Pothole Dome Alpine Style

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 37.88000°N / 119.392°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 22, 2004
Gordon & I had spent the weekend honing our rock climbing in Tuolumne Meadows, and we were feeling fairly confident. Saturday saw us completing half of the excellent Matthes Crest traverse before a (-n impending, almost) ferocious storm drove us off near the south summit. The next day saw us climbing the Northwest Books of Lembert Dome, a route put up by no other than (no, not the US president [it’s all right- I didn’t know that either], but) the legendary Yosemite rock climbing pioneer (the late) Warren Harding (RIP).

Having eyed the impressive South Face of Pothole Dome upon numerous trips to & through Tuolumne Meadows, I was incredulous when I found nothing on the obvious directissima. For some inexplicable reason, the only routes I was able to find on this majestic formation were the ignoble short, top-ropeable lines (rightfully) obscured from view. That there was no climbing information regarding the most obvious line on this peak was incomprehensible to me. Regardless, I didn’t plan to let this amazingly unplucked gem go untaken. As not to let other potential first ascentionists get wind of our plans to ascend this amazing natural line, & let them snatch it from me, I didn’t even suggest the possibility of this gift from above to Gordon until the day of our attempt.

(If I recall correctly) Following our successful ascent of Lembert Dome, after ensuring that there were no prying eyes (or ears) nearby, I tried to contain my excitement: “Hey man, wanna go climb Pothole Dome?” Gordon knew immediately what I meant, & eying his watch (we both had to be at work the next day), he replied in a barely restrained voice (to paraphrase), “I guess we could do it, if we make it quick.” That settled it- we were going for it.

Immediately agreed upon was the importance of style- we would not complete the route using siege tactics. We would do it alpine style, or die trying (I think the National Park Service might have rules about camping on Pothole Dome anyway). Another important point- we would use no aid; this ascent would be done entirely free, or not at all (I determined that the Hubers' recent big wall free ascent style {as well as Hill's, Schneider's, Caldwell's, & others'} in Yosemite Valley should be applied up in the Meadows as well). The last, and perhaps most important, issue, was self reliance. As neither of us had cellular phone reception (he had Sprint while I had T-Mobile), & assuming there would be no others on the massif (or in the parking lot, or if there were a strong wind, inhibiting sound travel), no-one would hear us if something happened. If one of us were to get injured, there would be no option but to wait (most likely at least 5 minutes, until another motorist were contacted) until the other obtained help. While this type of commitment was daunting to say the least, the aspect of a possible first ascent up a major peak made these otherwise potentially debilitating considerations seem secondary.

Reaching the parking lot at the base of the mountain, we each grabbed a Keystone, ‘key’ to maintaining a calm & focused outlook, essential during an undertaking such as this (we both also just felt like it). Despite the less-than-perfect conditions of menacing clouds overhead, we had both already decided that we were going to give it a try (we also didn’t have a deck of cards to bide the time waiting for the skies to clear, so we had few other options), & stoically forged ahead.

After a minute or 2 of approach, we reached the base of the cliff.

Looking up at the monolith that defines Pothole Dome, as on other intimidating Tuolumne domes, we had to search deep inside to find the inspiration to continue. Single-minded about completing this potential new route, though, we somehow found the strength to take the first step into uncertainty, away from that which was familiar and safe, namely the flat ground to which we were accustomed as humans. That first step onto that slightly-steeper-than-flat granite, however, touched some primal inner chord, infrequently encountered in the convenient, processed & domesticated life that many of us are forced to live, defined, fabricated, and dictated by modern society. I felt alive at that moment (perhaps it was just the strong coffee consumed at the Meadows diner earlier), & ready to risk whatever it would take to ascend this climb.

Perhaps it was just the intensity of the moment or the rawness of the experience, but on that day, at that time, Gordon & I decided to forego using ropes to protect us during our ascent. While some might call this act irresponsible & us negligent in having made this decision, all I can offer now is that it just felt right at the time (it also would have been difficult to place pro’ & belay with a beer in one hand)- everything just came together right then & there- there’s really no explaining it to those who weren’t there.

After taking that first step into uncertainty, both of us became one with the rock. Danger of falling, paycheck insufficiencies, the fetters of relationship difficulties, work, & the day-to-day grind that define our everyday lives lost meaning. The only thing that mattered was the oneness with the rock.

Each of us in our own world, we each picked the line that seemed to fulfill our particular potentialities at the time (up to the false summit)- I chose the direct line, while Gordon opted for the slightly less obvious, yet because of it more personal, right-hand variation.

As is often the case having made committing, & potentially dangerous decisions, both of us came to a point of reflection somewhere on that first pitch, halfway up the face, that made us question our decision to undertake this endeavor. The mysterious potholes encountered halfway up the first pitch reminded me of the futility of attempts of conquering nature- these same potholes would be there long after I had passed away. Gordon was also involved in some sort of personal contemplation.

I decided not to pressure him, & let him do what he needed to do to get through this. Each of us overcame our personal barriers, though, & found resolve to continue on. Each of us making it to the false summit, our resolve solidified & we made a non-verbal pact to finish this undertaking.

While the arguably most difficult continuous climbing on the route had been overcome, we were still far from being finished. We looked ahead to the near horizontal traverse ahead across the unbroken granite, which was almost devoid of features (except for maybe some trees). Not thinking about the consequences should we fall, we forged ahead. I needn’t have worried, though. We were feeling strong that day, and we hiked the section like it was no big deal.

Before we knew it, we were standing below the summit pinnacle.

Unlocking its secret would be the key to success today. I studied it carefully- about 8 ft high, it was nothing to take lightly- devoid of handholds except for some large buckets, it looked like it could be no easier than class 2+, possibly even class 3. Falling would mean bruising one’s ass, twisting an ankle, or the worst case scenario… spilling one’s beer. I immediately stopped this thought process, afraid to even consider this last option. While careful observation noted a walk-up, class 1 bypass on the right, we had come too far to take the easy option now. Sauntering up to the base, I began the combination of delicate face moves. Using the words of Lynn Hill (on her first free ascent of The Nose), I employed a “bizarre sequence of moves involving delicate smears, stems, back-stepping, laybacking, arm bars, pinching, palming, etc.,” (or something fairly close to that, anyway) to make my way upward.

Upon completing this problem, I looked around me- I could go no further. I stood on the top of the mighty Pothole Dome, & let out a great scream of triumph for everyone to hear. Gordon soon joined me, & we let it all sink in. We saw, we came, we conquered. We had plucked the perfect line, one that the guidebooks had seemingly no information on, & we onsighted it with ease. Leaving the rope & our inhibitions behind, we free-soloed a route that I’d never seen anyone do before with my own eyes, completing the route amazingly in under 15 minutes.

I wondered how John Bachar had felt over 20 years before, having just completed the legendary Bachar-Yerian (5.11c X). Words couldn’t do this moment justice, so I just savored the moment in silence. Gordon had few words to say, probably as unable to express his thoughts on this groundbreaking testpiece as I. I didn’t press him.

Every such moment must end, though, & after a minute or two, we turned and headed down. Deciding not to tarnish our new route with a less-than-worthy descent, we downclimbed the route we’d just put up. We were on our game that day- the descent felt surprisingly easy. Before we knew it, we were back at the car. We looked back at the route, our route. While we had probably been the first up this face, word would undoubtedly spread now, bringing hundreds, if not thousands (or millions) of climbers to undertake this same line. That the uniqueness of our experience would be lost saddened me, but the joy and rightful sense of accomplishment that the brave future climbers would have upon completing this same climb brought me joy. We decided to call our route Men at Work (.VII class 2+/3- X).


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