The Third Pillar Free Solo

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 37.89970°N / 119.2203°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 2, 2002
Third Pillar lies along the eastern escarpment of the Mount Dana Plateau, which is a flat region just east of Mount Dana itself. The climb is graded 5.10a/b, III and is said to contain the "best 5.9 pitch in the universe" -- although the pitch is probably 5.10a by modern ratings. The easiest approach involves hiking to the top of the pillar then descending a Class 3/4 ridge to the base. This is one of the few Sierra alpine climbs that allows you to view the entire route from above before climbing it. Steeleman has posted a good photo of the Pillar from a distance. SuperTopo also has some decent info and a couple good photos. On August 2, 2002, I free-soloed this great route. Below is a brief account of my experience: I started at Tioga Lake and hiked up Glacier Canyon for much longer than I should have. I didn't really know exactly where the Third Pillar was, but I figured that I'd eventually find it. Armed with the appropriate pages from Secor, I hiked about a mile too far up the canyon before cutting uphill to the Plateau. When I reached the Plateau, I discovered my mistake and had to hike North to the Pillar. I decided to take a look at the route from above before heading down to the base. I peered over the edge and was blasted with 1,000 ft of vertical and tons of exposure. The final pitch looked amazing: clean and super-steep. I changed into my climbing shoes, grabbed my chalk bag, and stuffed two pages from Secor in my sock. The Class 3/4 ridge down to the base provided an excellent vantage point to view the upper pitches. It would be a great spot to take action photos of people on the climb. I stopped every few feet and stared at the imposing angle of the impeccable white granite. Adrenaline started flowing as I thought about being up there ropeless. I had second thoughts about the whole affair, but I knew that I would be pissed at myself if I didn't go through with it. The start of the climb was easy to find. I headed up a nice 5.8 layback flake. The granite reminded me of Yosemite Valley because it was pretty much featureless and the flake formed a perfectly parallel-sided crack with the main rock. The next few hundred feet of climbing were sort of boring. There were a few interesting cracks and chimneys, but it was really blocky. Also, the rock was a little crumbly which made it necessary to brush tiny pebbles off my rock shoes every once in a while. Fortunately, it was never harder than 5.9, so I cruised up without any trouble. I abandoned Secor low on the route and just followed what seemed to be the most natural line. It had a fair amount of chalk, so I guessed that I was on route. Sometimes Secor's descriptions are so different from the actual climb that one has to wonder if he's not just pulling our collective legs. Up to this point, I wasn't too enthusiastic about the climb. It had been okay so far, but it was nothing to rave about. That was about to change as I reached the first crux. It involved some 5.10a face climbing on perfect rock. Using some side pulls and a high step, I easily cruised through it and arrived at the ledge below the final pitch. The rock was now extremely steep and spectacularly clean. Just off the ledge was a tricky 5.9+ move on two fingery, vertically oriented holds with nothing for the feet. I did a modified layback, plastered my feet on the blank rock, and reached for some buckets above. An easy mantle then brought me to a no-hands stance. The climbing above looked pretty sustained and difficult. One of the most important rules of free-soloing is "NEVER allow yourself to get pumped." As I looked up at the final section of the climb, I realized that I needed to strictly follow this rule and take advantage of all possible rests. I powered up 20 ft of fun, 5.8ish ribs/flakes followed by some more devious 5.9+ vertical ribs. Next was an amazing finger crack. It was about only 10 ft long, but the rock on either side was completely blank and vertical. It would have been easy to get some bomber pro in, but alas, I was free-soloing, so that wasn't an option! I usually don't like climbing pure finger cracks. I'm built more like a linebacker than a rock climber, so putting all my weight on my wedged knuckles isn't comfortable. But, this crack was a lot of fun, and not too painful. I finger-locked my way up to where the crack widened and I plunged my right hand in thumb up. This was very secure -- just as good as a belay (better than a belay if Ryle's belaying). I reached for a hold on the middle of a block that was stuck in the wide crack. There was another flat-topped, but slightly inward sloping hold a the top of the block. I grabbed that with my right hand and stepped up. The block ended and the crack turned into perfect hands. A few more moves led to two good horizontal hand holds under slightly overhanging rock. The next move was the infamous mantle. Unfortunately, the mantle was designed for a short person -- not someone of my height. But, there were some buckets way up there, just out of reach. I executed half of the mantle, then stretched to a huge bucket and hauled myself the rest of the way up. A few easy moves later I was on top. When I reached my stashed pack, I had forgotten completely about the lackluster bottom pitches. All I remembered was the fantastic climbing at the end. The final pitch was probably not the best pitch in the universe, but it was pretty damn good. I changed my shoes and ran down to my car in a great mood.


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