The nagging feeling that we were off route coalesced into certainty as I beached myself onto a block after an awkward mantle. Fifteen feet below a tiny #2 stopper protected a delicate traverse across a steep, slick wall. My last good piece was thirty feet below that. Though not horribly difficult, the climbing was a grade or two above the advertised 5.8 rating of the Southeast Face of Clyde Minaret.
It was one o’clock. Not terribly late, but considering that the Minarets had been hit with a nasty hail and lightening storm at two o’clock two days before, and yesterday had seen almost constant light rain from mid-afternoon until sunset, it was late enough. By my reckoning we had at least four more challenging pitches ahead of us, two of which were unknown territory. If they were as hard as the stuff we had just finished, then we would arrive on top very late indeed. It was time to go down.
When Brian joined me at the belay I voiced my opinion. He didn’t immediately disagree, though he groused about this being the first climb where he had been forced to bail. There’s a first time for everything. The real substance of our conversation was this: what was the least scary option available: continuing upward with the possibility of being caught near the summit in an electrical storm, or the gruesome-looking series of rappels below? Neither seemed particularly appealing.
Of course, none of this would have been an issue if we hadn’t pissed away three hours attempting the direct start. At two pitches of 5.10a it didn’t seem like a big deal. But I found the climbing to be quite baffling on the first pitch. I can’t say it was harder than 5.9, but the route seemed to weave around and the protection didn’t fit my notion of what good pro ought to be. Despite a healthy dose of long runners, the rope ran a zig-zag from the ground to my awkward stance 100 feet above, where I had to admit I was stymied by the weirdness of the climbing.
Still short of the end of the first pitch, I brought Brian up to let him have a go. I fully expected that his superior physical strength and take-no-prisoners style would see us through. I was wrong. He found the strange off-width and the holdless dihedral next to it just as bizarre and unnerving as I did. After a few attempts we agreed that we needed to salvage the day and go find the standard start.
The photo in Croft’s guide book confused us for a bit. It shows the route traversing in a couple hundred feet above the correct start. Our reliance on written route beta was most likely our undoing in the pitches that followed. “Up and right” made sense when you found that there were several possible paths upward from the end of the first pitch. It may sound nit-picky to suggest that “up and then right” would have been better language to use, but it probably would have saved us from getting off route. But I am just whining.
Pitch two should have convinced both of us that we were not on the right path. Brian led up through some odd overhanging corners that clearly exceeded 5.8. But we were feeling strong, and the day was young. I have found that in the Sierra there are often many paths to the same destination, and that getting finicky over which one you take can eat up as much, if not more, time than it would take just to forge ahead.
The Southeast Face is a complex beast. It is littered with corners, cracks and ledges that all look more or less equally difficult. At any given point either of us could have chosen from one of several possibilities. But those nasty little words “up and right” kept us firmly off track until there was finally no more denying it. At the top of pitch five we were almost directly below the large dihedral that forms the top half of the route, yet we searched in vain for the “unobvious traverse” that led across and slightly down into it. The best we could do at this point was a slightly rising traverse across an easy ledge system that in turn lead to a short vertical stretch and then back across thin-looking holds to a small corner fifty feet higher. It just didn’t jibe.
While bailing from the direct start, and during the search for the standard start, we both complained about the weirdness of the rock. Clyde Minaret isn’t a granite peak. It’s composed of some diabolical dark stuff, layered and tilted almost vertically. It has the tendency to break off in sharp-edged pieces, not all of which are firmly anchored to the mountain. The cracks are often narrow and parallel-sided. When there are edges they are usually pretty good, and often incut. But more often than not the stone has eroded along great planes of weakness that leave steep, slick faces stretching for up to a hundred feet with virtually nothing to hold onto. The presence of broad ledges only serves to increase the leader’s anxiety about breaking both legs in the event of a fall.
Yes, we complained about the quality of the rock, but the truth is that it was pretty good. It was our unfamiliarity with it that was the real problem. That, and having spent three hours on a false start. Brian commented that our fiasco on the direct start would be worthwhile reconnaissance or a waste of time depending on whether we had time to finish the route. I agreed at the time, but in retrospect must say that my opinion has changed. It was worthwhile recon despite our having to bail. With more experience on the unique conditions on the face, I’m sure that a future trip to the peak will yield much better results.
In any event, we were now about five or six hundred feet above the deck with only a single rope. It would take us a while to get down. Now that we were contemplating retreat, the face appeared quite a bit steeper than on the way up. I tossed a small rock from out stance. It fell free almost to the talus before hitting anything. How comforting.
Being the heaviest, Brian went first on each rappel so as to test the solidity of the anchor. He was backed up with at least one or two other pieces, but I had no such luxury. My nonchalance regarding the safety of the rap anchors disappeared as soon as I dismantled the backup pieces and was faced with rapping off a small wired nut and a sling around a block. The slick nature of the faces we rapped down only compounded the sketchiness of the situation, though that was a purely psychological factor.
Not so psychological was the second to last rappel. There was nothing to anchor to except a big flake stuck vertically in the choss like a tombstone. Not only were its edges like the business end of a finely-chiseled arrowhead, but the block below it, over which the sling ran, was just as bad. As I gingerly eased onto the anchor I saw the sling stretch and slide. I couldn’t face it. I was about to ask Brian to tie the rack onto the rope so I could bring it up and build something better when I realized that the next block down could also be slung, and the runner situated to avoid sharp edges. The thought that my entire life depended on that one sling and that one block was never far from my mind as I slid down 120 feet to the next tiny stance.
Compared to some bail epics, ours wasn’t much to write home about, but it was enough for the both of us. In retrospect, leaving $100 of gear behind on Clyde seemed like chump change. Two weeks later when sifting through alternative descents on Cardinal Pinnacle we eschewed the bolts equipped with sun-baked nylon threaded through hangers and instead opted for a rap off the back from triply-redundant slings around two huge blocks. A small price to pay for a bit of peace of mind.
"No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he’ll keep coming back and back until one of you is dead."