We woke up at 5:00 AM to find the weather just as cold and cloudy as the previous day, and threatening rain again. I packed to be prepared for this, and we started off, hitting the trail before 6:00. The approach indeed turned out to be long and painful, and we didn't arrive at the base of our climb until around 8:30. I for one was moving slower than usual, still tired and sore from my four days of climbing with Aaron earlier in the week.
With freezing fingers and shivering bodies, we started up the first pitch. I would lead the first two and the fourth, and Corinne might take the third and fifth if she was feeling up to it. The first pitch was uneventful, but cold, and the climbing was decent. It was mostly face climbing on odd, blocky, juggy formations in a wide corner. I might have enjoyed it more if it weren't so cold. As I belayed Corinne and Justin up, I alternated between standing and enjoying an occasional glimpse of sunshine through the clouds, and cowering behind a large block to hide from the bitter wind.
The second pitch was a bit more fun, especially when I encountered the first 5.8 crux of the route. The guidebook had said “5.8 fist” and indicated an overhang or roof, so I should have been expecting a wide crack, and should have saved some big cams. But I had used my #3.5 in the anchor, and had placed my #3 in the first slightly wide section, not thinking about the crux up ahead. When I got to the overhang, I realized my predicament. “Oh well, guess I gotta run it out,” I thought. Hand jam... wide hand jam... good fist jam... undercling the big flake... stem with the feet... reach up high, ahh! Nice big jug. I pulled through, fairly pumped and glad I had made it. My last piece of pro was at least twenty feet below me, at a ledge. A fall there would have been bad. I moved up a good bit higher, as the climbing was now easy, and found a nice spot for a #1 Camalot, then continued up to the belay. When Justin was following the pitch and cleaning, he looked up to see the #1 way above him after pulling through the crux, and he said, “Damn Will, you really ran it out here.” He really thought I was a badass after that.
Corinne led the third pitch, and as she did, a climber below us caught up and set an anchor just underneath ours. His follower also made it up before Corinne finished leading. We talked to them a little about the climb and the weather. It was reassuring to have another party along with us. At one point, I noticed a few small white flakes in the air. “Holy crap!” I exclaimed, “It's snowing!” We joked about this a little, but I'm sure we were all hoping it wouldn't start really snowing. A few flakes didn't worry me, but a blizzard might be rather unpleasant. On the other hand, a little snow would probably be better than a little rain; rain would probably get us wetter, and wet plus cold means hypothermia. At this point, there were slings and rap rings that we could rappel from at each belay, so we could bail if necessary. But Corinne was already well up pitch 3, and I didn't know how easily we might be able to bail from higher up. Corinne eventually made it to a belay, and I followed and cleaned. It had taken her quite a while, and she sounded pretty stressed out at a few points. The climbing did turn out to be a little awkward near the end, and somehow she had run out of slings and draws. It turned out that she probably didn't go as far as she should have, because I came to a ledge early in the fourth pitch that had a few fixed slings and probably would have been a better belay.
The first part of the fourth pitch involved some fun stemming up into a chimney-like formation with a wide crack in the back. I probably should have thought about the possibility of chimneying, and prepared for it by taking off my pack and hanging it between my legs. This might have made life a lot easier, but the guidebook hadn't mentioned anything about a chimney, so I simply didn't think of it. As a result, I ended up trying to climb the heinous offwidth deep inside the chimney, and while I was mostly successful, I found myself flailing at one point, completely unable to make further upward progress. I ended up cheating, pulling and standing on two fixed pitons to my right. I was a bit ashamed of this, on something that was supposed to be 5.8, but I somehow didn't realize until much later that chimeying was probably the way to go there. Thank God for those two pitons. At one point, in the midst of all this, I heard Corinne and Justin yell something up to me, and I looked out of the crack. Now it was really snowing! “Great,” I thought, “That's just what we need now.” Fortunately, for the moment, the chimney I was in, strenuous as it might be, kept me sheltered from the wind and snow. But I soon found myself standing on a tiny ledge under a roof, and there was only one way to go: out under the roof, onto the face. The cold, wind-swept, snowy, wet face. I yelled down that I was about to do this, and heard Corinne yell back to be careful. Fortunately, this part of the face wasn't too wet yet, and besides, I still had a crack above me and to the left, so I hardly needed to use the face much. The climbing wasn't too hard, and I made the few moves necessary to gain a large ledge. Recalling the guidebook's description of the pitch, I moved across the ledge to a lovely looking hand crack, placed a piece of pro, and quickly began climbing up. I was eager to finish this pitch, as the next one promised to be easy, and then we'd be done climbing and could get down out of this cold and snow.
At the top of the short crack, I reached an awesome little alcove, which provided some shelter from the snow and wind. So for the first time since the awful offwidth crux, I stopped here for a few moments and caught my breath. I looked out toward the Higher Cathedral Spire, across from us, and couldn't help but notice how beautiful the snow looked. I didn't even feel very cold, as I was wearing two layers of Capilene, and a waterproof and windproof jacket over that. After my brief rest, I contemplated my next move. While this alcove seemed like a perfect spot from which to belay, I remembered that the guidebook claimed that I needed to face climb up and right to a small tree, and belay there. I could see this tree just ten or fifteen feet away, and the face didn't look too tough and was fortunately mostly dry, so I decided to try it. I placed a good nut, moved up a nice crack on the left side of the face, then prepared to move right. The rope drag was unbearable. With the face even slightly wet, I didn't want to have to rely on friction moves, and the alternative looked quite balancy and tricky. There was no way I could safely pull that off with so much rope drag. I considered this for a minute, and decided to back down. Slightly scared and with the potential for a nasty fall, I downclimbed back to the alcove. It's ironic, in a way, that only now that I had finished the two 5.8 cruxes of the climb, did things start getting scary for me. And they would get scarier still. My nerves must have reached their limit, due mostly to the weather. I set a quick anchor, put Justin on belay, and yelled down to him to let him know.
As Justin climbed up, I again took a moment to enjoy the beauty of the snow and my surroundings, and as if by instinct, the song “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” popped into my head. Despite the cold, and the uncertainty of what lay ahead and of my partners' conditions, I was really enjoying just being there. I whistled a few bars, and then decided to just start singing. As I did, I of course changed a few words here and there.
We whistle a song
as we climb along.
Climbing in a winter wonderland...
I sang loudly, hoping that at least Justin could hear me as he climbed up, and maybe even Corinne would hear as well.
On the rock face we can build a snowman.
We'll pretend that he is Parson Brown...
As I reached the end of the second verse, I stood up and looked out over the edge to see if Justin had made it out from under the roof yet. Sure enough, he was right there on the big ledge below me. Without even looking up to see me, he started singing the third verse with me, right on cue.
Later on, we'll conspire,
as we sit by the fire,
to face unafraid
the plans that we've made.
Climbing in a winter wonderland.
The part about sitting by the fire sounded particularly nice right now.
Justin reached the alcove, and said, “The singing was great. That was a good morale booster.” I was pleased to hear this, but then he continued, “I think we need to rappel. Corinne's really cold.” This didn't sound good. “Well,” I replied, “it may not be too easy to rappel from here. There were chains at the ledge beneath us, but I don't know exactly where we'd go from there. I'm pretty sure we'd have to swing way around to the left to get back to our route, and that could be tricky.” I continued to think. We'd have to do three rappels from there, and I didn't like the looks of the fixed slings on the first one, assuming we could even reach them. Furthermore, with all the cracks and features in this dihedral, the chances of a rope snag seemed pretty high. That could potentially put us in a much worse situation. “We've only got one more pitch to go,” I said, “and it's supposed to be really easy. Supposed to be. If Corinne can make it up here okay, and she's not hypothermic, then I think we'd be better off just finishing this thing and hiking off.” The snow was already letting up. I asked Justin about the party below us, and he replied, “I think they rappelled.” I put Corinne on belay and yelled to her to come up. She responded, which made me feel better, and she soon started climbing. Her progress was slow, and at one point she actually seemed to downclimb a little ways, but she eventually made it up. Apparently she discovered, unlike Justin and I, that chimneying was the way to get through the crux, so she had to downclimb a little to get herself positioned for it. When she finally reached us, I asked her how she was doing, and she said she was okay. The climbing had of course warmed her up a lot, and I could tell she was certainly not hypothermic. The snow had stopped completely by now, and we all agreed that the easiest thing to do would probably be to finish the last pitch.
I geared up and started out once again toward the tree. This time I went as high up the crack as I could, allowing me to place good protection, and hopefully putting me above the wet part of the face for the traverse to the right. The traverse turned out to be every bit as tricky and balancy as I had expected, and unfortunately there was no room for good pro after I moved out of the crack. At one point, I thought I could get a blue alien in above me, but the rock was crumbly, so I skipped it. But I managed to reach the tree safely, and when I rounded the corner, relieved that I was finished with the last hard part of the climb, I let out a triumphant cry of, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!” Pardon me, Dr. King. That was one more scary moment survived, but it wouldn't be the last. I scrambled quickly up the easy but wet, low-angled trough that I was now in, and reached a large flat spot, complete with dirt and trees. Had I not known better, I might have thought this was the end of our climb. I even spied what looked like a trail heading down, but I followed it with my eyes as far as I could, and decided it would have almost certainly left us inestimably cliffed out. I knew from the guidebook where I had to go. I turned and looked up at the face above me and to my left. My testicles shrank to the size of grape nuts. The guidebook had said “5.4, knob mania”. I figured there might be little or no protection, and maybe a few friction moves that could be slightly tricky on wet rock, but it couldn't be too hard. But I guess I expected to see something low-angled, with big knobs visible everywhere. What I saw instead was a very steep, ominously black face, glistening with melted snow, and with no holds visible from this angle.
I looked down at my right index finger and saw a small bubble of blood swelling up under the skin. “That's odd,” I thought, “Must have broken a small blood vessel somehow.” I had no idea how it had happened, but I decided it would be best to drain it and relieve the pressure. I bit a small hole in the skin and sucked away the blood. It continued to bleed, so I decided to tape it, and while I had my pack off, I figured I would check the guidebook. Of course, the guidebook just confirmed what I already knew, so I taped my finger and put my pack back on. “Well, this is it,” I thought, “This is what separates the men from the boys.” It came down to trust: trust in the guidebook, and trust in my own abilities. Trust in my climbing partners was somehow not an issue here. If I fell, it seemed like Corinne and Justin, around a few corners, out of sight, and out of intelligible hearing range, would have little role in the outcome. If any time would have been an appropriate time for radios, this was it. I started up the easy-looking first section, keeping very mindful of the wetness of the rock. I got about ten feet up and felt the rope come tight. I pulled pretty hard, and yelled for slack. A muddled response came wafting up, mixed with echoes, but no slack. “Great,” I thought, “that must mean they are giving me slack, which must mean the ropes are snagged. Just what we need now.” I very carefully downclimbed, again with no real protection, hoping that the snag was close to me. “Thank God this part of the climb is no harder than fourth class,” I thought, marveling at how scary even fourth class downclimbing could seem when it's wet. Fortunately, the snag was right at the lip of the trough I had come up before arriving at the flat section. I freed it easily, and went back to my fourth class climbing.
This time, I did everything I could to run the ropes along a line that wouldn't cause a snag. As I came to the spot where I knew I would have to move left onto the bleak-looking face, I spied a nice wide crack next to me. “Pro!” I exclaimed aloud. Thinking that this might be my last piece of protection, I pulled out the #3.5 Camalot, kissed it, and placed it in the crack. I took a deep breath, and moved out onto the face. I was greeted immediately by jugs and features everywhere. There were odd cracks running all through the face, forming easily climbable jugs and knobs that were sort of flush with the face, making them invisible from where I had been standing below. But they were there. In fact, they were everywhere. That was a relief, but I still didn't know what lay ahead. I looked up, and it looked like a long way to the top. Fifty feet, maybe. I climbed carefully up a few easy steps, on wet holds and jugs that had water pooling in them, and I noticed opportunities for more protection. Not knowing what I might find next, I seized the opportunity, and placed a #1 Camalot. The climbing continued to be easy, and the top drew closer, but I worried that it might not be the real end of the climb. I remembered Aaron's “First Rule of Mountaineering: The first summit is always a false one,” from when we were climbing Snake Dike earlier in the week. I placed another cam when the opportunity presented itself. I tried the 0.75 Camalot, but it was a little too big. I tried the Rock Empire #1 that I had bootied at Tahquitz, but it was too small. I looked down at the rest of my rack, and spied the gray alien, the only other mid-sized cam I had left. It was a perfect fit. “Gray alien!” I said aloud to one of my newest cams, “Remind me to treat you to a nice bath and some cam lube when I get home.” The funny thing is, under normal circumstances, I probably would have run out this whole section, without a single piece of pro. It was just too easy. But with the cold, the wetness of the rock, the rope drag, and my general sketched-out mindset, I was being very cautious.
I finally reached the top, and was relieved to see that it did indeed look like the end of the climb. As I pulled over the edge, I felt the rope go tight. “Not again,” I thought. I kept pulling until I was completely up, and I immediately heard muddled, completely unintelligible shouts rise up from below. With the fog that was now hanging in the air, and the echoes, probably exacerbated by the wetness of everything, I couldn't understand a word that Corinne and Justin were saying. But I knew those yells must have been “That's me”, meaning that I had reached the end of Corinne's 50-meter rope. At least it wasn't another rope snag. I looked around for anchor-building opportunities, and didn't see much, other than a small tree a few feet away and a small flake that might take a cam, albeit at a weird angle. I pulled myself toward the tree, but Corinne's rope was really tight. I got out one of my spectra slings to put around a branch (the trunk would have been better of course, but it was definitely too far away) and readied it. I pulled myself toward the tree with arm outstretched, sling in hand. “Come on... Corinne... just... one... more... foot... of... slack!” Finally my fingertips were just touching the tree branch, and I managed to get the sling around it and girth hitch it. I clipped a biner from my cordalette to the sling, placed the 0.75 Camalot behind the small flake, equalized them, and set up my belay. It certainly wasn't the world's best anchor, but with the rope drag, I'm pretty sure a butt belay would have sufficed, even with all the loose rock that I was now sitting on. Trying to yell as clearly as possible, I called down to Justin to let him know he was on belay. His response was again unintelligible, but he soon started climbing. He made it up with no trouble, though he did have to stop in the middle and untwist the two ropes. Corinne also made it up fairly quickly, while Justin scouted out the descent trail.
After she arrived at the top, Corinne and I snacked and got organized, and then the three of us began the descent. The first step of the descent was extremely exposed, and kind of scary because we couldn't even see the bottom of the massive cliff below us, due to the fog. The rest of the descent turned out to be quite easy and painless, but long. Like the descent off nearby Middle Cathedral, it was mostly a long boulder-scramble down an endless talus field. We reached the car just as it was getting dark, and we headed back to Camp 4 to gather some things. We had already decided on the plan for that night: hot showers and pizza at Curry Village. I think I showered for half an hour. It wasn't just the cleanliness that felt good this time, but the hot water.