The Chouinard-Herbert, a trip report by Elmar Stefke
Well, we did it. Aug.25th - 28th, 1993, E.C. and I climbed the Chouinard-Herbert, despite numerous warnings of the lovely approach (most people didn't even go into details about the even lovelier descent). There were several factors which should have gone against us (we had only climbed together once and that on a toprope, it was our first wall, neither of us had any aid experience worth mentioning, ... you get the picture). We were destined for an epic and I quess if climbing in the late night hours is epic for you (it doesn't have to be) then we did have quite a climb.
Oh, did I mention the word SLOW? I quess now is as good as any time: we were very, very slow.
Anyway, here we are, in the Valley at 3:40 PM on Aug. 25th, looking at the lonesome Sentinel from the beginning of the 4-mile trail, realizing for the first time that carrying and hauling the PIG was going to be a real chore. The thing must have weighed about 80 lbs. or so and I thought we were going light.
We sweated up the trail for about a mile (seemed like ten) and reached the infamous creekbed where we scrambled up for several hundred feet (the creek had quite a bit of H2O). At this point it was time to dump the pig and go for a little exploration (which probably took over an hour). I finally found THE correct ramp and returned to get E.C. and the pig (we switched off several times carrying the monster). If everything sounds easy to you up till now I may add that we're getting close to sunset (over El Cap).
A bit further up we reached the bottom of the Flying Buttress, a steep, sloping, and sandy section, which left us with more questions in terms of where to go.
We finally decided to climb up a cruddy gully/OW/chimney on the East side. There was a sling around a small tree on top, so others must have been there. I climbed and hauled in the dark (a sign of things to come). E.C. led the next short scramble, which took us to a relatively large, flat spot with two sets of bolted belay stations (one was on the floor, presumably for hauling - if we had only known). It was also at this point that we first encountered the rusty/mangy 1/4" bolts which are so prevalent at the belays of the route.
Thursday AM we rose rather late and climbed and hauled two more short pitches to the base of the climb. In all, we had done FOUR rather short pitches of roped climbing and hauling, just to get to the BASE of the climb. At this pointed we proceeded slowly, but steadily upward, switching leads such that E.C. led all the odd pitches and I got all the even pitches.
We left our pig on the top of Chessman and pushed on to fix the next three pitches in the late afternoon. I loved pitch 6, an easy 5.9 slab, followed by a sweet 5.11 lieback (it was the type of lieback I could actually envision doing free in the future, for now it was easy aid on pins and nuts). There were two belays at the top of #6. I chose to do a tension traverse to the right one.
Once again it was getting dark and E.C. had the "pleasure" of leading the (5.10a) 7th pitch in the dark, aiding as much as possible on the way. We rapped from the top of #7 to #5 and then took a second rope down to the top of Chessman. My gut feeling is that one could possibly make it down to Chessman from #7 with a 200' + rope and alot of rope stretch (although you may be left hanging 5-10' short). Chessman itself was okay, but both of us had expected more luxurious accomodations.
On Friday morning we rose at dawn and tried to get a fast start, but general putzing around (must have been me) lost valuable time. We jugged to the top of seven and I enjoyed good hands (10a-) and decent rock on pitch 8. It is imperative to lower out the haulbag for an easy haul on this pitch.
We looked up and saw the AfroCuban flakes overhead: impressive, but not a problem. Topping out seemed quite real at this point. Then it hit us: overwhelming slowness. We crawled our way up 9 and 10 and 11. By the time I hit 12 (which wasn't any faster) it was sunset again. I set up a hanging belay on the top of twelve at dusk, hauled, and hung in the dark.
Hours passed and things were getting rather uncomfortable. E.C. finally reached me and continued on in the dark to find better sleeping quarters on top of 13 (somebody had mentioned a ledge there).
The "sleeping" accomodations on top of 13 were basically on a long ledge, which was just shy of two feet wide. This wouldn't have been that bad, but the ledge also sloped at about 30-35 degrees, which literally meant hanging on ones balls all night (fortunately that wasn't too long since we stopped climbing somewhere around midnight).
I became quite accustomed to the sequence of pulling on the anchor to relieve some weight off the harness, drifting off into a brief slumber, relaxing my grip on the anchor and eventually waking up again to a loss of bloodflow and numbness in my legs.
The next day we finished two easy pitches, including a short, easy (5.7-) chimney section to a plush bivy for 3 on top of P14. We topped out, sorted gear, and started the descent.
First, there was the tedious search to pick our way through the brush tunnels and the dragging/carrying of the pig through those same tunnels (about 3-3.5' high). This was followed by a long and steep talus/sand/crud gully, which didn't feel like Class 2 (book) with the pig on our back. It seemed as if the pig had GAINED weight on the climb. Next came routefinding and scrambling/downclimbing at the initial creek junction. Finally we were back on the trail, once again in the dark.
A bit further down the trail we encountered two YOSAR guys, who just happened to be looking for US! What? We're not lost/injured/splattered... we're just SLOW! Turns out my wife had called YOSAR, after we failed to show up Fri night (the previous night) or Sat AM, as I had predicted. Oh well, that'll teach me...
Anyway, to anybody who's thinking of doing ANY route on Sentinel: THERE ARE MANY ROUTES IN THE VALLEY WITH BETTER APPROACHES AND DESCENTS! Get my drift?
Time has dulled my bad memories. I would definitely try to do it in a day the next time around and leave the pig at home.
There is a bivy on the top of Chessman, which is bumpy but accommodates up to three (two more comfortably). There is another excellent bivy for three on the top of 14 and there is plenty of good space on the top.
The climbing is excellent and offers alot in the 5.8-10a free range, the aid (unless you're freeing 11c) is straightforward. A couple of fifi hooks would speed up the traverse on the Afro-Cuban flakes.
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