A little over two years ago (Fall 04), I joined a climbing gym. I'd done plenty of backpacking, but outside of a few guided summer camp trips, I had no climbing or technical mountaineering experience. Amidst a sea of technical advice and mindless arguments available on the Internet, I found little to prepare me for what the experience would be like.
Although this trip report is quite long and not really a "trip report", I wanted to write something that would capture the experience of progressing through longer and more difficult routes. The story will be of particular interest to anyone learning to climb in Northern California, but I hope those who never plan to visit can still learn something. If not, just skim and enjoy the pictures.
During my first couple months at the gym, I had a very different view of climbing than I do now. Mostly I lacked any idea of what I wanted or how to get there. Gym climbing seemed an end in itself, rather than the training ground I now think of it as. Eventually I realized that my interest lay in long moderate trad routes, not pushing grades, and I began to plan accordingly.
In early Spring, my roommate Joe and I signed up for a lead class that our gym was offering. The class was pretty cool. There's a definite art to falling properly, and the ability to take and belay multiple lead falls in a controlled environment can be difficult to replicate outdoors. Plus, I got all my burning questions answered, like why some quickdraws have both biner gates facing the same way and others have them facing opposite directions. It's amazing what you worry about when you’re first starting out.
At the second bolt on Portent.
Joe had a rope, I bought some Trango Classic Wiregate draws, and we headed off to Pinnacles National Monument to get some outdoor lead experience. After screwing around some, I got the first real lead of the day on Portent (5.6). The route is a great example of the paradox beginning climbers face: spectacular, exposed and easy climbing make for an awesome route. Low-angle enough that any fall is a tumble and runout enough that any tumble is a disaster, falling is not something to be taken lightly.
The first several bolts went well. I was a little sketched out by the exposure but focused on the climbing and made good progress. Halfway up, the route traverses out to the left and suddenly gains significant air. Birds circle near you in the canyon. You level off with the treetops. Things are heady, but you find you can forget about the exposure if you just focus on the moves. Then WHAM! rope drag hits you like a ton of bricks.
I'd never felt serious rope drag before. Short quickdraws, a wandering route, and less-than-vertical terrain conspired to be a real killer. Suddenly I felt like I was climbing with a 40lb pack hanging off my harness. Focus on the next move, the next bolt. Pull a bight of slack up and move before it falls back down. Call for slack and cuss at your belayer, but it won't help. They're not the problem.
Finally I managed to drag myself over the edge of the route. I'd done it. My legs were shaking hard. The route was a little more runout than I'd like. But I'd done it. And so the journey begins . . .
Old Original (5.3) on the west side of Pinnacles looked like a great opportunity to break into the multi-pitch realm. More an "adventure" climb than a rock climb, it traverses the top of Machete Ridge with moderate climbing, low-angle rappels, and bolted anchors. We linked the start of the route with Derringer (5.7) as mentioned in Rubine’s guide.
The first belay anchors were a little up left of the natural route and Joe walked right by them. After running out of rope and scouting around a bit, we decided to start simul-climbing. I came up to Joe's belay, swapped gear, and immediately climbed past the next set of anchors as well, so we simul'd again. With the route almost horizontal, we were way over-judging the length of pitches.
Joe seconding Old Original
Several pitches later the route ended on a nice little saddle, where you have the option of rapping left down the face of Machete Ridge or right into a gully system. Since we only had one rope and weren't sure what was off to the left, we decided to rap right into the gully.
We later found out that rappelling the face requires two ropes and non-obvious rap stations. Off-route descents have resulted in one fatality and at least one additional organized rescue. Having reclimbed the route, voluntarily choosing to rappel the face struck me as crazy. At the time, however, I clearly remember feeling disappointed with having to take the gully.
The gully you rap into ends on a wide grassy ledge that cliffs out on the far side. WTF? The topo didn't say anything about this. We appeared to have two options: lead climb a traverse out right that might connect with another gully, or rap off the cliff and see what happens. We had minimal trad gear and the traverse looked horrible - worse than anything we'd climbed so far - so we decided to rap. There was an established rap station set up near the traverse, but the cliff was taller on that side and there was no chance of hitting the ground with one rope. We slung a tree in the center of the ledge and threw our rope.
Since I'd practiced prussiking up a rope before, I rapped first. It was obvious the rope wasn't long enough, but there was a small ledge just out of reach below me that had a slung rock. If we could reach the ledge, rapping from the rock to the ground looked like a done deal. I ascended the rope and we took a long length of webbing from our pack and joined it with the sling we already had around the tree. Joe rapped this time, radioed up that it was all good, and I followed with both our packs.
Turned out that all good meant you could reach the ledge with several feet of down-climbing once the rope ran out. I wasn't happy about this, but Joe talked me into down-climbing in order to avoid re-ascending the rope and adding yet another length of webbing to our rap anchor. I tossed our packs to Joe and he walked me through the footholds. We pulled the rope, reused the existing sling that someone had been nice enough to leave a rap ring on, and rapped off the ledge to the ground.
On my way down I noticed that the outcropping we'd slung flexed slightly when I weighted the rope, and I got down as fast as I could. F'in pinncles rock. F'in guidebooks. This was a 5.3 route listed as a popular beginner climb, supposedly doable with one rope and no trad gear. Be prepared and never trust the guidebook, I guess.
At a comfy belay in the Pinnacles.
When our gym skills had solidly progressed to around the easy 5.10 level, Joe and I realized we needed an introduction to the world of crack climbing. We had yet to climb any routes with serious cracks, but we knew we wouldn't get far in the Sierras without knowing how to climb them.
The now-defunct Planet Granite Santa Clara had a short vertical wall with several practice cracks, and it would become my primary gym stomping ground for the next couple months. Taped up and bad-assed, we headed over to the crack wall and hopped on an easy 5.8. It was probably a little below our level because we were 5.10 climbers but you gotta start somewhere.
Tied into the rope? On belay? Belay on. Climbing. Climb on. Right hand in crack, squeeze, right foot in crack, twist, step up, SHIT THAT HURTS!!! Joe laughed at me. Give it another try. Pull up with right arm, OW! I fumbled around a couple more times, unable to pull myself off the ground without unprecedented pain. Unrope, let Joe try, same thing. Not realizing how distant crack and face technique are, we played around some more and decided that PG had seriously sandbagged its cracks. I didn't know it at the time, but getting my ego slapped around by the cold hard hand of reality would become an all too common event.
I hit up the practice crack religiously until I could get high enough to need a belay. I kept working it, working it, and working it until I got 2/3 of the way up and it got distinctly wider, requiring a fist jam. Worked it some more, and finally made it to the top without falling. I still remember tagging the top, leaning back on the rope, and looking around the gym with a huge smile on my face. I don't think summiting Everest could have made me feel better.
I continued working the wall, progressing up the grades and techniques. 5.9 and finally the 5.10 offwidth. At some point I managed to perfect locking a knee jam into the OW and relaxing on it, but not without almost getting my knee irretrievably stuck a couple times.
In May 05, Joe and I arrived at the Ahwahnee parking lot for a trip up Royal Arches. At this point, Joe had been on one or two "mixed" climbs in Pinnacles, where small pro backs up widely spaced bolts, and I had yet to do a trad climb. Neither of us had climbed on granite. We were both confident in our placement skills and our ability to climb at the grade. The week before we had gone to a local park, slung a tree branch, and practiced self-rescue skills like escaping a belay and prussiking.
I had serious misgivings about the route. The grade was alright, but the route was long and committing. Picturing a vertical, exposed route, I tried to imagine myself swinging out over hundreds of feet of fresh air on the rope pendulum. I read Steve Larson's trip report
, and it scared me shitless. "It's only 5.7," Joe asked me, "how hard can it be?" I reluctantly agreed. When we saw the route in person I tried to back out again with a comment about the water cascade being impassable, but I was unwilling to officially pussy out unless Joe agreed. He was having none of it.
After some fumbling at the base of the climb, we managed to find the 5.8 variation to the start, and elected to do it over the chimney. Since Joe had at least minimal experience climbing with gear, he agreed to lead the first pitch and we'd switch off from there.
Off belay. Get my climbing shoes on and my bag packed up. Rope bag, shoes, 3 Nalgenes, jacket, headlamp, food, spare webbing. Chalk up, start moving, this stuff is slick. Mostly holdless friction with a seam you can wedge your feet against. Having the advantage of being on a toprope, I did the pitch quickly and talked things over with Joe. The pitch was tougher and slower than expected, but it was also harder than anything else to come. We should be able to make pretty good time on the rest of it.
We carried the rope to the start of pitch 2, and the next two pitches went quickly. Pitch 4 was a short 5.7 crack that cut diagonally up left on a vertical wall. It was my lead, and I was quickly glad I'd been logging crack mileage at the gym. I got about two moves up the crack, placed a cam, clipped the rope into it without a sling, and called take. My 3rd cam ever placed on lead and I was weighting it. I watched it carefully as I leaned back on the rope, and it held beautifully.
The rest of the pitch went in a similar manner - two to three moves, place a cam, rest, start moving again, maybe backclean the cam I'd just rested on. It was slow, strenuous work, but all I could manage. Thinking about it now, I was trying to stuff both my hands and feet in a diagonal crack, with a heavy pack. I probably should have gone hands in the crack with smeared feet. Topping out I made a desperate move over the lip for a handhold, found it, moved up, but almost tripped on a cam hanging off my gear sling. Recovered, slung a tree, and belayed Joe up. He took longer than I did, struggling severely on the upper half. Sitting at the belay stance just over the lip, I gave him shit for not logging enough time on the cracks at PG. We'd burned a lot of time on the crack, but our overall progress was still ok. My biggest concern was so far unfounded; the route followed a giant ledge system that protected it from excessive exposure.
There was another carry, then "5.7 fingers in scars". I setup the belay, and Joe started climbing. At most 15 feet of off-vertical pin scars above a giant ledge, followed by long sections of 2nd and 3rd. The pin scars were tricky. We had trouble getting solid footholds out of them, and weren't yet sufficiently skilled at smearing on the smooth valley granite. Place pro in a scar and suddenly you've lost your best handhold. Joe placed a cam just off the ground and tried to make the next scar. After backing off several times, he committed, couldn't hold it, and slid - almost surfed - down the rock. I locked off the rope and jumped back to take in slack, and he stopped just inches off the ground.
Joe whacked his foot on the way down and got spooked by the fall, so I geared up for a try. I placed a second cam about two feet higher than the first one, and after a bit of waffling managed to make the move and climb onto the ledges above. Joe followed, we swapped gear, and he was off. The next pitch traversed left briefly, then headed uphill. Parties had been stacking up at the base of the last pitch, and while Joe was climbing, several of them shot straight uphill, bypassing the 5.7 scars for variations to the left.
Apparently there was a slow party behind us that several faster parties had stacked up behind. When we took forever on pitches 4 and 5, the slow party caught up with us. At pitch 5 the route opens up and the traffic jam spilled out onto its endless variations. Trying to follow the topo to the letter, Joe had traversed from right to left, and we suddenly had numerous lines crossing ours. Unfortunately our delays worsened as Joe found himself off-route and in bad fall territory. Unwilling to down-climb the traversing friction he'd just gone up, unable to place adequate pro, and unwilling to commit to the next move without pro, he sat there feeling for a missing hold or alternate route while calling down "watch me! watch me!". Like I could do anything about it.
By the time Joe extricated himself, even the slow team was past us. We quickly figured out why they were slow: they had a monster pack, and were having trouble figuring out how to bring it with them. Around this point, they switched from having the second wear it to hauling it. This forced them to take the route in half-pitches. By the time they cleared the next belay point and Joe could set up, it was 2pm in the afternoon and we obviously weren't making it up before dark. As I started up, Joe pointed at his wrist and down the route. I nodded, glad he agreed.
The route is well covered with trees, eliminating the need to leave gear on rappel. We had a length of nylon webbing with us and started cutting it up for rap slings. Two raps brought us back to the ledge with the pin scars, where we ate lunch and watched a lifeflight helicopter circle the valley and land in the Ahwahnee meadow below. Another two raps brought us to the top of pitch 2, where we ran out of webbing. The rap station was already established with two lengths of 7mm cord but no rap ring, so I backed it up with a generous amount of 5 mil cord and rapped off. The last rap station was a pair of pound-in bolts of unknown origin and age with some funky hangers and rap rings. We set up for the rap, bounce-tested the anchor, and were back on solid ground.
The day left us thoroughly defeated. We had come in with high confidence and high expectations, and walked off wondering what the hell happened. We knew Yosemite grades would be stiff, but so far all of the routes we'd done in the gym, at Castle Rock (sandstone), and at Pinnacles (volcanic choss) had all been roughly on the same grading scale.
The next day we picked the Regular Route on Sunnyside Bench, a 3-pitch 5.4, for a more measured introduction to granite. A stellar route, definitely the best beginner's climb I've seen, but the 5.4 "jugs" on the 3rd pitch were still a rude awakening. Apparently there are 3 kinds of face holds out here: sloper, crimper and jug, with jug being the catch-all bucket for those that don't fit in the first two categories. We finished the route, ate lunch at the Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria, and booked it back to the Bay Area.
View from P2 of the Regular Route, Sunnyside Bench
We soon returned, this time at a more mellow pace. Another friend, JD, came with us, and I'd picked up a brand new pair of Mammut 8.5mm doubles on sale at REI. We spent Saturday morning top roping at Swan Slabs, getting a feel for the rock and local climbing techniques. While telling an experienced climber and SAR volunteer about our experience on Royal Arches, he chewed us out for rapping directly off slings. Friction, he said, can damage a nylon sling even before you pull your rope. Always bail off a biner.
Seemed like a stretch to me, but fair enough. What's a good cheap locker to use as a bail biner? What's that you say? You bail off a single non-locker? "How's it possibly going to open once weighted" you ask? I don't know, but I can tell you which technique would give more climbers the willies. At the end of the day, its up to you to figure out which advice to listen to and which advice to discard.
On Sunday we headed up to The Grack, a 3-pitch 5.6 on Glacier Point Apron. I was still a little intimidated from our Royal Arches experience; it took several minutes of staring up at the route and down at the topo for Joe to convince me that we were really at the base. "That's it? We're going to rock this." I found it amazing anything this low-angle could qualify as 5.6.
Joe led the first pitch, really a class 4 scramble to a move or two of technical climbing below the belay. Since the first pitch was such a dud, I agreed to let him lead the second. He more or less sprinted up the obvious crack line. The route was going well enough that I dawdled for a while to try and booty a deeply wedged tricam; I was curious to play around with one. We swapped rope ends, but my lead was pretty short. We'd been a little concerned about the 5.6 friction at the top of the pitch, but it proved to be straight-forward and easy. Already getting a hang for granite.
We really screwed up twice once the climb ended. The bolts on the top anchor are set just below a shelf, and I was so happy about topping out that I didn't plan my belay. I hopped on top of the shelf and belayed off the bolts with a reverso, stacking the rope next to me. The shelf was covered with sand and loose rock, and despite my best efforts rope movement occasionally kicked off small rocks, no doubt to the delight of those waiting at the base. I should have set up a hanging belay with both myself and the rope below the bolts, but once Joe and JD were on belay it was too tricky for me to change the setup. Unfortunately not the last time I'd commit this error.
The second screwup wasn't so bad, but when we threw ropes for the rappel JD made his butterfly coil way too short and his rope wound up a tangled mess. He who breaks it fixes it, and JD got to rap first and sort out the mess while Joe and I hung out discussing the route. It was hard to imagine a one-grade difference between this and the 5.7 sections of Royal Arches. The Grack was probably on the soft side for a 5.6, but we were slowly learning how subjective route ratings are.
On our last weekend in the valley for 05, Joe, Dan and I spent Saturday afternoon at Glacier Point Apron. We got Dan to lead the Grack since he hadn't done it yet, and on the way down we decided to stop and toprope the second pitch of Marginal (5.9R), which shares anchors with the Grack's rap route. We set an anchor on the bolts, hung the ropes off the reverso, and I rapped down one strand to the next belay stance. Once I tied in, they could belay me straight off the reverso.
I'd seconded The Grack in my 5.10 Guide Tennie approach shoes, and in the process of switching shoes for Marginal I dropped a climbing shoe. Oh well, I'll climb it in approach shoes. The crux of the second pitch turned out to be a small roof off the belay, and once I figured out how to clear it the rest of the friction climbing went pretty easy. Its a different world when you're on the safe end of the rope, but I thought the route felt at most 5.7 and I wasn't even wearing real shoes!
I'd been wanting to get in a 5.8 lead this season, and our experience on Marginal got me pretty psyched. Thumbing through our book we turned up a likely candidate in Harry Dailey, a 2-pitch 5.8 on the far right of the Apron. The guidebook's description was pretty intimidating - strenuous, tricky, sustained - but we decided to hike to the base and decide from there.
Getting to the base turned out to require a class 3 scramble, so I got volunteered to check it out and report my findings. I followed the scramble to a small ledge and paced back and forth, looking for the route. Did it start on the ledge below me? Nope, that's definitely the belay point and the 2nd pitch roof. Contrary to my fears the roof was pretty tame but the initial start was worrysome. The route started on a narrow ledge with finger locks in small pin scars; a fall with an unanchored belayer had the potential to send the whole team overboard.
I played with gear a little bit to make sure I could get a solid anchor and then called Joe and Dan up. I was still concerned about the initial fingers in scars - my risk of popping out and sliding back down to the belay ledge seemed pretty high - but I desperately wanted a valley 5.8 this season. The sun was getting low, and it was this or nothing.
Not only did I use up 3 aliens including my brand new red/yellow hybrid making the anchor, I also took the first 3 holds off the ground. A few false starts and I committed and was off. I cranked through the scars until things widened a little bit and got in a cam. A few more feet up and my last obvious spot for pro before the route started a traverse up left. I pulled out a too-large cam, put it back, and struggled against the strenuous jam to get a smaller cam in. Somewhere in the process I dropped it and called rock. Joe stepped off to the side while Dan dropped into a ball and covered his neck. Almost in slow motion I watched the cam cascade off the face and whack Dan straight in the back. Shit! What was it with me dropping stuff today? Fortunately it was a small DMM and the damage was minimal. Dan was lucky I wasn't trying to place a #4 Camalot.
Traverse left to a tree, sling it, and traverse up right to the bolted anchor. First pitch done. Bring up Joe and Dan, swap gear, and head up to the "roof" (really only about 10 degrees overhung). Slot in a cam, move up, slot in another one. Pull the lower cam and place it right at the top of the roof. Get a hand in on the top side of the roof, pull up, place another cam, clean the bottom one again. Get another hand in, high step, just barely squeeze a foot jam in on the top side of the roof, stand up. Sweet!
The top of the route was another bolted anchor with a small pod you could sit in. As I sat down and belayed Joe and Dan off the reverso, I had a beautiful view across the valley of Royal Arches, Washington Column and North Dome lit up by the setting sun. My mind filled with thoughts of all the glorious 5.8 and hard 5.7 routes I could climb next year - Royal Arches, this time all the way to the top, Snake Dike, North Dome, Corrugation Corner and Haystack at Lover's Leap. I had thoughts of doing Washington Column next year, and while the aid might be tricky the 3 sections of 5.8 free climbing should be within reach. I also started thinking about hot curry village pizza, cold beer, and a good, proud night's sleep.
Joe rapelling Pine Line the afternoon before we did Uncle Fanny. El Cap towers above.
Its a lazy Sunday morning in Yosemite valley, at the start of the 06 climbing season. Joe and I had wrapped up the previous day on Pine Line, a spectacular one-pitch 5.7 at the base of the Nose, lapping the thing multiple times as the sun went down behind us. When we were done climbing, we'd walked along the West face of El Cap with the Valley Supertopo in one hand and the Big Walls Supertopo in the other, scouting classic lines up the rock. Today we were heading over to Church Bowl, with plans to work out our wide crack/chimney skills on Uncle Fanny (5.7), and then maybe push back into the 5.8 realm on Bishop's Terrace. Psyched from last year, I had solid plans for the South Face of Washington Column (V, 5.8 C1) in the fall and wanted to get a lot more 5.8 mileage under way before then.
Joe on Pine Line.
Other than horrendous mosquitos, the route looked straightforward. A flaring/squeeze chimney on less than vertical terrain with two solid looking cracks in the back for holds and pro. The route was obvious from the bottom, so I didn't pay a lot of attention to the topo and didn't think about how to rack gear on my harness. A couple moves into the chimney, I realized that having all my pro hanging off gear loops rather than a gear sling was a serious mistake. I also wasn't sure which way to face, and had trouble committing to either direction. Joe and I had brought double ropes under the false assumption a single would be too short to rap on, and I was tripping on the ropes as I tried to get my feet into chimney position.
Another team had showed up shortly after us looking to do the same route, and I'd cavalierly suggested that we'd be pretty quick up and back. After pussyfooting my way through the first face-chimney transition for probably 10 minutes before finally committing to it, I wasn't such a hotshot anymore, but fortunately they'd wandered off in search of other lines. The route had a few more cruxes to come, and most of it involved a lot of flexing, sweating, cursing, breathing hard, and just general suckage. A good experience, but damn. This wasn't Pine Line's 5.7. Welcome to the valley.
Side Note: Doing some research on the route, I discovered that "Bob's your uncle" is a dated British phrase meaning something's easy, and "Fanny's your aunt" is the common reply when the first phrase is a bunch of BS. If someone told me "Just throw an arm bar in Generator Crack and Bob's your uncle", I'd say "and Fanny's your aunt." Not sure if this is the origin of the route's name, but it sure is appropriate.
I was happy to see that Joe had about as much fun as I did, although he did manage to do a better job getting his body all the way sideways and chimneying where I'd tried to keep my hands in the safety blanket of cracks in the back. Another team had climbed a separate route that shared our anchor as a rappel point, so after agreeing to share ropes we let them get set up while I flaked our doubles out into a rope backpack. I was still flaking when they finished rapping, so Joe went first. "Clean our anchor when you go?" I asked, noticing that our anchor sling was still around the tree.
When Joe hit the ground I got ready to rap and quickly realized that my ATC-Guide, along with both my large round locking biners, was at the ground with the anchor sling. Occupational hazard that comes with belaying off the anchor. I'd tried a Munter on large belay biners like the Petzl Attache but not on the dinky wiregates I was now surrounded with. I also wasn't sure whether I should rap with two separate Munters or try to make a giant 2-rope Munter on one biner. Time for other options.
I had enough biners to make a carabiner brake, but it took me forever to figure out how to assemble it over the rope. I hadn't practiced in a long time, and the biners always wound up stacked funny. Joe kept radioing up "everything OK up there?", "You know you can just use a Munter" and other useless prodding. I kept stacking the biners and they kept coming out funny. Fuck. We'll be up and down in a hurry. Who's the hotshot now?
I finally got the brake setup right, but without opposed gates. Fuck. Disassembling the brake and getting the gates opposed was going to take a lot more fumbling. I just wanted off. Resolving to watch the biners carefully while on rappel, I backed myself up with a prusik above rather than an autoblock below. If a biner did get unclipped, I didn't want to be hanging off my leg loop.
Totally smacked down by Uncle Fanny, we gave up on waiting in line for Bishop's Terrace. We did check out Harding's Chimney (5.6), but it looked far more intimidating than Uncle Fanny. 5.6? The route climbs up into a dark hole with rock on all four sides of it, and it looks so wide I could barely straddle it. Needing an easy afternoon pick-me-up, we headed over to Yosemite Lodge for a giant ice cream cone and a reclimb of Sunnyside Bench's Regular Route.
My master plan for doing Washington Column in the fall revolved around becoming a competent 5.8 leader by logging tons of 5.8 mileage this summer. That was derailed by our Uncle Fanny escapade, but I planned to put it back on track during our next climbing trip to Lover's Leap. Joe and I warmed up on Pop Bottle (a pretty soft 5.7) and then looped around to Haystack, a 3-pitch 5.8. While on the first pitch belay for Pop Bottle, we cheated on our ground up ethic and got some good information from the team climbing Haystack next to us. Since WC was my battle to fight, Joe roped up for the first pitch ("easy 5th class moves that lead to a few 5.6 jams to the belay", according to Supertopo), and I'd swing into the lead on the second.
Joe took a long time on the first pitch, stitching it up, swearing, and downclimbing frequently. Finally he reached the anchor, put me on belay, and I quickly realized why he took so long. This stuff was hard! The route was steep and sustained compared to most of the routes we'd done. Finding rest stances for gear placements was difficult at times, and there were some moves that required a decent amount of commitment - the hold on the other side always materialized, but I never liked having to take it on faith. The final segment was especially tricky - two parallel cracks, neither of them nice.
When I reached the belay, Joe and I talked about the rest of the route. It was certainly the trickiest 5.6 climbing I'd done outside of Just Acquaintances (5.6, Lover's Leap), a horribly sandbagged crack that sent dirt cascading down on me with every jam. If the rest of the route went like this we'd be OK, but if the 5.8 sections were actually several grades harder we'd be screwed. Joe made it clear that he had no intention of leading the next pitch, and the decision was all mine.
I stared up at the roof and tried to visualize the route. If I backed down now, Washington Column would have to wait until next year, no doubt about it. The fall potential wasn't nasty but certainly wasn't clean. If it were straight off the ground I probably would have done it, but the discrepancy between rating and difficulty on the first pitch had made me wary. For the first time since I'd started climbing, I had serious alarm bells going off in my head.
Joe seconding the traverse from Haystack to Pop Bottle.
"Fuck it. Lets get out of here. I'm not risking my leg on this." Rapping to the ground would have required two gear anchors, but the traverse left to the first belay of Pop Bottle looked feasible, and from there you can walk off with some 5.easy moves. Joe belayed me out to the Pop Bottle belay ledge, I belayed him across, and we escaped with everything but our egos still intact.
We decided to hit up an easy route on the Hogsback to restore some of our lost confidence and salvage the day. After reaching the base of Deception, we realized we'd left the Hogsback topo pages in the car, and the only route we'd done before (Deception) was busy with a long line. Joe thought he remembered that there was a 5.7ish route off to the right, so we traversed over and up to the base of a large tree to check it out.
We were at the base of a column with obvious routes up the corners on each side. Unfortunately Joe's memory stopped there - he was pretty sure neither of them were harder than 5.8, but couldn't remember specifics on either one. "Your call dude. You can lead this or we can head back to Deception." After our failure on Haystack I wasn't really up for a blind lead of unknown difficulty, but I sorely needed redemption. As we stood there in the hot afternoon sun, I turned things over in my head. Bottom part of the route was lower-angle and looked doable, then it topped out in a series of vertical ledges that looked pretty tricky. Screw it. If the route proves impossible and I have to bail off of gear, it can't make my day any worse.
"Let’s do it." I roped up, put on my shoes, and took off. The inside of the corner had a lot of cracks in it, and the climbing consisted of hand jams and liebacks combined with stemmed feet. Unfortunately the "cracks" were really space between large flakes, so finding adequate pro was a bit challenging. Not runout challenging, but I definitely had to pay special care to where each cam was going. Eventually the route passed what looked like an obvious belay spot, but it was semi-hanging and there was a much nicer looking one a bit ahead. After checking the rope length with Joe I proceeded up to the next spot only to find that it was more hanging than the first.
I put in two cams and tried to figure out how to make an anchor. For some reason my feet were aching at this point, and hanging while Joe seconded the pitch and then led out the route was going to kill me. The obvious route traversed left from here on slabby ground, somehow surmounted a block, and then worked up right again. The bottom 40' of the route was almost 4th class; if we simulclimbed I’d be on top and off this mess by the time Joe was in any sort of real fall danger. "You good to simulclimb?" I radioed down. "Ok." I pulled one of my cams, leaving the other with my last sling to protect the traverse; I was somewhat runout below this point. The route below me went pretty straight; if I'd known I'd be simuling I would have saved my slings and clipped directly into some cams. Oh well. I was pretty sure I could make it from here to the top without additional pro.
The slab traverse went well, but the block proved a lot harder than it looked from far away. The best way I could see to do it was to kick a foot up right and mantle, but it looked tricky. I looked back at my last piece, and then the distance from there to the next one. A pendulum scraper if I fell, and a real bang-up if the cam didn't hold. Shit. Placing unslung pro wasn't an option; with the traverse back right the rope drag would kill. After briefly considering chaining together a series of cam slings and nuts, I managed to get my daisy chain off my harness and use it end-to-end as a runner. I heave-ho'd past the block and gained the top.
Topping out on Harvey's Wallbangers, Right.
Afterwards Joe and I both agreed the route had been sustained 5.6 with occasional 5.7 moves. We later discovered we'd climbed Harvey's Wallbangers, Right (5.7) but . . . the only 5.7 move on the route was an offwidthy-chimney move directly above where I'd traversed left. I was psyched to have done the route ground-up without beta, but was pretty deflated by its final grade. Not a single 5.7 move? Was my feel for difficulty ratings really that bad? My hopes for being a reasonable 5.8 leader that dim?
Joe at the top of P8 on Royal Arches
In July 06, we returned to Royal Arches for a rematch. We'd logged a lot more mileage on Yosemite-type rock, the words "fingers in scars" no longer scared me shitless, and we had our system down. By gearing up at the campsite, hanging shoes off the back of the harness and ditching the rope bag for a coiled rope backpack, were able to swap the large packs of our previous trip for Camelbaks just large enough to hold a jacket and headlamp. Given the abundance of trees on the route, we planned on ignoring the topo-designated belays and running each pitch out to the end of the rope, simul-climbing where necessary.
We agreed to switch leads over our previous trip, so I led the 5.8 start variation. A few moves was all it took to make me realize I shouldn't be too cocky this time around, but the pitch went in good order and we carried the rope to the start of the next pitch. The lead was relatively easy, and I remember getting frustrated that Joe was taking a while. I kept looking at my watch, ticking off time in my head. Come on, hurry up. This is the easy part. Finally he radioed down that since the 4th class gully was dry this time around we should just simul the thing.
I was a little disappointed to learn we'd be bypassing the 5.7 crack that gave me so much difficulty last time, but happy to be making good time. As my terrain leveled off and Joe's steepened, I started flaking the rope around my neck, tying a bight off on my harness occasionally. The terrain was such that the ground would probably stop Joe's fall well before I did. There was another carry at the top, so we didn't bother with an anchor and I just soloed up, flaking the rope as I went.
Joe climbs up the second pitch of Royal Arches into the early morning sun.
Another carry led us to the brief section of pin scars we'd burned so much time on last year. While I still noticed they were there, I cruised up the pitch and linked it with part of the next one, anchoring off the tree we'd started our rappel from. I was really glad to see that here, as on previous trees, someone had removed our rap tat. I've always been curious what the typical lifetime of a rappel sling is.
The rope pendulum.
The next several pitches before the pendulum passed quickly. We were making good time, but I was still concerned about our progress. From the topo and route description, it sounded like the hardest and most exposed climbing was still ahead. We swapped gear and Joe led off for the pendulum. I had been expecting to jump a giant crevasse Tarzan-style on a knotted rope, and the actual pendulum proved quite tame relative to my expectations. The pendulum is setup such that the rope returns to the start for the next climber; no bailing after this point.
Joe checks out the upcoming corner after completing the rope pendulum.
After the pendulum my worries on time eased up significantly. I started getting positively giddy, and as a result I also got sloppy. The next lead involved a scramble up a corner to a giant tree, ideally going left of the tree and continuing on before setting a belay. I neglected to put in adequate protection, instead slinging a 1" root. As a result, I didn't trust myself to come left of the tree and climbed right above it, setting the belay early. Joe downclimbed left, led out to the end of the rope, couldn't find an adequate anchor, and then backed off a bit. "Should I set the belay on a shitty tree or two shitty cams?" my radio blurted out just as a team below us leapfrogged my belay.
Topo says what?
When I caught up with Joe, the belay wasn't ideal but wasn't nearly as bad as he'd led me to believe. I led uphill just out of sight and then across a traverse. Although I had plenty of rope left, I knew I couldn't make the rap anchors this pitch, I was at a good belay, and the anchors were at most one pitch away. I slung a tree and put Joe on belay. "That's it?" He radioed up, pissed at me for shortchanging two leads in a row, denting our up-till-now impressive time. "Don't worry, its easy from here".
We were effectively done - the last couple pitches had been easier than expected - and I leaned back against the anchor and looked out over the Valley. Joe caught up with me, but took his time on the next lead to check out a scenic viewpoint. He stopped to place pro and I called out "If you hurry your slow ass up, we can make the route in under 5 hours." "I'll make it under 5," Joe called back, "but you won't." We were both psyched about the time. Things were looking up.
One more pitch to the rap anchors! The sweet view of success.
We'd "aid bouldered" a couple times, doing several ropeless moves up a crack then downclimbing, and the next step in aid practice was to find a bolt ladder somewhere. Joe and I headed off to Pinnacles to hit up Ranger Bolts, an A0 route buried in a dark canyon on the back side of the Monolith. Starting on a small platform partway up the rock, the route traverses up left several bolts to a free traverse before resuming as a vertical bolt ladder. The initial traverse gives it plenty of air right off the deck, which combined with the setting made for an intimidating climb.
From the base of the climb, we could follow the general path of the route but couldn't see every bolt. The big doubt in my mind was over their spacing. Would I get partway up and not be able to high-step up to the next bolt? Details on the route were sketchy - what if one of the bolts was missing? What if they were hangerless and I couldn't sling them with a nut?
I led up the first three bolts and onto the traverse, leaving my daisy attached to the last bolt as a safety tether. Putting tension on the daisy allowed me to move onto the traverse without committing to it, but I couldn't bring myself to unclip from the bolt and commit for real - it looked like climbing back to the bolt would be tough if things didn't work out. After a couple tries, I down-aided to the start and let Joe gear up for a try.
He also had trouble committing to the traverse. From solid ground the moves looked super simple, but it became a different story once you were up on the route. The fall was safe - a short pendulum onto a series of bolts - but something about the route was spooking us. Joe climbed back down, and we both hung out at the belay for a while feeling like total losers. Bunch of poser wannabe climbers who can't even do a simple aid ladder.
I knew that if I didn't do the route that day I could give up on doing Washington Column in the fall. I geared up, led out, and still had issues. Sat on the bolt for a while feeling pissed at myself when Joe had the brilliant idea of using the rope for tension instead of the daisy, allowing me to move farther out. I carefully moved along the traverse - it wasn't that bad - and then stood up for the next bolt. Reached back on my harness to grab the daisy, fumbled a bit, got the biner out, crap, its too short. I'd forgotten to re-lengthen the daisy when I was done with the last bolt. Fumble to lengthen the daisy, try to clip the bolt, shit! The biner won't fit through the hole in the hanger. I'd brought some nuts along just for this issue, but there's no way I'm going to be able to get them out from my current stance. I started to lose the stance, struggled, and finally got the biner into the hanger. Whew.
The rest of the route went quickly. The bolts were very reasonably spaced - almost too close - and I reached the top in short order. I have an understandable fear of hanging belays in Pinnacles rock, so I clipped my anchor into every bolt I could reach, sketchy Leeper hangers included. Once the lead line was tied off, I called down to Joe that he was free to ascend.
Once Joe had completed the traverse, he complained that seconding was really hard work. Yeah, its not that bad, stop being such a pussy, I thought. Another minute later I looked down again and realized something didn't look right. "Where's your aider?" "Shit." The hand-tied 1" webbing aider was still lying next to the belay rather than hanging off Joe's ascender. We were using a modified ascender + gri-gri method (with the gri-gri replaced by a locking pulley), so Joe was basically doing a pull-up off the ascender and then yarding in slack on the pulley. Unfortunately, unlike with a gri-gri, he couldn't rap back to the belay point without swapping the pulley out for a separate device. Cannibalizing a runner from one our "trad draws" at least gave him a platform to stand up on and allowed him to complete the ascent without toasting his arm.
By the time we reached the ground there wasn't time for Joe to lead, but we were pretty happy with the day. Time to go find some real rock to aid on.
Aiding on Some Real Rock
Sometime after Ranger Bolts we made the horrible mistake of practicing our first C1 pitch at the Wright's Lake Cliffs, since my family has a cabin nearby. The crack we chose was only about 80' tall, but it was flaring and ugly. Joe got the first lead, and it took 3 hours before we were back on the ground. By that point we were toast for the day, planning on an early trip back to the Bay Area.
I'd heard of hard aid leads taking several hours, but an 80' C1 pitch? This was Joe's first time in aiders for more than 10', but still. Despite pro opportunities the entire way up, Joe spent half the lead scared shitless about the possibility of falling. I didn't blame him; the crack took only cams, most in flaring placements. Solid, probably. Confidence-inspiring, definitely not.
Saturday we'd been shut down on Haystack. Sunday we took 3 hours to lead an 80' crack. Seems to be a pattern that every time I start doing well climbing some abject failure comes along and slaps me back into place.
Though I'd given up on Washington Column, Joe and I still wanted to give aiding another shot. After our second trip up Royal Arches, we headed over to Church Bowl on Sunday with plans to aid a short crack there. In lead-switching fashion, I got the first lead.
I still wasn't lightning fast, but the difference from Wright's Lake was amazing. The route was a poster child for nuts, with beautiful constricting placements that even a direct sideways pull wouldn't dislodge. While the Wrights Lake cliffs had been a flaring crack in a blank wall, this crack had all sorts of ridges inside of it to use as supplementary hand and footholds. Having something reasonably solid to kick a foot onto helped tremendously. Before I knew it I was at the top anchors.
When you're just staring out aiding there's a definite tendency to poop your pants at every little noise. A load shifting, like two carabiners rubbing against eachother, is especially frightening as it sounds somewhat like a piece popping. Joe and I had been having a running philosophical discussion about whether you hear a piece pop before or after you start to fall. If the noise comes second, then you might as well relax on the pitch, somewhat like never hearing the bullet that kills you.
We got the chance to find out on Joe's second piece. He placed a green alien that he didn't like, replaced it, and still didn't like it. Since we were just practicing and he was right off the ground, he decided to move up on it anyway. After weighting it for several seconds I heard a *ping* and he sort of surfed down the rock onto his last piece. We were so close to the ground that I moved to spot him, but he stopped first. I looked down at my belay device and it was still slack. Joe was swearing "Fuck! Oww!" and it took the two of us about 10 seconds of looking at the situation to figure out that he'd been caught by his daisy.
From this, we concluded two things: you don't hear the piece that pulls on you, and daisy falls suck. Joe went on to lead the pitch a little faster than I had, and couldn't stop raving about how pleasant it was compared to Wright's Lake. Things were looking up.
Cleaning Church Bowl Tree.
At the end of the summer we made a couple of trips to Tuolumne to check out some long moderate alpine climbs. The first stop was the SE Buttress of Cathedral Peak, a spectacular half-cone shaped mountain with a distinctive summit. Talking with Joe over IM mid-week before our trip, I found out that he had invited his roommate along as well. "How much climbing experience does he have?" "A couple years ago he did some in school." What the fuck! Its a good thing we weren't talking in person, because I blew a gasket. We were already looking at an all-day trip, our first alpine route, our first route in Tuolumne, our first climb over 10,000 feet, and it was near our lead level. I wanted to move as fast as possible, not create a traffic jam while we pause to talk someone through the moves or let them get a grip on the exposure.
I tried to figure out how to phrase this to Joe as politely as possible, and we left it at his roommate coming along to the base and potentially the first pitch and sizing it up then. Joe agreed it wasn't the best situation but said his roommate had been asking about coming along climbing for a while and had already bought gear in preparation for this weekend, so he felt bad saying no. I was pretty pissed at his cavalier attitude but agreed to sizing things up at the base of the route.
We got a slightly later start than expected, and concerned about lines at the base I set the pace way too fast on the way in. Joe had to reel me back a couple times and get us to pace ourselves, and in the end we made the trip in 1:15, way on the short side of Supertopo's estimate. The last sandy bit of uphill was a slog; it was like I suddenly lost all my energy and had to resort to rest-stepping. Gotta remember we're at (mild) altitude.
We were surprised to find almost no one at the base and only a few parties on-route. Sweet. There was a team just roping up for a left-hand variation, so we traversed up right and took a look at the right-hand route. The bottom couple pitches, at least, were low-angle knob heaven.
Joe near the bottom of the SE Buttress. Looking up the SE Buttress.
Swinging leads is difficult with a 3-man team, so we agreed that Joe would lead the first half and I'd take over at the base of the chimney. By the time we roped up and Joe led off, a couple more parties had shown up, but it was still no more crowded than your typical popular climbing route. With a clear sky, not many people, and knobby holds everywhere, the day was looking up.
Rob climbs the second pitch.
I took off before Joe's roommate Rob in order to clean protection on my way up. Spurting ahead of Rob, I conferred with Joe: either he bailed now or he was coming all the way with us. This was probably the easiest pitch on the route; it may get significantly harder from here. I figured Rob could probably struggle up the thing, but based on this pitch there would be an obvious time penalty to having him along. I was ready to lower him off and be done with him.
When Rob got up to us, he said he was doing alright. Joe said cool and I didn't feel comfortable being the bad guy. In retrospect, there's nothing wrong with saying I'm not comfortable climbing into a certain situation and I should have spoken up. I didn't, and before long we were another pitch up the mountain. The third pitch followed a tricky thin, slightly flared crack. Joe screwed around for a while before leading through it, and with the moves not being obvious I decided to climb it first and then guide Rob through from above. Actually, being an idiot I thought I could climb halfway up, friction over to the right on rope tension and guide him through, but it quickly became obvious that wasn't possible.
After climbing the crack, I wasn't sure Rob would be able to do it without ascending the rope. How do you explain a finger lock to someone while hanging out mid-route at 10k feet? I explained the basic moves to Rob, and with a little struggling and some hanging (but not pulling) on the rope he managed to make it through. We were well above the team below us, and I started to feel better about having him along.
We swapped rope ends and I got the next pitch. The chimney was backed up with another party, so we decided to try a right-hand face climbing variation. There was some disagreement over where we should go; Joe thought I should be just right of the chimney but it looked like an unprotected solo to the top. I opted for a right-hand book next to the face, but as I was having trouble matching the rock to the topo this was somewhat unfamiliar terrain.
There was a nice-looking offwidth on the right of the book but we didn't have anything large enough to protect it, so I stemmed up the corner. Some easy moves put me at a thin ledge, and I got some pro in. The top of the corner looked mildly overhung, so I considered traversing up right on slabbier ground. Dicey traverse moves up right, put in another piece, look around. Right obviously wasn't going to pan out; I had to pull the piece and traverse back along the ledge. With the amount of rope out there was only one piece between me and a tumbling grounder at the bottom of the book. Time to move carefully.
At the ledge I re-evaluated my options. I could take my chances up through the corner or downclimb the book and head up the face between it and the chimney. I'd already burned a lot of time on my wild goose chase to the right, and downclimbing would slow us down even more. Additionally, stemming up was easy and I hadn't protected it very well; downstemming with the same level of pro wasn't a happy thought. I decided to go for the corner, but to only clip Joe's rope. If necessary, we could flip Rob's rope over the book and he could climb the easier face.
The move from my ledge into the corner proved tricky; after pussyfooting around it several times I realized that I would need to commit to the move and put a lot of momentum behind it in order to hang on. There wasn't a good resting spot at the base of the move, so I traversed back onto my ledge, took a deep breath, and let my leg stop shaking. "You OK up there?" Joe radioed for the second time. I couldn't tell if he was seriously concerned about my wellbeing or frustrated at my slow progress. "Shut up and let me climb."
I made the move and climbed higher into the corner until the last two or three overhung moves. I placed a yellow alien, and then looking down backed it up with a green one. Tried the move, and couldn't figure out how to do it without doing a pull-up off a hand jam. Tried again, still no luck. Minutes passed and I couldn't commit myself to doing the move. I was wigged out; that irrational fear most people have when they first tie into a rope was squeezing me. Don't fall. Don't fall. Don't fall. Look down. Shit. Legs are shaking, arms are shaking, hands are growing pumped. Shake out, try to find a good rest. Don't fall.
There was a fixed piton just above me; I clipped the rope to it (3 pieces now!) but didn't feel any safer. Deciding it was better to succeed in poor form than fail in good form, I clipped a runner to the piton, tugged hard a couple times, and then pulled on it. Now partway beached over the lip, I struggled in the sandy soil to find a positive handhold to pull myself up on. Finally I found one and beach-whaled myself onto the tiny ledge. The ordeal was over.
Rob at the overhung move that gave me so much trouble. For a novice climber, he was surprisingly fast and unfazed by the exposure, proving my concerns unfounded.
Looking down, I could see a whole crew of people stacking up at the roomy belay ledge by Joe and Rob. All this time I'd been worried about being stuck behind a slow party, or about Rob making us slow, and it turned out I'm the real hold-up.
Rob decided to head up the corner, and Joe rejected my stemming idea and talked him through the (supposedly 5.9) offwidth. I was starting to develop some serious respect for the guy, showing up in brand-new velcro gym/sport shoes with a minimal amount of top-roping experience years ago and tackling an offwidth. I had to give him a tight belay on the top part of the corner, but he cruised it. Joe thought pulling over the lip without using the piton was pretty easy and obvious; evidently I missed a hold somewhere.
I was pretty shaken up and almost ready to ask Joe to lead the rest, but my nerves calmed down during the belay. Two pitches to go! The first went quickly, and ended at a beautifully large sandy ledge. The last pitch was short and easy, landing at the small exposed summit block. A party ahead of was taking their time getting up and off the block and I was forced to wait them out; Joe radioed up several times asking what the holdup was. There was definitely a traffic jam behind us.
The skies behind me had been at most partly cloudy, but when I crested the ridgeline to the summit I found myself face to face with a giant thunderhead. Still some distance off, but damn, the weather up here can sure sneak up on you. We'd originally been planning on linking up with Eichorn's Pinnacle, but the thunderhead gave us second thoughts and we decided to boogey.
Rob crests the giant block just below the summit. Rob doing a 5.easy traverse on the descent.
We hiked out with plenty of daylight left. I was a little disappointed to learn my troublesome corner move was only a 5.7, but overall we were psyched by our pace. Joe and I began talking large about future plans. We had two weekends in Yosemite left; I wasn't doing Washington Column this year but if we could do Mt Conness on the first weekend and Matthes Crest on the next, I'd feel pretty good about the season.
Gung-ho from our trip up Cathedral, Joe and I returned to attempt the West Ridge of Mt Conness (IV, 5.6, tops out at 12,590'). We left early enough from the Bay Area to have a pleasant dinner in Groveland and still get to Tuolumne around 10pm instead of the usual midnight. Even at the campground, it was friggin freezing out. Doubts quickly set in about our chances of surviving a night bivvy on an exposed ridge at 12k feet with the gear we were expecting to carry. Joe had brought his 40deg sleeping bag, and unfortunately spent the night with all his spare clothing draped over it trying to stay warm.
In the morning we decided to bring Joe's bag with us on account of our otherwise inadequate bivvy gear of 1 rain shell each. A bagel for breakfast, a quick drive to the Saddlebag Lakes TH, and we were off. Almost. Joe had to stop and take a dump on the way in (a #2 while tied into a harness is something to be avoided at all costs) and while I was waiting for him one guy camping at the walk-in CG came up and asked me which route we were climbing. "West Ridge of Conness." "What's that rated?" "5.6" "How do you get there?" As I showed him the topo, I tried to size up whether he was actually intending to have a go at it today or just curious. He certainly seemed like the former.
We made good time on the first quarter mile, but soon ran smack into a river. Joe headed upstream and I went down in search of an obvious crossing. Nothing. While we were conferring and looking for the crossing, another team caught up to us and promptly decided to take their shoes off and wade across. We followed suit, but they were off a couple minutes ahead of us. All told, we'd burned 30 minutes crossing the river. Next time I'll bring sandals and dry socks.
Down on time and feeling slow compared to the group that had just charged past us, I pushed ahead pretty fast. Several minutes later we leapfrogged the other team; they'd stopped to strip layers. I backed up off the pace and mentally kicked myself for being affected by another party's presence. One of the most important skills on crowded routes has got to be the ability not to pay too much attention to what everyone else is doing.
On the plateau, heading for the descent gully.
Conness' West Ridge requires climbing to an almost-summit plateau and then descending to the base of the route. Our plan was to rack up and ditch gear on the plateau, so on the way up we had one big pack with gear and two Camelbaks to carry. I took the gear and rope in the big pack; Joe had the two Camelbaks piggybacked together. We hadn't thought this through, and probably burned another 20 minutes on the ascent fiddling with the two-Camelbak arrangement.
We made really good time up to the last good spot for water, where we stopped to fill up. We'd been gone two hours, and Joe had to remind me to eat and then remind me again to eat more than a piddly amount. We left the water filter at the pond and continued upward.
As we closed in on the plateau, I started feeling pretty bad. Every step required monumental effort, and I was lightheaded. A couple times I'd be standing straight up and almost fall over backwards when my balance disappeared. My pack was a step up from Joe's load, and I felt pretty sure I was just carrying too much weight too fast.
When we hit the plateau, we dropped our extra gear, racked up, and had lunch. On they way up I'd been warning Joe that I might have to bail from the climb, but within a couple minutes of shedding the pack I was feeling pretty solid. We looked at the time and mapped out a plan. There was a new moon, so we had to be back to the lake we'd filtered water at by dark or we'd never make it down before morning. Based on Supertopo's estimated time on route, we wanted to be starting by 12:30 but could squeeze 1:00 at the absolute latest. It was now 11:30, and we both felt confident about reaching the bottom of the route in an hour.
Looking for the gully.
From the plateau, you descend a short distance and then drop down a gully opposite the West Ridge to the base of the climb. There are multiple gully options, and Supertopo has a very specific warning about being able to see the entire west ridge from the top of the proper gully, as others cliff out. None of the gullies had an unobstructed view of the West Ridge's monolithic face, so we bypassed the gully system completely in favor of a spine slightly further down the ridgeline.
The spine had some big boulders, but we could see along its entire length and verify that it wouldn't cliff out. Unfortunately the bottom of the spine was farther than it looked and we didn't make terribly good time. When we were about level with the start of the route but still a long traverse with several hundred feet of gross elevation gain away, I looked at my watch. "12:40." "Really? What happened?" "I don't know." "Fuck." We stood there for about 10 minutes looking over at the start of the route, neither one wanting to propose a course of action.
"What do you think?" "I don't know. Its iffy. But I really want to do it." "Yeah." "What do you think?" "I don't know." Finally we came to grips with reality and agreed that we were at least a half hour from the start of the route, probably longer. Fuck. I wasn't happy, but I was at least glad that Joe agreed we needed to turn around. I'd been thinking we were doomed from the time we started down the spine, but there's no way I'd come all this way just to give up early. Looking back up the boulder field we'd just descended made me rethink that philosophy.
We'd brought a relatively large rack - maybe what we'd bring on a standard free route - in the expectation of shaving time by simulclimbing large blocks of the route. It was now plainly clear that we hadn't understood the ratio of hiking to climbing involved. At least we could still summit via the class 3 walk-off.
When we crested back onto the plateau, the sick feeling hit me again like a brick wall. Within a couple minutes, I'd gone from normal-for-this-type-of-trip suffering to shuffling one foot in front of the other while trying to walk in a straight line and not puke. Had to be the altitude. Suddenly I realized just how lucky we'd been not to have made it to the base in time; if this had hit me halfway up the route we'd be in a world of hurt.
As we dragged our sorry asses back towards the ridgeline, we met up with two guys descending after summiting on a day hike. "What did you climb?" "Nothing." *because we're a pair of sorry-assed losers* I wanted to add. We explained our situation and Joe gave them the 30-second lecture on how cams work (never ceases to amaze people) while I tried not to feel too miserable. Carrying our gear all day and not using it was bad enough; now, standing around in my harness, I just felt silly.
I felt good enough to get down on my own, so Joe split off for the summit with a radio. I'd take as much as I felt I could carry and leave him the rest; if I got real bad the radios would work once he started descending. I had about 20 minutes of uphill and traversing before I could begin descending, and marching up sucked big time. The trip down was tough. Any time there was a drop-off I took to throwing the rope bag down and then descending to it. Like a sick drunk swearing off alcohol forever, I kept telling myself I'd never ignore altitude warning signs again.
When I reached the lake where we'd ditched our filter, I lay down to wait for Joe, who was now only a couple minutes behind me. Descending had helped the lightheadedness but my stomach was still sick. Just as Joe came around the bend, I leaned over the edge of the rock and puked. "You Okay?" As I sat there dry-heaving, I tried to signal to Joe that he should filter some water so I could rinse the nasty out of my mouth. I felt pretty inconsiderate puking next to a stream, but I hadn't really had a choice about it.
My body started feeling better, and I managed to put down a quarter bagel and some water. Now that the bad part was behind me, my thoughts drifted away from survival and towards a giant plate of fish tacos at the Whoa Nellie Deli outside the park in Lee Vining. What time did they close, I wondered? Would we drive down just to miss the deadline? I was dog tired, sick, my legs were already sore, my feet were chewed up, and my ego - riding high after Cathedral - was trampled by the degree the approach had shut us down. Its funny how quickly the human mind adapts to its current situation; a couple hours ago I was struggling to move uphill before altitude sickness shut me down; now my biggest priority was dinner.
As usual, I was up late packing gear, slept poorly, and woke up before our designated start time. I don't understand why climbing always involves so much suffering. After our disaster on Conness we decided that Snake Dike (5.7R) up the Southwest face of Half Dome would be a more reasonable final weekend. Learning from our last trip, we racked a minimal amount of gear (blue-red aliens, a couple stoppers), a few "trad draws", shoes and helmet on our harnesses and carried just a Camelbak each. Joe got the bigger Camelbak and water filter/lunch, I got the smaller one and a rope backpack. The plan was to carry just enough water to get us to the top of Nevada Falls and then refill and ditch the filter.
We didn't see any other climbers on the way up, and stuck out wearing our harnesses amidst a crowd of day hikers. Fortunately the people on the trail were used to climbers, and while we got questions about where we were headed our entire journey wasn't videotaped by a group of Japanese tourists like it would have been at the base of Yosemite Falls.
We made good time to the top of the falls but got sidetracked by some serious bushwhacking trying to find the climbers' trail to the base of the route. We turned in too early and quickly degenerated to typical Yosemite-approach bushwhacking, only to land on the most well-maintained climbers' trail I've seen in the park. The trail deteriorated when we reached the open slabs, and we quickly found ourselves crawling through an enclosed tunnel of Manzanita, only to once again wind up on a well-maintained path. Certainly a testament to the route's popularity.
The traffic jam when we first showed up.
We reached the base of the route to find 4-5 rope teams waiting around, plus a solid line of climbers strung out on the route above. First observations were that the route was shorter and lower-angled, and the dike more pronounced, than I'd imagined. The top party (a team of 3) was clearly moving at an excruciatingly slow pace. People seemed unusually hesitant to share belay anchors, to the point where a lower team would wait for the upper team's second to clear the anchor before leading off to it. I was used to liberal anchor sharing and rope crossing ("French style" one Swede had called it, in reference to the crowded Alps), and this was surprising to me. Clouds were rolling in, it was getting dark early, and we clearly wouldn't be on the route for another couple hours.
We ate lunch and got info from other teams: the first party had left at 3am but gotten lost on the way up in the dark; all the other parties had left by around 6-6:30. Most of the teams there seemed composed of a competent leader and an inexperienced second. Joe and I probably hadn't cleared camp till 7:30, and only one team showed up after us. Next time I'll either wake up ass-early or sleep in till 10 and take my merry time on the approach, arriving just as the line disappears.
As time went on, there was clearly some confusion about belay anchors. The bottom several pitches have intermediate anchors, such that two teams could leapfrog each other. Unfortunately, rather than leapfrogging, teams were having trouble figuring out which anchor to be at, seemingly stopping at half-pitch lengths. The team starting out when we'd arrived had been stuck at the second pitch anchor for a long time, apparently trying to hand off gear and get the second situated with a different cordalette. "Um, falling! falling!" I heard a girl's voice yell, and I looked up in a panic expecting to see a body tumbling down the runout slabby section. Instead a cordalette, with powerpoint biner attached, went flying down the route to the right of us.
The party in front of us was a 3-man rope team, and as they got geared up the leader was explaining how to tie in, use a nut tool, clean a cam, etc. Joe and I looked at each other, and it was clear the party behind us felt the same way too. I have no problem with slow parties on popular routes; I've certainly been one myself. But this was different. If you take someone who doesn't know to yell "ROCK!" or how to tie in on a short crag route, worst case is that the people behind you get antsy. Here, with solid cloud cover and no good retreat option once you've started up the rock, I felt like the parties in front of us were exhibiting poor judgment that put us all at risk. I decided that if it started raining while we were on-route we were going to press ahead as fast as we could. The parties ahead of us would have to share the route and the anchors, like it or not.
I mentioned before that the first several pitches have intermediate anchors; Joe and I planned to use these to leapfrog around the team in front of us, which had just set a gear anchor below the first set of bolts. I led past them, anchored off the bolts, and started bringing Joe up. Their leader led past me, checked out the roof move, and decided to backtrack and setup camp at our anchor instead so he could talk his seconds through the moves. I was certainly glad we'd decided to bolt for the first set of anchors. This was crazy.
Joe leads off on Pitch 2.
Joe swore a couple times on the next pitch but got through it pretty quickly. It had taken me a while to talk the other leader into sharing our anchor rather than waiting for us to clear out (I was worried about the last team), and now that it was time for me to go it took me a while longer to get all our gear out of the mix without giving anyone the willies. Some very slick friction below the roof brought me up to Joe (short pitch), and I quickly led off on the 5.7 traverse, glad to be free of the traffic jam. As is typical with bolts, I sunk a minute looking for the one protecting the traverse before realizing that it was quite literally under my nose, directly in front of me. The traverse was slick, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to hold on. After a couple false starts I committed and managed to use my upward momentum to move through it. The previous pitch and the traverse were both tough for 5.7, and if I had to do them 10 times in a row I'd give myself a mild chance of falling somewhere.
There was a set of bolts after the traverse that would have made for a heinous pendulum for the second, so I skipped them and headed up the dike, not sure what to expect. The holds on the dike were positive by valley standards, and I managed to sprint to the next belay, getting there just as the previous party was leaving. Looking down I realized it was quite a ways to the last bolt. "Hey Joe!" "Yeah?" "Did the topo say this was one of the runout pitches?" "Yeah." "Sweet! We're set."
Resting on the Dike.
The rest of the route went by in a blur. We'd swing leads, always reaching the next anchor right on the heels of the party above us. They'd give us advice on belay stances and gear placement on the next pitch, we'd exchange a few jokes, and part ways again. None of the belay stances were comfortable, but they were mitigated by the fact that you were never there for too long. On the penultimate pitch, 100' of unprotected 5.4 friction off the belay, I was moving so fast that I slipped. It was only a couple inches, and I reprimanded myself for getting careless and allowing it to happen. Twenty feet later I forgot everything I'd just learned and slipped again. I was anxious to get off the damn route, be done with the hanging belays, and be up over the top of the dome before the weather got ugly.
The route tops out next to a giant detached slab the size of a basketball court. At some point it slid several feet down the rock, leaving an 8' deep trench between it and the dome that Joe climbed through before setting his final belay. Pretty damn cool, except for the thought that someday its going to take off and slide down the mountain. That slab is the stuff climbers' nightmares are made of.
On our way up the slabs to the summit, we discussed the route. We both agreed the climbing was awkward and not as enjoyable as we'd been led to believe. We'd both been to Half Dome before via the cables and felt the route derived most of its fame from the setting and not from the quality of the climbing. Still a climb worth doing, but it was getting late, and instead of a victory celebration up top we just wanted off.
Both our Camelbaks were kicked by the time we started down the cables, and with thoughts of Curry Village pizza on our minds we made good time back to Little Yosemite Valley. I was way thirsty, and glad we had the filter waiting for us. As it got dark on the trail between Little Yosemite and the falls, we started catching up with the laggard day hikers. There are a lot of people who set out to climb Half Dome with no idea what they're in for, and I'm always surprised at how many make it up. The people we were passing now quite likely wouldn't make it back to the valley till 11 or 12.
We'd already covered a lot of ground, and at that point I only had two goals: get some water at the top of the falls to deal with my raging dehydration and back to Curry Village before the pizza deck closed. With tunnel vision, I told Joe I'd race ahead of him and start filtering water. Finally I wound up at the top of Nevada Falls and hiked over to the river. My filter wasn't where I'd stashed it. I looked around, figuring maybe someone had borrowed it or an animal had decided to play with it, but it wasn't anywhere nearby. Fuck! For the last hour, all I'd been thinking about was how good that drink was going to feel. The stream was too brackish to drink right near the shore; I'd have to wait for the drinking fountains at the base of the falls.
The trip down by headlamp was eerie. In a deep canyon with no moon, it was difficult to get any sense of the surroundings. There were a few backpackers hiking up, but their headlamps washed out their faces. I completely lost my bearings; I had no idea how long I’d been hiking for or what direction I was heading. A couple of times when things didn't look familiar I questioned whether we were on the right trail. Finally we hit the water fountains, tanked up, and raced down to camp. Joe convinced me to drive from Upper Pines to Curry Village, and we skated in second to last in line at the pizza deck.
After a giant thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house in Oakland, Joe and I drove up Highway 50 to Phantom Spires for some late-season climbing. Our plan was to take it easy: toprope some climbs in the 5.8-5.10 range, then do some moderate leading. I secretly harbored a hope that if the first day went well we could return to Haystack on Saturday to reclaim our lost honor.
The unpaved access road has been deteriorating for some time. Years ago I took my family's Taurus most of the way in before turning around fearing I might get stuck. Two summers ago, Joe and I had tried with his S4 and turned around at the first available opportunity, dropping the chassis solidly on a rock on the way out. Looking at it now, his car wouldn't even get 50 feet.
Once on the access road we started seeing patches of snow, and the road was totally covered in some areas. We pulled into the parking area and hunted for a flat, dry spot for our tents. It was COLD, and most of the ground was covered in a thin layer of snow. After some extensive searching we decided the best spot was right next to the truck, pitched our tents, and got to sleep.
The morning was even colder, and everything had a thin layer of frost on it. We waited for the sun to start warming things up, then stood around cooking egg sandwiches and drinking hot chocolate until things reached reasonable climbing temps around 10am.
We hiked down to the Twin Owls formation to toprope a pair of 5.8 routes. A class 4 scramble got me to the top, and I realized I wasn't willing to make the several exposed moves required to reach the anchors. Downclimbing the approach looked equally dicey, so after a couple minutes of indecision we set a toprope on an unnamed climb next door who's anchors I could reach in relative safety.
The route followed a wide, flaring, traversing crack, went vertical up a quasi-offwidth, and then turned into face climbing at the end. Joe went first, had trouble with the crack at the bottom, found a variation off to the left, and made the top of the climb, cheating a little at the top. I managed to nail the crack with one rest on the rope when I thought I was going to pop out and shred my hands. We didn't know what route we were on, but it had to be solidly in the hard 10 range. Time to find some easier stuff and see if 5.8 really is that bad.
We moved down to Gorilla Rock, where a short 5.8 lead allows you to set anchors for two more 5.8s. I geared up for the lead, and although steep and somewhat strengthy it was super well protected. It had a 5.7 roof that seemed a bit sandbagged, and then ended on an easy crack. About the limit of what I felt comfortable trad leading.
Joe got the first toprope and couldn't start either one of the climbs. We switched rope ends and on my 3rd try I got off the ground on the first climb. No way was that 5.8, but I've seen route grades ignore the first couple moves. The rest of the route followed a thin seam surrounded by small knobs, and I got up it by the thinnest of margins. Balancy moves on small nubbins, the climbing was slow and careful.
The other route was equally tricky to start, and while a little easier, also consisted of difficult, balancy moves. Not to be outdone, Joe roped up for another try and made it up both routes after figuring out the start moves. We both felt the start moves were in the 10 range, and the rest of the climb was either very solid nine or easy 10. We'd toproped a 10a at the nearby Wright's Lake Cliffs the previous summer, and the climbing on that route was easier than the start moves and about the same as the upper sections. "You know" I joked with Joe, "when we get back to the car and check the Falcon guide, its going to call these 5.7".
I had been joking, but when we looked the rock up in the Falcon guide, it labeled all three routes 5.7. No way. No F’n way.
After some beers at the Strawberry Lodge, we ran the heater for a couple minutes to get the truck roasting and sat around reading. Maybe, I thought, the First Ascensionists on Gorilla Rock also FAd Just Acquaintances. I’d feel better knowing the routes were sandbagged and I wasn’t just weak. I broke out the Falcon guide to look up the FA info. No way. "Joe, look at this." I looked again. It clearly read: Just Acquaintance, 5.8. I checked Supertopo again. Just Acquaintances, 5.6. Damn!
"Hey Matt." Joe handed me the Falcon guide open to the Hogsback topo. It read: Harvey's Wallbangers, Right, 5.8. No Way.
Supertopo had sandbagged Just Acquaintances from 5.8 to 5.6; Falcon Guide reported Harvey’s Wallbangers to be harder than the Gorilla Rock climbs we’d struggled up. There’s no sense in blaming the guidebook authors, but what’s a guy supposed to do? Always climb several grades below his real lead level so he doesn’t get smoked by the occasional sandbag or typo?