South Central Route, Washington Column
By Bruce Bindner
24 April, 1998. 12:00 noon. Old Climbers' Home, Oakland, California. Michael "Betamikester" "Bro" Brodesky has not arrived. I check out a chrome-plated walker from the front desk, then move my piled packs to the porch of the Old Climbers' Home so we can load Brodesky's car without him seeing the disaster area in the catacombs where I currently reside, a hybrid of garbage dump and exploded haul bag.
1:30 pm. Bro finally shows up, and mentions that his brakes are smoking. Sudden change of plans, we shovel all our stuff into the back of the Cave. Shove off along Highway 580 at 70 miles per, eastbound from Oakland, California toward the Valley of Dreams. Brief stop at the Oakdale Taco Bell to choke down roadkill. Bro takes the wheel. I snore with senile satisfaction in the shotgun seat, spittle staining my shirt, confident we are safe from attack for the moment.
Somewhere on Highway 120. As Mike brakes hard and swerves, I jerk awake. The pavement is covered with a thin layer of slushy snow. Truck is fishtailing around an overturned SUV, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. Several cars are stopped. A group of lean, honed sportclimbers loiter beside the road as the snow drifts down, one miming the beta of the accident to the others. The immediate problem seems under control. We pull into Crane Flat, Mike reports the accident. I return to the snooze.
Yosemite Valley. The incessant rain is a dreary homecoming after my two-month absence. Brodesky feels ripped off. Just another beautiful day in Patagonia. "Hey," I say. "Tomorrow is another day." As the evening gloom deepens, we retreat to the Curry Village Pizzeria and down our sorrows with cholesterepperoni.
Awahnee Hotel. Dusk. Headlamps out, I totter my walker ahead of me behind Michael as the sky sprinklers shut down. I've slogged this stench of forest so many times this year that I remember the places where I made handprints in the snow, the locations of coyote dung, the blue gear-marking tape where Nurse Ratchet and I joked about trail markers, remember where to turn, where to rest, where I left the food stash two months ago when attempting a winter ascent of the Prow; where I peed, pooped, and puked. An attempt that was pre-doomed to failure due to storms and the flu, under the sleet sheets and snowy blankets of the Upper Pines Hospital Ward, our week-long physical therapy trudging-haulbag-heavy up and posthole-portaging down the slop to the Column, weak and wasted. Ya pays for yer ticket and ya takes yer chances.
Presently Bro and I bivy at the Astroman base at 9 pm. We slip into the sacks, sinking snoozeward, alarm set for some ungodly hour.
4:00 am, 25 April 1998. Deep sleep interrupted by the dreaded beep. Sluggish, yet aware of need to move. Breakfast. harness. Carefully stretch the old body. Stash the walker and the packs. Slug last glug of water, force-march the gully to the base of Washington Column South Face Route, where our adventure is to begin. I retch. Betamikester looks concerned. Guess he'd forgotten about that part..
Dinner Ledge. 7:30 am. Mikester sped us here in virtually no time at all. My turn. We're leading in blocks, selected for our relative strengths. I get a last blast of beta from Brodesky and totter out 120 feet left to the base of the first steep section, a 5.9 offwidth/squeeze chimney. Bro follows, another brief conference and gear transfer, then its up the offwidth, belaying at bolts [OH, the IMPACT!!!] 130' higher. Mikester follows as if on wings, dumps the pack and rack, and I'm off again. This time it's a tension traverse to a 5.10c crack which feels a lot like A1 to me ol' geezer bones after the first few moves, feet skating on flakes and flying bits-o'-rock. Slow swim upward in aiders, over the bulge, to cut into 5.9 free climbing up to the belay.
Yet again. Step right, 5.9 (loose and grainy A1 to the geezer) up a bit, pendulum again, gulp gulp in fear, place place pro pro, long traversing runout below, then creep, mewling, up the vertical C2 crux through flakes exfoliating and clenching my crawling incontinent bowels to a bolt, another pendulum, and finally stance at the base of a 40-foot high, 3-inch thick granite wafer held in place by inertia; morning sunlight finally sweeping the face.
Mikester appears, wrapped in pack and tangled rope like a confused beetle bound in spidersilk, awaiting a last meal on the web. He stumbles to the stance, muttering it might be quicker if the Duffer heads up first, giving him time to unstrangle. Done. What follows is a terrifying 5.8 jam/cryback up the flakexpanding, a 5.10 romp up the offwidth, power pulls through loose and wobbly, to a leftward traverse over unprotected face. Pins would get me a pendulum, but that is unthinkable as I thoughtlessly find myself pinned to the wall in a half-mantle-half-flail, feet-slipping 20-foot pendulum fall ahead taketakeTAKETENSIONTAKE!!!! and the rope tightens, I winch myself back into the corner, and reassess. This time the rope is my handhold, tensioning across the 5.11 face, liebacking off nylon and nubbins Oh Dulfer.
Crimp and slap and i reach a fixed pi and easyaid up to the Top of the Mark and the end of my leads.
Mikester arrives and heads across unprotected 5.7 face we call 5.7+ [translation "feels like 5.10c"] to yet another tension traverse, then a ledge where he stops to bring me across, the 80-foot pitch having netted us a vertical elevation gain of two feet.
Now Bro's on a thin crack the topo calls A1/5.9 meaning after you aid up tiny brass where the crack disappears into the featureless face you launch into 30 feet of 5.9 mandatory face climbing thinking only of how-far-below-are-those-last-two-brass-bits-nestled-in- the-crack and I'm so very glad you led it and not me, thank you Bro. Mike ends the pitch where the rope does, and I romp upwards, giving the lead line a shake to dislodge the few anorexic pieces. This pitch is scantily decorated, and janitor Brutus has little to do but jug.
Next are roofs which resemble chockstones resembling roofs in our gutter/gully/corner, and Bro, a bubble working around seaweed to the surface of the fishtank, swings upward in aiders, backcleaning until out of sight. "Fixed!" echoes down and I confirm he's off belay, then abandon the stance to the moss, the oak, and the teetering death block; jugging roofs, chimney and rubble onto a wide slickery pineneedle ledge. Mikester craftily heads out before I can dump gear onto him, then brings me up to the end of the climb. Quick sort and we scratch up over the top of the Column, stumbling across the brush ledges, thrashing for the gully.
We find a fixed rope at the top of North Dome Gully and, grinning and not proud, rappel the steep dirt clear down to the stream. I dig out the headlamps and we head down the slabs, racing the end of the day.
Arrive at the base of the Column at last light 14 hours after we started, unearth the packs and the walker, chomp bootybeans, swill beer, and from our sleepingbags greet Doctor Coomer who is carrying loads for a solo attempt on Southern Man; sleep, totter out, sort gear, and return to the Old Climbers' Home 48 hours after we left. I check my walker at the front desk, until next time. Nurse Ratchet peers over her spectacles: "So how was your walk?"
All in all, a nice little stroll.
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