Post 3 – Yosemite thru Home
It’s a huge post, but a lot happened. Save it for a rainy day. As always, more photos on our Flickr space.
Day 20 – Continued
Yosemite Valley is a busy, overcrowded place. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations on Earth, and, as such, campsites have to be booked months in advance. When your trip schedule needs to be fluid, this is of course impossible. There is, however, Camp 4, the traditional “climber’s campground”, which is first come, first served. This is where we’d like to stay anyway, but to get a site, you need to be in line really early in the morning. We make camp in the Stanislaus National Forest, just outside the Yosemite National Park boundary.
We rise at 4:30 to head into the Valley and try to get a campsite. It’s a Friday, and there are already about 40 people in the line at Camp 4, which doesn’t even open until 8:30. Allison waits in this line, and Will waits in the line for all other camp reservations, in Curry Village. We eventually score a canceled site in Upper Pines (1 night only). On the way out of the reservation kiosk, we meet Jen and Steve from Australia. They ask if they might share our site. We agree. Turns out they’re planning on climbing The Nose of El Cap. We hang in El Cap meadow for awhile and watch the parties up on The Captain. There are at least 12 people, spread out on various routes, with most of them on The Nose (of course). The scale of this rock face is more than the brain can process. We work on blog installment 2, and relax a bit. Will posts a message on the Camp 4 bulletin board stating that he’s looking for a wall partner for The Salathé Wall on El Cap. There are others on the board looking for partners, but for various reasons, none of them sound quite right. It’s a huge undertaking, and partner selection is absolutely crucial.
Today we rise early again, and head out to climb the Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock. It’s another one of the coveted “50 Classic Climbs in North America”. And we’re not sure why. It’s a grand adventure at 11 pitches, on clean rock, and steep and sustained (stiff 5.9), but most of the pitches have some really burly, really awkward chimney climbing. Some of the pitches seem to be nothing but groveling, for the entire pitch. Maybe it’s bad wide crack technique, or just personal taste, but we didn’t enjoy this route much. It was a big accomplishment, and afforded great views, but that could be said of almost any route in The Valley.
(Allison here) After grunting up the Northeast Buttress, I was strangely relieved to hear Will say, in complete frustration, “I cannot believe that I wasted a day of my vacation on this route!” I was not ready to hear about it if he agreed with the praises that are typically sung for this route.
Later Will gets a call from a guy named Travis, who has read his message seeking a wall partner. We don’t have a campsite for tonight, so it’s back out to the National Forest.
Today is a Sunday, and we figure it will be much easier to get a site in Camp 4. We’re in line by 4:45 am, and are 4th or 5th in line. When the kiosk opens at 8:30, there are probably 40 or more people in line again. They announce that there are 99 available sites. Our camping is secured for 1 week (the stay limit). Climbers, however, have more work to do here than can be done in a week, and have created all kinds of wily little methods of working the system. We are informed by others in line of the standard practice of saying that you’re a party of one, thereby allowing others in your party to get in line for a site in subsequent weeks. They issue a tent tag with your name on it, but they’re not, of course, going to come into your tent and see who’s in there. I (Will) register for this week. I also meet Travis. He’s young, but my initial impression is good. The most important element in a wall partner – after, of course, the skills and knowledge to do the climbing – is demeanor. A calm, mellow personality is a must, and he seems to possess this. Also, the day before, he climbed the Steck-Salathé route on Sentinel Buttress, a VERY long and VERY burly 5.10. This inspires confidence. We make plans to chat later in camp.
Camp 4 is amazing. Its capacity is supposed to be 210 people, but at any given time there are many more (reference above “working the system” comments). At least 6 or 7 out of 10 people here are climbers. Everywhere people are sorting gear, exchanging info about climbs, departing to and arriving from climbs with huge packs or haul bags – it’s a buzz of climber activity.
Allison and I head up to Higher Cathedral Spire (not to be confused with Higher Cathedral Rock, mentioned above), to climb the Regular Route, a 300′ 5.9. In sharp contrast to yesterday’s climb, we love this route. Fun, interesting climbing results in a tiny summit. We time it just right, and an early-rising party of 2 has rappelled by the time we reach the summit. We have it to ourselves for a while. When we rappel, there’s a huge swarm of people climbing the route.
We head down to Camp 4 and set up camp. Will chats with Travis, and they make a plan to head out tomorrow and do a small piece of The Salathé to get to know each other, and find out if they’re comfortable launching into the wall together.
(Will writing) Travis has to re-up his campsite today, which of course entails waiting in the line again, so we don’t get over to El Cap until early afternoon. There is a party of 2 on the first pitch, and they are painfully slow. They finally clear pitch 1, but continue at a glacial pace on pitch 2. In light of this, I lead only pitch 1, with Travis cleaning it. Then we lower off and Travis leads the same pitch, with me cleaning. Travis and I free climb at about the same level, but he’s a bit slower with aid climbing, due to his limited experience. I think he’s fast enough to get it done though, and we make a plan to climb the first 10 pitches of the route tomorrow, which are a popular free climb in their own right called The Freeblast.
In fact, there are several full-length wall routes that start by climbing The Freeblast, and in prime season there are generally fixed ropes to the ground from ledges near where the route ends, which is pretty darned convenient. Our plan, contingent upon how things go on The Freeblast, is thus: Climb Freeblast the first day and rappel the fixed ropes. Day 2, as late as possible to avoid the heat, ascend the fixed ropes and haul our pig to Heart Ledges. (Climbing a multi-day route entails hauling your food, water, sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and anything else in a haul bag, also unaffectionately known to climbers as “the pig”. Hauling is not fun). Day 3, climb to El Cap Spire, quite possibly the most classic bivy spot on Earth. If we’ve made good time fix ropes on 2 or 3 pitches above this, and descend to sleep on The Spire. Day 4, climb to Long Ledge if we’ve been fast (a good bivy, near the top), or The Block (a crappy bivy, further from the top) if we’ve been slow. Day 5, summit and descend, hopefully in time to get pizza in Curry Village, as we’ll have eaten almost nothing but energy bars for three days, and we’ll definitely be ready to pack some serious calories, delivered by “real” food .
(Allison here) While Will and Travis take a test run to check out their compatibility, I decide to take a rest day. I head over to Curry Village for a shower and to check my email. My goal is to keep it mellow, but a friend of ours that we know from Atlanta, Sunny, is also in Yosemite and stops by to see if I want to go for a bike ride. We take a tour of the valley floor and then head back to camp. A nice bit of exercise, but not the all out rest day that I was planning on. I throw the shower count out of balance today.
Shower count: Allison – 6, Will – 5
(Will writing) Travis and I meet in the parking lot at 5.30. We’re the first party at the base of the route, which is great. Things go really smoothly. We free climb some easy 5.10 moves here and there, but aid climb anything harder. (Again, free climbing is moving up using only hands and feet, but still using ropes and gear to protect in the event of a fall. Aid climbing is using gear placed in cracks to move up)
We finish the route in about 7-1/2 hours, which I think is fantastic. We are back on the ground by 3:00. We decide to stay the course, and do the wall. I’m psyched, and a little daunted. We head by El Cap Bridge, and I jump into the freezing cold Merced River. Feels great!
(Allison here) Sunny and I decide to get in a little climbing today. We head to the Five Books area and climb Committment (5.9) to Salagenella (5.8). I had climbed Salagenella a few years back with friends Anne and Fran. I remembered the first pitch as being a major grunt-fest, so I gladly pass that one on to Sunny. Following him up the route, it didn’t seem quite as bad as I’d remembered. We then switch leads and climb the route with only one minor incident – the rope got stuck about 10 feet below where Sunny had set up a belay. I, therefore, had to figure out how to get myself up the route without a belay. It all worked out fine in the end, and, as is always the case when I/we figure out how to fix an unpleasant situation, it is nice to come out of it knowing that you have the skills and knowledge necessary to do such.
We get back to camp around 4 and ride out to El Cap Meadow to check on Will and Travis’s progress. As we are staring up at the team we assume is Will and Travis, I get a text from Will – “Where r u?” Come to find out we are not watching them, they are actually back at the campsite having a bite to eat.
Sunny and I head back to the campsite where he convinces me that we should check out the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral the next day. I am a little hesitant to do so due to my previous experience on the Northeast Buttress of Upper Cathedral Rock. I agree to give it a shot, but convince Sunny that we should leave early so that we will not end up scrambling off the route in the dark.
(Will writing) I sleep in, then run around and buy some things for the wall. For food, it’s a bunch of bars and Clif Shot Blocks, and some canned fruit. We’ve planned on 3 liters of water per person per day, with 1/2 day extra, so I buy 5 gallons of water. I stop at the Mountain Store, and purchase a Petzl Pro Traxion pulley, used for hauling the pig. It’s expensive, but much more convenient and effective than other methods, and I’m all about making things go as smoothly as possible. I cruise by El Cap Meadow and shoot some photos of Sunny & Allison on Middle Cathedral Rock. I meet Travis back at Camp 4, and we pack the pig, drive to the trailhead, and hike in. For such a giant, popular rock face, many El Cap routes have amazingly short approaches. Still, with a fully packed haul bag, walking anywhere is awful. I offer to trade off carrying the pig, but Travis, heroically, insists on carrying it to the base of the fixed lines. We do, however, trade off hauling duties. Neither of us has any real experience hauling, but it goes surprisingly well despite this. There are several different hauling methods, but mostly we employ “space hauling”. You basically thread the haul line through the pulley, attach yourself to it, detach yourself from the anchor, and walk backwards down the wall, counterweighting the pig.
We are on Heart Ledges, at the base of pitch 12, with plenty of daylight left. We set up camp. On another tier about 40 feet below us are Colin and Shane, planning on the same route, more or less on the same schedule. They’ve climbed and fixed a rope up the next pitch to get a jumpstart tomorrow, then descended to the ledge to cook and sleep.
(Allison here) Sunny and I leave Camp 4 around 7:15 to climb the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral. By the time we get to the base of the route, there are already four groups ahead of us – but fortunately all were on the rock except for one team just beginning. After the group ahead of us is well on their way, Sunny starts up the route, connecting pitches one and two. Because we are right behind the group ahead of us, we cannot connect any more pitches. I end up leading pitches 3, 4, 7, 8, and 10. Sunny covers the others, including a fabulous 10a face/roof pitch that allows us to pass one of the teams ahead of us. By the middle of the route, we are sharing belays with the team ahead of us and behind us. It’s not so bad, as the climbing is quite fun and everyone is just enjoying themselves. This ends up being a really fun route – lots of great climbing.
Sunny and I get back to camp, and I head out for pizza with our friends Anne and Tom. Anne and Tom are friends from Atlanta that now live in Raleigh. Fortunately, we tend to manage climbing trips that overlap a couple of times each year. Our Yosemite trips were planned separately, but we still ended up in The Valley at the same time.
(Will writing) Travis & I rise at 5:30 (which becomes our default time for the rest of the route), pack our sleeping gear into the pig, and eat breakfast. In the meantime, Colin and Shane ascend their fixed rope to their high point and continue.
We dispatch with pitches 12 and 13 pretty quickly. Then comes a pitch that has inspired dread in the gut of many a climber (including me, right now), Pitch 14 – The Hollow Flake. I’d mentioned to Travis when we were planning the climb that I’d like to lead this pitch, and his reply was something like “fantastic”. The day we started he even asked again, “So, just to verify, you said you were going the lead The Hollow Flake pitch, right?” “Yeah, that’s what I said.” “Great.” You climb a short, easy bit, then lower off of a fixed piece of gear and swing over to a giant flake feature that stands out about 10 inches from the wall. You climb the wide orifice created by the flake for over 100 feet. Because of the lower-out and swing-over, leaving protective gear low on the flake part would create enormous rope drag, basically creating a big “Z” in the rope path. Besides, you’d need multiple huge pieces to protect it. You can, however, move a #6 cam up with you for about 50 feet, at which point the feature becomes too wide. Then it’s about 50 more feet of runout groveling to reach the top of the flake. It’s strenuous and nerve-racking, but before I know it I’m on top. There are a number of big psychological turning points on the route, but this is the first and biggest. It’s a HUGE relief to be past this.
Travis & I are swapping leads. He leads a pitch and I clean it, ascending his rope with mechanical ascenders and removing the protective gear that he’s placed. Then I lead and he cleans. We’re also connecting pitches wherever possible. In the past, shorter ropes were used, but with modern 60 or 70 meter ropes, you can sometimes do in one pitch what the original ascent divided into two. By some cruel cosmic probability, this results in the person who led The Hollow Flake (me) also drawing the lead of Pitch 18, The Ear. The Ear is yet another hated and feared pitch on the route. You grovel up behind a giant flake feature, eventually having to remove your helmet, lest it should get stuck, as the chimney chokes down. The #6 cam was a hero again here. I earned my second gold star of the day by backcleaning the entire ear feature (not leaving any gear in it), so we could flick the lead line outside the feature, and Travis wouldn’t have to tunnel up in there. When Travis joined me at the belay, I informed him that for payback he had to lead Pitch 24, The Sewer. It’s regarded as the worst pitch of the climb, since it leaks water constantly, soaking the leader. He agreed. That would come tomorrow though.
Our plan was to sleep on El Cap Spire (top of Pitch 20), but fix ropes up at least 2 if not 3 pitches above before making camp. If you have time at the end of a day, leading a pitch or two above your chosen bivy ledge saves a lot of time the next day. In the morning you ascend your fixed ropes, which takes much less time than leading the pitches did initially. As it happens, we arrive atop El Cap Spire without much daylight left, and decide to make camp and call it a day. Colin and Shane are bivying on The Spire as well, however, they’re trying to stack the deck in favor of finishing the route tomorrow. They fix 3 pitches above, and descend to make dinner at about 10 pm. The idea of aid climbing in the dark doesn’t phase me in the least. Assuming route-finding isn’t an issue, you only need to see the next 4 feet above you. However, when the sun goes down, it gets REALLY COLD up high on El Cap, especially for the belayer, who is sitting still, and I HATE to be cold.
El Cap Spire is an amazing pinnacle that stands over 100 feet tall, about 4 feet out from the wall of El Cap, with a semi-flat platform at the top that would sleep 3 comfortably, and 4 or 5 uncomfortably. As it is, there are 4 of us, and in deference to the party that arrived here first, I pick the most uncomfortable spot on The Spire and crash. I sleep ok, not great. In our tiredness and desire to get into sleeping bags, we neglected to get a classic El Cap Spire photo, so here’s one, and another.
(Allison here) Sunny and I decide to join Anne and Tom for a bit of cragging at an area called Knob Wall. Overall it’s a good time, the routes are nice, but nothing compared to other areas in the valley. It was nice to have a slow day.
On the way back to camp, Sunny tries to convince me that we should climb the Central Pillar of Frenzy on Middle Cathedral. I had recently spoken to someone that, although I did not know her climbing ability, I assumed was a hard climber. She mentioned that she had shed a few tears on the Central Pillar of Frenzy. This was not encouraging, so I wasn’t very willing to give it a shot. We finally agree on the Kor Beck route, on the same wall. Not sure why I thought that this would be better, but we agree to meet at 7 in an effort to beat out some of the crowds.
Anne and Tom and I head out to El Cap Meadow to check out Will and Travis’s progress on their route. We convince ourselves that we see them working their way up El Cap Spire. Later that evening Will texts to say that they are settled in on El Cap Spire, so we are not sure if we were watching them or not. Oh well, it is great to hear of their progress. I join Anne and Tom on a second trip to the Pizza Loft where we hook up with Tom’s sister, her boyfriend, and two of Anne’s friends from graduate school. It is fun to finally meet folks that they have been talking about for a while. (Will here) No, they were definitely watching Colin and Shane, who were a few pitches ahead.
(Will writing) 5:30 again. My alarm goes off. I say out loud “Time to make the donuts”. Then I offer to Travis, “You probably don’t remember that commercial, do you?”. He doesn’t. He’s 18, after all. “Fred the Baker”
Things move along. Travis gets his gold star for leading The Sewer.
He prudently wears his rain jacket. Mine is buried in the haul bag, but I’m able to mostly avoid the water when I clean the pitch. In a perfect world, we would make it to Long Ledge today, a good bivy very near the top, but having fixed 0 pitches yesterday, and not knowing if Colin and Shane will make it to the top today, we decide to sleep at The Block, a badly sloping bivy ledge. We do, however, fix 3 pitches above here. This leaves only 7 pitches to the top, and the last 4 are relatively easy, which gives us confidence. It’s a chilly and windy night, and again, sleep is sporadic at best.
(Allison here) I wake up early and open up the guidebook to check out the route that Sunny and I will be climbing today. The description does not do much to sell the route, so I flip over to the description for the Central Pillar of Frenzy. Sounds MUCH better. I’ve changed my mind. I text Sunny to say that I’m up for the Central Pillar. He is game – appears he’s willing to go with my indecisiveness.
We arrive at the route to find one team heading up the first pitch. We hang out for a bit and then Sunny hops on the route. The first pitch is a bit like the first pitch of Salagenella – offwidth (large cracks that you can’t fit your body in, but are too big for a foot or a hand to secure you). Plus, the wall is polished and slippery. I grunt my way up and join Sunny at the belay. I get the second pitch – a 5.9 crack. It is quite sustained for my level, but I manage to get through it very slowly. I’m glad I did it as I’m beginning to get the hang of crack climbing in Yosemite. The rest of the route is great. More folks hop on the route behind us. We top out and set up to rap down an alternate rap route created to avoid congestion on the route as well as to avoid getting a rope stuck. Wouldn’t you know it, but we managed to get the rope stuck, anyway. With a little manuvering, we manage to get back to the route, Sunny leads the last pitch again with a single rope, frees our second rope, and raps back down. In the end, not only did we get our rope struck, but we ended up creating quite a bit of congestion as well. Oh well, it was a great route. Can’t believe I almost denied myself the opportunity to climb it.
(Will writing) 5:30 again, and chilly, but we’ll be warm soon enough. Ascending fixed ropes is a great workout. We achieve our high point again, with no sign of Colin and Shane. We’ll later learn that they topped out at 11 pm yesterday. We’ve fixed ropes to the base of Pitch 29, The Roof. It’s a really steep overhanging section, and Travis admits to being a bit nervous about it, but he leads it without a hitch.
Next up is the famous Salathé Headwall. I combine these 2 pitches into 1, and actually have fun doing it. It’s about 175 feet of slightly overhanging, flared finger crack. Apparently it goes free at 5.13b, but in my case it goes aid, at C2.
It’s probably about noon, and I’m sitting on Long Ledge. I’m absolutely giddy, and laugh out loud to myself more than once. Only 4 pitches separate us from the top at this point, two of them connect as one, and they’re all easier, with the last one being only 5.6! It’s in the bag, and we’re elated! Travis puts down the next pitch, I connect the next two (thanks again, #6 cam), Travis leads the 5.6, and at about 4:00 pm, low and behold, we’re on top of El Cap! Holy cow. We did it!The annoying East Ledges Descent takes us about 3 hours, and Allison is waiting with the truck and protein shakes at the Manure Pile Buttress parking lot. She orders our pizzas at Curry Village while we destroy the shower facilities. It’s one of the best feeling showers of my life. Our friend Skip told me a while back that no matter how hard he’d tried to pack calories on a wall, he’d always come down severely calorie deficient. Indeed, my pants are falling off. Travis & I each power down half a large pizza.
It was an amazing amount of work, but it went unbelievably smoothly. It’s very easy to find partners in Camp 4 – multiple people hook up to climb together there every day – but the experience can vary greatly depending upon the skill and personality of the person you hook up with. I can’t imagine having scored a better partner than Travis. Whatever lack of wall experience he may have had was completely offset by diligence, heaps of common sense, and serious attention to detail (and it’s not like I had much more experience myself). Top it all off with his really easy-going personality, and it made for a great trip up the wall. I’d turn around and climb another wall with him tomorrow if we had time on our trip.
Shower count: Allison – 7, Will – 6
(Will writing) I spend this day lounging around, soaking up internet, looking at photos from the climb, and eating, a lot.
(Allison here) This morning I get up early to get us another campsite. Later, I join Will in his recovery efforts and, finally, have a REAL rest day – we don’t move for about five hours. It is great.
(Will writing) Allison & I have a leisurely breakfast at the Lodge Cafeteria, then hike in and climb the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock. She climbed it the other day with Sunny, and loved it. She knew it was on my list of things to do, and she was happy to do it again.
This time, however, we take the 70 meter rope, and with a little simulclimbing here and there, the normally 11 pitch route goes down in 6 pitches. We blaze it in just over 3 hours. It’s another of the “50 Classic Climbs in North America” and it deserves to be. It’s a super fun route, and it’s directly across The Valley from El Cap, so the views are amazing. Later we lounge in El Cap Meadow, watching parties all over the huge face, inching up their respective routes.
Anne & Tom are leaving The Valley today, so the four of us head to the posh Ahwahnee Hotel for the breakfast buffet. It’s fantastic. The Ahwahnee happens to be right next to some classic routes that we’d like to climb, but first we need time to digest what our friend Mike Williams once termed a “belayer’s breakfast” – basically a breakfast that anchors you to the ground.
(Will writing) About noon we head up to climb a 2-route linkup that many consider to be the finest free climb in Yosemite Valley, “Serenity Crack” to “Sons of Yesterday”. We started this route when we were here 4 years ago, and about 60 feet up the first pitch I took a 15 foot fall. When I came to a stop I sprung my ankle pretty badly, retreated, and hobbled back to Curry Village, where I spent the next 3 days laid up with ice on the ankle. Needless to say, I had some butterflies about leading this pitch again, but I had to get past it. It’s pretty sustained, but goes down without incident, as does the rest of the climb. It’s another route that deserves the accolades. It’s interesting to note that in years past we would’ve felt the need to start a route of this length and difficulty shortly after sunrise, in the interest of not being benighted. Today, starting at noon, we’re back on the ground by 7:00. We converge one last time with our friend Sunny at the Pizza Loft (decidedly better pizza than Curry Village Pizza Deck), then crash.
(Allison here) I was a bit hesitiant to hop on SC and SoY after such a leisurely breakfast and lazy morning, but the route was fantastic. Although I followed the majority of the pitches, I really feel as though I have honed my crack climbing skills over the past few weeks of climbing, but mostly at Yosemite. I do have to admit, though, that by the time we were on the second to last pitch my feet hurt so badly that I was on the verge of tears. The last pitch was fabulous, though, and I was overjoyed when I completed the rap off and could take off my shoes. I think it will be at least a week before I can force my feet to go back into climbing shoes!
(Will writing) Today we’ll say goodbye to The Valley, and turn towards home, but not before one more trip to the Ahwahnee. This time we go to breakfast with my wall partner Travis. We resolve to climb together again sometime. Maybe another route up El Cap? We drive through beautiful Tioga Pass, then enter the endless dusty, windy desert. Driving home is always depressing. My challenge for the next few months: Either continue to train consistently (difficult to find motivation to do so in the gym, after being at some of the greatest rock climbing destinations in the world) or taper off the caloric intake, back to “real world” levels.
The driving passes mostly uneventfully. It has been cool at night everywhere we’ve been, but we hear that the southeast has been sweltering. Indeed, the last night of the return trip we’re in Nashville, and it’s steamy. We get a room near Vanderbilt University and head out for a nice dinner. The next day at noon we’re home again, as if it were all a dream.
(Allison here) A few side notes from our trip:
1) This trip differed greatly from our previous road trips as this time we were geared for all climbing and driving. In the past, we have spent a little time between climbs checking out interesting areas and visiting with people. At first this was hard for me to accept, but, in the end, it has been a great trip, and I am excited about all of the climbing that we did.
2) Along with my love of travel, I also love the people that we meet along the way. We always manage to run into the greatest folks. Hopefully our paths will cross again someday.
3) Our drive took us through some beautiful areas, some we’d seen before and others we’d not. One of the areas that really stands out was the Eastern Sierras. The drive north to South Lake Tahoe provided many amazing vistas. The drive from South Lake Tahoe to Yosemite topped out several beautiful passes, some of which had just been cleared of snow. I love coming across a pass to find a beautiful mountain lake often partially covered in snow.
4) Highway 120 from Mono Lake to Benton is one of the most fun roads I have ever driven.
2 Nights in hotels
Showers – Will, 7 Allison, 8