KISSING THE HAG: WINTER ASCENT OF SKULL QUEEN
February 16-18, 1996
Eric Coomer and Bruce Bindner
(story by B. B. Bindner)
Rain slams into the San Francisco Bay area in buckets. Our
mood is curiously, lightly fatalistic. This is a fine time
to be rescued from a wall, optimistically assuming we
survive that long. Laughter and storm shake the windows of
the truck as we head Valleyward: Laughter tinged with a drop
of madness. There is hysterical edge to our mood. Curtains
of water make driving difficult, drowning the roads behind
us as we motor into Yosemite.
We hump the haul bags (Hog-en-Dasz and Piglet) to the base
of Washington Column, under overcast but calm skies. Start
climbing around 1 pm. The haul bags weigh in at about 115
pounds apiece: we are fully prepared to spend upwards of a
week pinned to the wall in the storm waiting for our chances
at the summit or retreat. I struggle and complain about the
load, stopping every few feet to rest. Eric responds with
appropriate encouragement: "Jeez, you're such a F*cking
baby!" [nasally] "waaaa, waaaa, waaaah..." Laughing, we
hoist the loads and continue.
"Team Thrash" staggers onto Dinner Ledge (3 pitches up)
by sunset after laboriously hauling the swine, one-by-one,
up each abrasive pitch. Eric Coomer powers onward to fix
half of the Kor Roof, descending by headlamp. Misty
occasionally-terrifying splattering of rain clears off as we
settle in for a bivouac filled with nervous tension: We're
expecting the skies to deluge at any instant.
I gingerly lead up onto the Hag, Skull Queen herself,
quivering up a full pitch of tiny aluminum rivets and
prehistoric copperheads. Eric blasts up more overhanging
blank granite to and through a nest of angry ants, arriving
at a swaying, precarious hanging belay stance on the
branches of an oak tree with nothing but sky below and
above. The sky below ends at the distant, white-shrouded
floor of a Valley covered in a winter wonderland where
giggling children make snowmen, and where adults unload skis
for a weekend of play. The sky above threatens our very
existence with a dark, foreboding layer of cumulus,
reminding us of Thursday evening's torrential precipitation.
With the feeling of walking a plank, I grunt up a wide
offwidth crack, mandatorily free-climbing a 5.10 section too
wide for anything on our rack. Sno-sealed leather
mountaineering boots, normally useless for hard free
climbing,fit the crack perfectly, and a few whining thrashes
see me to the belay.
"Haul when Ready!" floats up to me from below.
" 'Mother may I?' " I respond.
Above, the "Loose Cannon" Coomer hits his stride in double
boots, combining the next two pitches in a single, weaving
overhanging lead, dancing up the wild wall on cracks thinner
than pencil lead, grunting and cursing the rope drag as he
nears the belay, slowed nearly to a standstill by the
friction of the rope through his pieces. "F*king HARD!" he
I respond with support and encouraging noises: "Waaa,
"Team Terrified" arrives at the top of the 9th pitch of
Skull Queen and sets up a hanging camp in the middle of a
blank wall, on the Deck (our double-wide portaledge),
getting dinner cooked and the fly set up just as the rain
REALLY starts pouring down. Us hunkering, concerned, 1,200
feet of fresh air below us, drinking 1.5 liters of pink
wine, while eating bombay curried potatoes, listening to
tunes on the radio and the pounding of the storm queen
splashing down on the walls of our tiny shelter. Neither retreat,
nor ascent, will be possible if the storm continues with this
ferocious intensity.... The rain stops about 2-3 am.
We wake to clear-ish skies and a vague weather report
which guesses that the big part of the storm will hold off
until evening. We leave the ledge and fly set up at the top
of pitch 9. I slow-motion dream up the wall above camp on
more tiny, mashed metal blobs in the blank rock, and finally
pendulum across to a crack leading to the belay.
Eric dog-paddles up a funky, awkward-leaning A3 corner on
fragile rock. Occasional corn flakes of granite pop loose
(as he weights his tentative pieces), to patter down onto
the hanging tent of camp, 200 feet below, then disappear
into the void. I follow, pushing to move as fast as I can,
frustrated and amazed by the continuously difficult climbing
of Eric's lead. A masterful pitch.
My turn. A moment of truth wrenches my gut when a stopper
pulls out of the crack below me. Insanity reigns as I look
into the eyes of a possible 80-foot fall, then, shaking,
tease a TCU off the rack and into the crack, not noticing
the light drizzle beginning to fall.
"Waaa, Waaa, Waaaah....."
Summit: light sprinkles. We hurriedly munch a Cliff Bar,
snap a few quick photos. Time to go, as the rain and mist
insistantly remind us.
Rappel down. Break camp. Pack Piglet and Hog-en-Dasz. Rappel
the rest of the route with the bags strangling from the
waists, rope stuck once for a horrifying eternity (Panic) but finally
free as it starts-to-rain-and-get-dark-and-chillingly-gusty-windy
all at once and Cannon with a headlamp that doesn't work as we
rappel the last three pitches in the torrential wet tangly desperate
hog-pulling night-fighting our way down to
pitch black base stumbling tumbling pig-backed down slickery
jumbled bouldery steep out to the truck at Awahnee Hotel by
9:30 pm as the rain pours down and women in formals and men in
suits stroll by under umbrellas with arched eyebrows at
smelly-filthy-drenched us, Rats from the abyss.