It started, like it always does, over a few beers. Brett asked me if I knew anything about routes on the South Face of Mt. Watkins.
"There's one I definitely want to climb," I told him.
"Let's do it."
One of Brett's friends, Saylor, was keen as well.
I'll never know how serious Brett was at that moment to climb this wall, but don't ever make the mistake of making plans with me while drinking, because unlike most of the flakes you'll meet and make drunken plans with, I will hold you to them.
So began the bombardment of e-mails (mostly from me) about route information, dates, gear, and general planning. It was a little tough with Brett off to Australia for two months and having never met Saylor before, but we all talked on the phone a few times and seemed to have everything planned out for Memorial Day weekend. I was a little leery of their meeting me at Camp 4 at 7:30 AM after driving down from the Strawberry Music Festival. Visions of them showing up still hallucinating from an acid trip played their way through my mind as I sorted my gear on a sunny boulder at the entrance to the campground. But they showed up relatively on time and seemingly sober.
Brett and I shared the passenger seat and we drove over to the Curry orchard to sort out our gear.
We thought we'd save ourselves the half mile (or however long of a walk it is from Curry to the Mirror Lake trailhead) by taking the shuttle bus. Not on Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend. When the second bus came by with no room for any new passengers, we decided to hoof it. What's an extra 15 minutes of carrying haulbags? After stealing some toilet paper from the restroom (we forgot to bring some and figured we'd need some on a 4 day climb) we were on our way up the Mirror Lake trail. Where the trail ends we hopped off and followed the faint old trail up the north side of Tenaya Creek. I'm not sure if it was because the log was drier or because I was sober this time, but crossing Snow Creek with the boys was nowhere near as scary as it had been alone the week before.
After a couple of hours we found the water bottles I had stashed the week before when I sussed out the approach on my own. I felt a little dumb having carried 7 gallons on my back the previous week as you jump off the trail and onto the Scruffy Buttress RIGHT next to a very calm part of the stream where filtering water would have been very easy. It was nice to not have to filter then but I could have easily done so as I was killing time skinny dipping by myself the weekend before. My heart skipped a beat when I saw one of the bottles pulled out from under the pile of wood, empty and with the top smashed. Luckily, it was only the one that had been broken by whatever animal had been there. We had a couple of extra bottles with us, so we drank some, filled them and the empties, and Brett went down to the creek to add iodine tablets. As Saylor and I readied the bags to haul up the Scruffy Buttress, Brett brought back what looked like 3 gallons of piss. After a good laugh I took a swig, deemed it "not too bad" and threw the bottles into the haulbag.
From my recon mission the week before, I knew the Scruffy Buttress that led from the canyon to the base of the actual route wasn't going to be easy. Luckily there were fixed ropes on much of it, but we still had to haul the bags as they were way too heavy at this point to carry on our backs as we climbed. It was relatively uneventful, yet time consuming, but we were rewarded with a nice, big ledge at the base of the wall to sleep on.
The wall looked quite formidable above us.
Wanting to get a jump on the next day's festivities, Saylor and I took off up the wall as the sun was going down to fix ropes for the morning. We climbed what seemed like a couple hundred meters up the left side of the wall to a bolt anchor from which we could pendulum 30 meters right to another bolt anchor. From this anchor, another large pendulum is done to a small ledge a little more than 100 meters above the ledge where Brett was now sleeping. We had decided ahead of time to bring a hand drill and some 3/8" bolts to replace the anchors we had heard were in a state of sketchy disrepair. In the interests of time, we replaced one old 1/4" bolt on each anchor with a new fat stainless steel one. This was my first bolt I had ever drilled, and it took about half an hour to drill one by hand. This made the pendulums seem secure enough, and we rapped back down to Brett glad to have this part of the climb behind us.
We woke up, quickly pounded some canned fruit (which we would eat much of over three days) and climbed the ropes to the previous day's high point. Saylor continued leading up, free climbing to a tree where he passed the rack over to me for a couple of steep pitches of mostly aid climbing. The sun hit us at this point, and it was HOT. We were worried about having enough water, but this would turn out in the end to be no problem at all.
When Brett's turn came up, he got probably the scariest section of the climb to lead. Two wandering, sparsely protected face pitches led us up to Sheraton Watkins, a large sloping ledge with plenty of room for all of us to sleep and to sort out our gear.
The night before I had noticed that Saylor's feet did not smell very good. This night, I gagged when he took his shoe off and had to hold back the vomit in my throat. I hate to bust his chops about it, but these were the smelliest feet I have ever (and probably will ever) experience. At one point later in the climb I was jumaring up next to the haul bag to the belay ledge that Say was at. Maybe 10 feet down from him I could smell his feet. When the poo bag caught up to me, I noted to myself that its smell was acutally an improvement over Saylor with his shoes off. Brett and I set off to sleep on one end of the ledge, and Saylor was alone with his feet on a higher terrace.
The next day started with two long pitches climbing mostly sideways. At this point, it would be extremely difficult to reverse the route. We were committed to go for the top. Brett started the day off right with a whipper.
After the huge traverse, the routefinding became a little bit unclear, as Saylor found a few different ledges and wasn't sure which one we were supposed to sleep on. The single bolt anchors were also confusing. Eventually we found the ledge, and Brett and I clocked in for the night shift while Saylor stayed on the ledge and got dinner ready (canned chili and fruit) and set things up for us to sleep.
Two pitches of climbing led to another smaller pendulum, and at the end of this we fixed a rope and rapped back down to Saylor. I decided I wasn't going to let Brett outdo me and took probably the least scary 20 foot fall I will ever take. Brett said I managed to turn around and look at him while I was falling, as if I thought he was doing something other than belaying me. In reality I just wanted to take in the view. Then it was back down to another segregated (Saylor and his feet seperate from the rest of us) bivy. This ledge was smaller and much more exposed.
Summit Day (and Night)
Besides another breakfast of canned fruit, the final day brought with it bad news: a 50% chance of afternoon thundershowers. We'd better hurry. The hauling was much easier because we had eaten and drank much of the weight.
Four pitches from the top, the clouds that had started to form had become pretty thick. By the third to last pitch, it had started to rain. Luckily for the leader, this pitch stayed mostly inside a big wide flared chimney which stayed dry in the rain. Unluckily for me, I had to lead this pitch. I hung out for a while inside the chimney waiting for the rain to stop, much to the chagrin of the guys getting soaked down below. We counted 3-4 seconds between lightning and thunder. I pondered briefly the best position to be in in the event of a lightning strike before ceding control of the situation to the powers that be. If I get struck by lightning, it's probably my time to go. The free moves out of the chimney were much better after the rain had slowed down a bit, as well as much better once I had lowered down to clean all the big cams I had placed lower down on the pitch. After what seemed like 2-3 hours, I finally reached the belay above. It was quite a relief to have led my last pitch of the climb. Brett was taking the night shift tonight, and it was starting to get dark as he took off on the last two pitches. We topped out just after midnight. But the adventure was hardly over.
Brett's girlfriend Dana was waiting for us at the Snow Creek Ranger Cabin. She had come to meet us on top but had gone back down for cover when the lightning started. We were able to reach her on a cell phone and told her we'd be a while. Despite the late hour and my wishes to just pass out at the top of the cliff, we pressed on to find her. Brett said he knew where he was going, but I predicted some wandering in the woods. Though I was right about that prediction, I failed to predict the marsh we would have to cross and the knee deep water I'd fall into. My anger with Brett was quickly pacified by the beer and sandwiches Dana had waiting for us. We slept well that night and hiked back to Hwy. 120 in the morning.
Brett and Say, thanks again for an awesome trip. I can't wait to get out in the hills with you again!