Sentinel Rock, Kalahari and the Goose
July 2 - 3, 1994
Allen Steck, Inez Drixelius, and Bruce Bindner
Story by B. B. Bindner
The Steck-Salathe' route lies on the north wall of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley. 15 pitches of unrelenting wide cracks lead through the depths of the vertical to a sandy, spacious summit, making this one of the 50 classic climbs in North America, and one of the most strenuous free climbs I have ever encountered. Our original plan was to make a first free ascent of the outside roof of the "Narrows," which had purportedly not been repeated since the first, aid ascent in July 1950.
For a partner I chose the best chimney climber I know, Inez Drixelius. Soon Allen Steck, the man who pioneered the route, was involved in the project, providing useful information as well as outrageous and fascinating tales of adventures on these walls. Eventually Allen joined the team, and we three prepared for a two-day effort in the heat of the summer, on the 44th anniversary of the first ascent.
Tuolumne Meadows in early summer: Sparkling lakes, abrupt granite domes, sun-scorched days, and nights ablaze with stars. I wake Inez and Allen at Porcupine Flat in the early morning hours of the 4th of July weekend. Their first hint I have finally arrived: a soft voice through the fabric of their tent: "Its Offffwidth tiiime!"
We warm up on a climb they have selected for me....Oz on Drug Dome. Five pitches of incredibly beautiful thin face and crack climbing, none easier than 5.9, make this one of the most enjoyable, aesthetic journeys of its length anywhere. The climbing is reachy, sustained, pumping, and terrifyingly exposed. Alternating leads, I was last to exit from this climb. Looking down the outrageous, incredible corner we had just ascended, I paused for just a moment, in awe of our position, of the blue air below, and of the distant tree tops and darting swallows, then carefully moved out the 5.10 traverse toward the sky.
The sun was setting when we arrived at camp, enthusiastic, happy, and exhausted. Late in the evening our voices echoed among the nearby granite boulders, chattering of the adventurous day, the climb soon to come, even re-constructing half-remembered poetry. We relaxed with wine, cheese, and fine food as "The Cremation of Sam McGee" swirled up through the trees with the campfire smoke into the wind. Far below in Yosemite Valley, That same wind was the only sound on the dark silent walls of Sentinel Rock, where tomorrow our voices would mingle with the clatter of gear and the occasional rattle of stonefall.
Although a classic, because of continuous chimney systems the Steck-Salathe' is a hauling nightmare. Our Haul pack (nicknamed Kalahari) and our day pack (The Goose) would be our lazy, unwilling incompetent partners throughout the climb, pushing us off of belays and out of offwidths, hogging the best anchors, and jamming at least several times per chimney. Whereupon Allen, Inez, and I would push from below, pull from above, and curse from afar as one or the other of the beasts, invisible stubborn hooves braced against us, slowly gave in to our sweat and strain. Three Stooges and a couple of mules.
Wilson Overhang. The last time Inez backed off a "mere 5.8" I almost died by taking over the leading up what turned out to be a 5.10 x-rated 6-inch horror show. The last "5.7" where she had trouble was in actuality the first two crux pitches of Book of Job (5.10b offwidth). But I've climbed Wilson Overhang before, right? Wrong. This is not the Wilson Overhang I cruised two years ago while doing the route in a day. Something is missing. (Review of old photos after the climb shows a key foothold which no longer exists.) Our conservative consensus of this pitch is 5.10b (felt like stiff 5.11 to me).
Inez dances up the next 5.9 squeeze chimney, trailing the Goose, then floats up a sheer, smooth 4©inch wide desperate shown as "5.7 OW" on our topo. (Riiiight.) Her hanging belay is a 2" ledge in the middle of the vertical evening. When we finally reach a roomy, blocky ledge 165' later, an hour after dark, we have had enough fun for one day. At least, I have. "can't we do one more pitch?" Inez asks. Her only answer is the sound of my retching, and Allen, below, flashlight in his mouth a muffled mumble asking which way to climb the last 30 feet to our bivy.
Our Bivy: Allen, with years of experience dwarfing our own, immediately recognizes and snags the only lay-down nest on our ledge. Inez can slot a cheek and a shoulder blade into a groove at the top of the ledge, offers me half her spot.I decline, and spend the long restless night migrating from boulder to jagged boulder, sitting, scrunching, and stretching, my feet just above Allen's head.
Slowly the morning light washes our ledge. I'm worried. We're one pitch below our projected bivy, with the bulk of the serious climbing above. Allen and Inez stir sleepily as I furiously fumble with rack, rope, and anchors. O.K. I'll admit it. I'm scared.
One pitch later, Allen leads off through a tight chimney, sets up a dicey rappel down to the Free variation. I work up a wide crack to a secure belay.
Above, Inez is coaxed off-route (to the base of a steep blank wall) by a series of fixed pieces leading nowhere. When we finally work through this section, we realize that several fixed pins are missing. The real path is a traversing, grungy runout nightmare, but finally we're in the Great Chimney.
Kalahari and the Goose love the chimney, and show delight by constantly burrowing into the wide cracks. They stubbornly refuse to budge until we've burned hours coaxing, cajoling, and yanking them through the abrasive narrow throat of the deep cleft.
The Narrows: We received word before departing for the climb that the outside of Narrows Roof had, indeed, been repeated free by some climbers too big to fit through the inside slot. Relieved of the opportunity(/burden) of carving my niche in history by freeing this section, I decided that we were having quite enough of an adventure, thank you, so arm-barred, knee-locked, and scraped my way through the inside passage, opting for the quick and "easy" way up to the belay.
Things were looking good. Over 4 liters of water left (enough for a bivy on the summit) and we could see the pine tree beckoning, at the end of the hard climbing, just a few pitches above. It would be a cruise.
Suddenly a mishap shatters our confidence and optimism. Somehow our waterbag, (the "Dromedary") slithers out of an opened Kalahari. Last we see of the "Drom" it is making tracks for the base of the climb, at 32 feet-per-second-per-second. We take stock of our remaining liquid (Two cups) and realize that the climb has just become very serious. I push on, dehydrated and hammered, run the rope out 165 feet to a wild belay, Inez and Allen below dismantling their anchors to give me the five feet of slack I need to secure us.
Kalahari gets in a nasty mood, jams in a chimney, then kicks off a volley of huge stones.
Allen arrives at the belay, moves above and perches, owl-like, on blocks over my head. The rope jams, the pack jams. Inez waits alone, below, as I struggle to get one more belay rigged between anchors, Kalahari, coils of rope, racks, and monumental fatigue. As Inez arrives, Goose in tow, she and Allen coax me to finish the last of the water. Solemnly we share our last orange.
Feeling slightly better, another 165' pitch (stretching to the limits of my shoulder sockets) finds me at the pine tree at the end of the last 5.9. The sun has set. I haul Kalahari one last time, and call for Allen to come up.
Allen has soloed onward into the night over class 4 rock, incredibly secure in his skill, as Inez fires up to my stance. She belays Allen over the last, invisible 5.6 grimness, then vanishes upward after him.
Alone at the belay below the exit pitch, I have one more rope-length to go. As the last twilight fades, I dig into Kalahari for the headlamp, scrape a parched cotton tongue over cracked lips, and peer upward into the starlit sky toward where Inez and Allen have disappeared.
The wall is once again silent save for the occasional chirp of a bat, the feather-soft sigh of evening breeze, and the faint whisper of water from distant falls. The arousing perfumes of sage, pine, and wildflowers penetrate my fatigue, and I smile. With torn hands I caress the weathered bark of the ancient ponderosa pine that is my anchor, then press my face against the dry, rough trunk.
"Belay On" echoes in the night. It is time to leave this place. I look one last time down the sheer escarpment of the Sentinel, our home for what seems a lifetime: look at the silvery Merced River wandering lazily far below through green grassy meadows; at a horizon distant and framed by endless granite walls, where evening lays her soft shroud across the roof of the world. Then look up at the summit, now so close, silhouetted by the night, and carefully, slowly, climb up to join my friends.