OverviewThis is a sustained wide crack and chimney climb on the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley. It made Steck and Roper’s list, 50 Classic Climbs of North America. It has a well deserved reputation…
"Many have questioned the quality of this sort of achievement, deploring the use of pitons, tension traverses and expansion bolts, but the record speaks for itself. This is a technical age and climbers will continue in the future to look for new routes. There is nothing more satisfying than being a pioneer."
— Allen Steck, justifying the 1st ascent of Sentinel's north face, 1950.
"Al, if only I could have just a little orange juice!"
- John Salathé, while dehyrdated on lead
"Get a garage door and unhook it, lay down on your driveway and have four friends lay the garage door on top of you. Now they each sit on a corner of the door and you try to wiggle out from the center to escape."
"To practice for the Steck-Salathé, crawl across asphalt parking lots in the summer, on your knees and elbows."
1950 First ascent by Allen Steck and John Salathé
1953 Royal Robbins made the second ascent, he also made the third ascent firmly establishing the Narrows as the primary passage
1992 Peter Croft free solos the route as a cool down after breaking the Nose in a Day speed record on El Capitan with Hans Florine
May 28, 1993 Derek Hersey died while free-soloing, the only death in Yosemite attributed to free soloing
July 2-3, 1994 Allen Steck made the '44th anniversary ascent' at the age of 68 along with Brutus of Wyde and Inez (see trip report).
1996 Re-bolted by Brutus of Wyde.
The approach starts on the Four Mile Trail then juts off on a faint climber’s trail at the first stream. The faint trail is steep as it climbs toward the base of Sentinel Rock before cutting to the west up a ramp. Aim for the right hand side of the Flying Buttress.
Pitch by pitchThe route was originally done in 15 pitches, several of which are linkable. We did it in 12 plus one rappel.
Pitch 1, 5.8: The beginning of the route is a tough off-width that is reportedly easier as a lie-back. It is misleadingly described as ‘5.7 squeeze’ in some guidebooks - I couldn’t figure out the lie back so I grunted up the middle section and popped a ligament in my knee. I’ve done this pitch twice and for me it’s the crux of the whole route (I’m not kidding). You pass a great belay ledge, which is used by many parties, and the climbing becomes easier. We linked the first 2 pitches and belayed at the next obvious station before entering the Wilson Overhang.
Pitch 2, 5.10a: Wilson’s Overhang is the first crux and was supposedly easier before several key holds broke off. The shape of the overhang is a wide chimney that narrows as you ascend. Stepping off the block and establishing yourself in the chimney requires some thought because it is so wide at the bottom, but it becomes more solid as you get higher and the walls close in a bit. An overhang at the top forces you out to the front of the chimney and you will have a lot of air beneath you. It protects well with small cams but you need quad strength to maintain your position while placing the pro. Eventually you will reach some jugs and pull over the pinch. IMO, the pitch goes well at 5.10a, especially compared to the stiff ratings on the other pitches. You can belay just below another horrendous squeeze chimney.
Pitch 3, 5.9: The squeeze chimney at the beginning of this pitch is probably the narrowest on the route. For that reason, it is considered the crux by quite a lot of people. I thought it was a very grueling effort and I cruised up the Narrows a few pitches later. Fortunately, the squeeze can be bypassed entirely by using a flake and face holds on the right hand side. The climbing eases after the short chimney section.
Pitch 4 & 5, 5.8: Besides the face and friction pitch before the Narrows, this is probably the least claustrophobic section you’ll encounter throughout the whole route. You climb a steep gully that offers several options. It is impossible to get lost since all the possible lines converge in a tunnel behind the top of the Flying Buttress.
Pitch 6: Rappel from the chains at the back of the tunnel to a huge platform. The top of the Flying Buttress is about halfway through the route and here is where you’ll find the biggest ledges. This is an obvious bivy site, in case you can’t finish the route in a day. The ledge is fully surrounded on three sides and seems well protected from wind. But it doesn’t get a lot of sun - I bivied here in October and it was cold without a sleeping bag.
Pitch 7, 5.9: This is a steep and sustained pitch, but never overly difficult. It follows an obvious crack system but there are hidden holds that offer help if you look. I remember one move near the top of the pitch required a big step and reach, but someone else might climb it differently. This pitch also will give you a lot of rest points if you are creative and flexible.
Pitch 8, 5.9: The next pitch is a bit unusual; you’re knees and back won’t touch any rock. It is a face climb with 2 short friction moves. It is sparsely protected with bolts, which is probably for the best, otherwise the rope drag may become intolerable. Pay close attention to stay on route. After the second or third bolt, I followed the wrong bolt line and ended up going too high. I had to down climb and reverse course. The correct line meanders right then back left, eventually reaching another gaping chimney.
Pitch 9, 5.10b: The technical crux is encountered shortly after starting this pitch. It is a flaring chimney with smooth walls on both sides. Be careful, it will try to spit you out. The chimney is so wide at the bottom that it doesn’t take pro well, Big Bros or cams larger than #5 may help. You’ll need to advance a bit for the chimney to constrict so you can become more comfortable. I climbed it left side in – at the beginning, I pressed hard with my soles - I was able to find a couple very subtle marks in the stone that interrupted the otherwise smooth rock. It was just enough to keep my feet from sliding out. Then basic squeeze chimney technique will take you the rest of the way.
Pitch 10, 5.9: Lurking in the back of many climbers’ minds, The Narrows garners a plurality of votes as the crux pitch. Despite not being climbed on the first ascent, (the Narrows was added by Robbins on the second ascent) this pitch makes the route. Surprisingly, a lot of people still follow Steck as he aided up the outside of the cozy burrow. However, I don’t know why anyone who dreads this pitch would be on this route in the first place. The pitch is unique and classic though it does pose a maximum chest width for all entrants and you may need to turn your head if you have a big nose. Having said all that, I felt it was pretty easy and it doesn’t require any protection if you are competent at squeeze chimneys – which you should be by now. Besides, there are shelves everywhere that obviate the need for any pure squeeze chimney technique. The crux is transferring from the wide chimney into the squeeze chimney right off the ground, I used a fist-chest stack – the only time I’ve ever used that combo.
Pitch 11, 5.7: The next pitch is another, but easier wide chimney. We belayed off a huge chockstone. Don’t forget to enjoy your position; if you listen carefully you may hear people swimming in the river down below. Don’t worry, you can be there yourself in 5 hours if you keep moving.
Pitch 12, 5.8: The beginning of this pitch will finally knock off the last wide chimney. Continue up easier terrain and belay in a dirty alcove.
Pitch 13, 5.9: The final pitch offers more stiff wide crack, then eases and then has another steep section. You can choose to belay from the large tree or continue to the summit if your rope will reach.
GearA Standard Rack plus large cams or Big Bros up to 6”. We carried the #3, #3.5, #5 Camalots and #4 Big Bro and felt well protected. #3 and #3.5 were both used nearly every pitch.
Don’t forget the other critical piece of pro, long pants and maybe even knee pads. 2 ropes and Bivy gear highly recommended, especially for first-timers.
LinksThis route has a big reputation. It comes as no surprise that there is a wealth of information on the web about this route. Some of these have a lot of great pictures and offer tales of suffering and woe.
Steven Cherry's trip report - reads like poetry
"The evil god who placed the Narrows at pitch 12 was a clever bastard. Early in the route and you'd just back off and have a nonsuffering day...
Karl said we got just as much epic as we must have secretly wanted. The"odessey up a natural passage" was certainly more than I was prepared for, and at a minimum it was much too early in the season for him to be the master of the route, or either of us to be masters of our fate. Apparently sometimes you need to hand your soul over to a wall in a neat little package and get it back a day later with tattered edges and a humbled, strengthened core."
Brutus' trip report alongside Allen Steck himself from 1994
Another trip report on Supertopo by Zander
"My first aid kit was four 4x4 gauze pads, a roll of tape, a small knife and a few NoDoz. This is about half of what I would normally bring on a long climb. Jon took even less. His bivy gear was a large garbage bag and youth."
Excellent photos from top to bottom by Greg Opland
Very funny trip report by Guillaume Dargaud
"When I bought the #6 friend and the #4 BigBro a year ago I must confess that I thought about that route. But I also remember the two strong australian climbers who did it 8 years ago and came back with scars on the sternum. Or the story of another 5.12 climber who fell off the approach."
North American Classics Trip Report by Greg Opland featuring Brutus of Wyde
Los Alamos Mountaineers Report - 3 failed attempts
"In 1992, we went expecting to be able to do the route in alpine style - carry packs with light bivouac gear, and drop them on a sling while climbing the chimneys. We made exactly one-half pitch in this fashion before I was thoroughly trashed physically and psychologically. Realizing that a 5.7 chimney had just made a fool of me..."
Another great trip report by ElCapinyoAzz with a good training list