The main purpose of this trip was getting to Yosemite Valley, the mecca and historical epicenter of North American rock climbing. I still don’t know what to think of my first impression, as we drove in through the tunnel from which the iconic Yosemite Valley picture is taken. We had just driven 24 hours straight from my friends house in Boulder, and were coming into the valley dreary and anxious around 8 in the morning. Dreary from our through the night drive and anxious about getting a spot at Camp 4. The only place where legal walk in camping is available in the valley usually has a cue of climbers and hopeful campers lining up for a spot early in the morning. We were lucky that morning and got a spot. Many other mornings the line was two or three times as long by 8 in the morning, with folks at the end being turned away.
Unfortunatly this anxiousness seemed to be somewhat of a constant presence in the valley. We had left NH during a relative cool spell and a week later arrived in the valley where the heat was beating us down. Each day we had to scrutinize cliff descriptions and find something to climb that would be out of the sun either in the morning or afternoon. This precluded most of the grade IV and V walls as they would bake at some point during the day. We also wanted to start out doing shorter climbs to get use to the glacially polished granite. This attempt to beating the heat lead to a great daily habit, however, siestas by the Merced. we would frequently wake up early and climb till noonish. Then spend a couple of relaxing hours swimming in the merced, reading and napping, before going climbing again in the late afternoon and early evening.
Two highlight routes from this time were Knob Job and Commitment. Knob job is a 30 meter pitch at a cliff called Pat and Jacks Pinnacle. This cliff was reliably shady by 3 in the afternoon and had some fun single pitch climbs. Knob job had stretches of the most memorable hand crack climbing I’ve done on granite. Where the crack flared or petered out there were large knobs that made for perfect jugs, keeping the climb at a secure and enjoyable 5.10. It somewhat reminded me of On the Loose at the Spider’s Webb. The second highly memorable climb was Comittment, which we were able to approach from out campsite. This was a great East facing dihedral that provided us ample shade one afternoon. The climb has many parallels to Bara Bara (AKA Quadrephenia) on Hurricane Crag in the Adirondacks. A fun, varied 5.8 crack pitch started the route, and a right facing corner with two intimidating roofs finished, just as with Bara Bara. Also in common, the roofs were easier to navigate then one would believe, in this case that crux roof pitch went at 5.9. This was our first multi pitch climb in the Valley and got us pretty excited.
Paul and I had come out with the hopes of getting some big wall experience. We had practiced our aid and hauling systems the month before the trip but had yet to do any more than two consecutive aid pitches, let alone a wall. We chose to attempt the West Face of Leaning Tower (5.7 C2 V) as it was a height we were familiar with (1,000′) and had easy, seemingly straightforward aid. While many do this as a 2 or even 3 day climb, we decided to attempt it in a single push.
The day started a little unfortunatly as our alarm for 5 AM didn’t go off, and we ended up delayed 20 minutes. While this seems insignificant in a day of 24 hours, we ended up at the base of the climb just behind two other teams, who hadn’t even started yet. If this 20 minutes would’ve made the difference in our spot in line then it would turn out to be a crucial and unfortunate mishap. As it were, we had to wait at the base for a little over 2 hours before even getting to start. At that point perhaps we should’ve debated bailing. While the thought crossed my mind I reasoned that i didn’t want to waste all the time we had put into organizing the gear and getting there, so we waited. Once we started, we had to continually wait at belays, probably for another hour and a half in total. While we intended to link the first two bolt ladder pitches into one, Paul stopped at the first belay since there was a traffic jam ahead of us. This turned out to be beneficail as we both got to lead a bolt ladder pitch to warm up. It also worked out well for me as I was stuck at an anchor with a rather cute Norwegian college gal who had a very flirtatious way of accenting what she said with her eyes. Good conversation certainly helped pass the time.
These first two pitches were the easiest as they were 95% bolted, but presented their own challenge as they were on average 110 degrees overhanging. From here we were 2 pitches away from Awahnee ledge, where most folks spend a night. I took the first real aid lead of the route, planning on linking the pitches all the way to Awahnee. 4 or so pieces got me to a bolt and then my first ever hook. I was anxious for the usual reasons, I think your first time standing on a metal hook that’s draped over a flake is going to be a little heady no matter what, but I was also a little apprehensive of this flake. It was large and seemingly hollow behind it. If it ripped it would fall straight back down the pitch towards Paul. There was a small notch on the flake that was marred from previous hooks, so I placed mine there, and slowly started to climb my aiders thinking, if it’s held before hopefully it will hold again. I had to climb higher up on this piece then I was comfortable with. I anxiously searched out my best, or only, option for gear and found a flared crack in a roof that took a red alien. I wasn’t thrilled by the flair but the alien held throughout my tests. I climbed high on this piece as well and was franticly looking for a good piece when it blew. My fear of aid falls not being clean turned out to be well founded. I fell down the dihedral I had just aided, back first, tangled in my aiders. This is when i became thankful that we chose to do the most overhanging wall in North America, as Steve Roper puts it. I luckily hit nothing on the fall, but ended up about 25′ down, and a foot or two lower than Paul at the belay. I think Paul was as shook up, or without the rush of adrenaline I had, perhaps more shook up then I. He asked what I wanted to do and I can’t remember if I told him or if I just went ahead and climbed the rope back to my high point. This time, more comfortable on the hook I was able to see that the crack in the roof became parallel farther back. Second time around I got a bomber cam and pulled through with no problem, realizing that it was my rushing and anxiousness to blame for the last cam blowing.
The rest of that pitch went with relative easy. The pitch ended with a bolt ladder that left the dihedral and went on to a slab out left, and finally to awahnee ledge. I did not clip any of these bolts for protection so that Paul would have a straight line to jug from the end of the dihedral to the anchor, instead of having to jug left and then swing back right. This led to a very unnerving final move. At the end of the bolt ladder you have to pull onto a slab with no pro, and gingerly walk to the anchor back right. I quivered and contemplated this move for a little bit. I was looking at roughly 25′ to my last piece, and I would’ve fallen to the slab and then down that before swinging into the corner and getting caught by the rope. On top of that i was wearing approach shoes, dragging the standard aiding kit, and the slab appeared slick. Its in that kind of position that tunnel vision affects you, staring at the greasy looking footholds, and not seeing the fixed 10mm line that was within easy reach. After all that panic, all I had to do was one easy step to grab the rope and safely traverse it to the anchor.
The next two pitches zig and zag and end approximately above the Awahnee ledge belay where we were. The first pitch (p5) moves around a corner and and then angles up and right on a crack before going straight up for ten feet or so to the anchor. From there, the next pitch (p6) goes up for ten feet and then angles back left on a bolt ladder. We were hoping to link these pitches to save some serious time. The bolt ladder on the second of the pitches off Awahnee would be led with no protection, allowing the second to lower out from the anchor below and jug straight up. Ultimately, the traffic jam above us stopped this from happening and added in total I would imagine another hour of waiting around. I led the first pitch off of awahnee and then ended my block and handed the leader gear to Paul for his block. He quickly dispatched the pitch 6 bolt ladder and got us to the hanging belay below pitch 7. This pitch took a considerably long time, being one of the longest, as well as Paul’s first lead not on bolts. I spent roughly 3 hours at that hanging belay, roasting in the sun and watching the sun move across the sky. The whole time I was hoping it would just set so that things would cool off, but that eventuality made life harder as well. The silver lining of this long hanging belay was watching an incredible mating routine. There is some species of small swift that live in the cracks high up on these cliffs. Around dusk they came out to mate. The scene was like watching a WWII dog fight. The males would chase the females, buzzing each other and the cliffs, the females seemingly trying hard to dodge the males. When a male caught up they would go belly to belly in a cloacal kiss and free fall together, spinning around for a couple of seconds until braking apart and shooting off in different directions. There was about 12 or 15 swifts taking part in this, and occasionally blasting past me in close proximity. As dusk turned to full on dark I was jugging the line and cleaning gear. My head lamp would shine into a crack as I removed a piece of gear and the swifts, which I could see peacefully resting in the cracks, would angrily chirp at me.
By the time I got to Paul we were both severely dehydrated. Turned out we had only packed 2 liters of water a piece, which is half if not less, of what we should’ve packed for two people for a day. While we were planning to finish in the dark, because of our delays behind the other parties, we were looking at 4 more pitches including the crux, and a descent involving some complicated rappels down the back side. This coupled with our lack of water led us to bail.
I had read that you need to clip into directionals as you rappel down the lower 110 degree pitches, so that you end up at your anchor instead of in space. I figured our first rappel wasn’t so overhanging, and I was wrong. I found my self near the end of the rope dangling 20 feet out from the wall and 15 feet to the left of our anchor. This meant I had to jug back up until I could reach the crack and place a directional. It turns out that 200′ of dynamic rope, clipped only to a 3 bolt anchor above and nothing in between, bounces a lot as you climb back up it. I made slow progress of that hundred feet, bouncing and spinning in space, knowing there was a hulking mass of rock looming above me and hundreds of feet of nothingness below me. I was already a little scared on this wall because of its history. When I started climbing in high school a famous climber, Todd Skinner, died here when his belay loop broke while rappelling the wall. My climbing mentor at the time was a friend of his and flew out to his funeral. It was the first time a climbing death affected my life in any measurable way. Later on I would become good friends with Todd’s niece, Becca Skinner, while at UW in laramie. Between these two connections, his death is one that has stuck with me, despite having never met him. By the time I got to the anchor my nerves caught up to me and I become pretty freaked out by that experience. I decided to put on some music on my phone to cut the tension. After some thought I realized that my rap playlist was the obviously appropriate music selection to kill the jitters from rapping. Even more appropriate, a song by the Living Legends called Never Falling Down was the second one to come on. That truly put a smile on my face and made the next 3 rappels much easier to cope with. Paul’s turn to struggle came as he rappelled and cleaned the final 200 feet of the 110 degree overhanging wall. By the end, he would unclip a directional and swing 30-40′ in to space. He’d then lower himself a bit, tram back into the wall to unclip the next directional and swing out again.
We eventually made it down and off the wall and began our descent. In the dark, we left the edge of the cliff early, thinking we had missed where the trail turns off. We spent the next hour or two criss crossing the hill first thinking we’d hit the trail if we cut left at and angle, and then back right, and so on for a while. We started taking bets as the ground leveled off, of whether we’d end up to the left or right of our objective. Paul finally spotted a stop sign glowing in the dark, and as we came across the next hill my truck was directly in front of us. All told we had a 22 hour day. The first solid epic for both of us, and despite the lack of a summit, a very good experience.
A couple of days later we were able to meet up with my good friend Chad from NH, and his girlfriend. We climbed that morning, but by afternoon the temperature had hit 101 degrees. We grabbed some beers and brats and took our little grill to the Merced for a siesta and swim. Ultimately, a plan was hatched here to all go up to Tuolumne Meadows for a few days to beat the heat.