at our planned exit, we were soon underway.
Time for Plan B: postholing up fifty degree fluff.
By eight in the morning we were roped up and moving. The first lead was mine. It started with steepening snow leading to a thin ice runnel. Just for grins I thought I'd put in a screw. But my 10cm stubby bottomed out just past halfway in. Nuts. I repositioned it and tried again. This time it made it almost all the way before hitting rock. Good enough. Above the runnel steep snow over verglassed slabs went left to a steep corner. I clipped two fixed pins at the base, and started working out the moves. The corner itself was mostly free of ice--having just enough to prevent using rock pro. The left side was covered in splotches of ice, sometimes thick enough to get a pick into. After a few delicate attempts, with a few ripped pick placements along the way, I decided this wasn't going to go. Not for me. Dave lowered me back to the belay and we regrouped.
To the right of the corner was a gentler, snow-filled chute. Dave wanted to give it a go, and so off he went. We were still ahead of the schedule I had laid out the previous week. Plenty of time. Dave worked his way up the chute and soon stood atop the pillar that formed the right side of the corner. He clipped a fixed pin, and threw in a screw just for good measure, then tried to follow a snow-covered ramp left into the normal line. But it was not happening. On his last attempt his crampons skated off the rock slab and I braced to catch the fall that never happened. Dave had had enough. I lowered him off the fixed pin and once again we regrouped.
Neither of us really wanted to give up. A day spent fooling around on half-pitch stuff at Tokopah Falls just didn't appeal. Not with the stench of defeat still heavy in our nostrils. So Dave agreed with my suggestion that we try a steep snow-covered ramp to the left. This would bypass the lower half of the climb. I felt disappointed at the prospect, but it beat heading down, tails between our legs.
The ramp turned out to be a lot more fun than either of us anticipated. Fifty degree snow on slabs poised over huge drops provided plenty of entertainment. We climbed together, Dave in the lead, placing rock pro every ten meters or so until he ran out of gear. I caught up with him at a position hanging off a big pillar, not far below the first technical difficulty.
It was my lead. We both expected a quick finish up the ramp, followed by a short rock step at the top that would put us back on the route proper.
Dave at the first belay on the ramp, with the final rock barrier over his shoulder. How hard can it be?
I huffed my way up through more knee-deep fluff, marveling at how much like Alaskan climbing this was. Snow covered every possible surface, stacked up several feet at seemingly impossible angles. There was no telling what you were climbing until you finished excavating.
Up over the first little overhang, it was back to snow, steeper now. The ramp turned into a gully that narrowed to a chimney. It came down to scraping away gobs of snow each time I wanted to move a hand or foot so that I could see what I was doing. Progress slowed to the point where I heard Dave call up, "How's it going up there?" That's climber code for "What the F@*# is taking so long?"
At that point I was in the process of finding a way around the overhanging off width that loomed overhead. Even on a good day in rock shoes I wasn't sure I was up for that, and besides, we didn't have any Valley Giants with us. So I was contemplating an unprotectable traverse when Dave's query came floating up. It would have been fine for me, as it went downward below my last piece. But Dave would have been in a terrible position trying to follow it.
"You've got about twenty feet left." Dave called up.
Back I went, carefully downclimbing until I reached a reasonable anchor position. When Dave joined me a few minutes later I was sure he would be ready to bail. But just for fun he decided to try heading out farther to the right. It certainly looked more reasonable, thought it still had some interesting rock to contend with at the top. I glanced at my watch. Eleven in the morning. Plenty of time. I handed Dave the rest of the gear and bid him farewell.
Dave moved more slowly than I thought he would have, and when it was my turn to follow I learned why. True, the angle was a bit less than the line I had taken, but it was less secure. Snow-covered who-knows-what ended in a slightly overhanging corner that probably would go at 5.7 or 5.8 in the summer. But today it was dry-tooling by Braille, since you couldn't really see what you were hooking. When Dave surmounted this treasure I asked him if it would go above. "Just another obstacle," he called down. I couldn't tell if he was optimistic or indulging in dark humor.
When we gained the arete we knew we had it in the bag.
Indeed there was another obstacle. A sort of motley overhanging chimney thing, taller than the previous one, with collapsing piles of snow for feet in the beginning. Even though I was on top rope, I climbed slowly and deliberately. I didn't really want to get hurt here. But generally good dry tool placements could be found. Not only did it go, it was fun climbing!
Dave and whooped it up. We had it in the bag! In the interest of time I skipped his belay station, and headed straight across the snowfield and up to the base of the lower ice step. The ice proved to be much thinner than I anticipated. I bottomed out a couple of screw placements before locating thicker ice. And it wasn't the best position, either. The gully narrowed to about twenty feet here, and there was no shelter from falling ice. But it would have to do. Dave came up.
Setting up shop below the first of the upper flows
As we exchanged gear once again I glanced at my watch. Three o'clock! Holy crap! Where had the time gone? I had told my wife that I expected to be back at the car by now. "But don't worry until around five o'clock," I told her. Damn. We would be lucky to top out by five. I knew she would get worried, and I felt bad. And then there was the SAR team that surely was being organized: heroic volunteers rearranging their personal lives to come look for my sorry butt. I hoped we would return in time to call it off before too many people had been inconvenienced.
But that was all hypothetical, and in the future. Right now we had a climb to finish. And what a climb it was! We had come for an ice climb, but all we'd had so far was a melange of alpine, mixed, and drytooling. Now we finally had some real ice, and we were both psyched. So psyched that I didn't really mind getting showered with ice as Dave lead off. Eventually the ice shower abated, and Dave pulled up the slack and put me on belay.
The pitch was a lot longer than I expected. Long enough that I began to regret having slacked off on those calf exercises these last few months. Sure, I had an excuse. I'd injured my knee a few months back. Six weeks on crutches, and another six just learning to walk again. I didn't expect to climb much this winter. Now that I'd been given a green light (well, sort of), I was feeling the lack of training. At least the climbing was easy enough that it was possible to squeak out a flat-footed rest here and there.
The upper step was even longer than the first, and of course it was my lead. My first screw bottomed out, forcing me to hang out until my legs felt like they were on fire. I got in a decent stubby, clipped it with a screamer, then backed off to rest. I was close to asking Dave if he wanted this lead, but looking up at that perfect sheet of ice convinced me that no matter how I felt, this was something I just had to do.
Just above the first screw I realized that the ice was making a hollow sound when I swung my tools into it. Not good. Also not good were the cracks that seemed to run all the way across. I mentioned this to Dave, who said something I couldn't quite understand, but which I interpreted as "Bummer, dude. Hope it hangs together for you". Dave is actually a really cool guy, and I don't think he'd ever say something like that, but he didn't exactly sound like he wanted to give it a go himself.
To my relief the hollowness and the cracking disappeared a few feet higher, and didn't reappear. But the pitch just kept going on. After a while I had to count my screws. I wasn't even trying to place my 19cm screws. I knew they would bottom out. I was running out of stubbies. I stretched my placements out as far as I could, making sure that my pick placements were absolutely bomber. It didn't help that the ice was dinnerplating more often than not, but this was the last pitch. I could afford to be tired at the end.
I placed that last stubby just as the angle began to back off, allowing me to run it out about 50 feet to a snow ledge and some fat ice. "Fifteen feet", Dave called out, "Do you want me to start climbing?" At first I said no, but then took a look at my stance, and realized we would have to belay one more short pitch if I didn't take him up on it. So we agreed to simulclimb until I reached a tree about 50 feet higher. Fortunately, the remaining distance was covered in deep snow, so I gave Dave a human deadman belay as he climbed up to the first screw. At the tree I got to sit down for the first time all day, and I realized how tired I was.
Oh yeah, we did it!
Dave was all smiles when he arrived at the stance. We topped out minutes before sunset. The top of the Watchtower glowed orange. By God, this was a beautiful place! If we weren't overdue I would have been happy to just sit there and soak in the rays as day fell into night.
Packing up the gear, I reflected on how glad I was to have Dave as a partner. First climbs are a lot like first dates--you go in with high hopes, knowing that it doesn't always work out. But Dave had carried the day, giving it a go when I backed off, and making the key lead. You can't ask for anything more.