Yosemite was one of the first major rock climbing areas in the United States, and thus has a long and colorful climbing history. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited Yosemite. Throughout many parts of the park, especially in the areas of Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, massive granite domes and cliffs abound. It is understandable, then, that many of the most classic, most popular climbing routes in the country can be found in Yosemite. In the list of “North American Classic Climbs” maintained at naclassics.com, fifteen of the one hundred classic climbs are located in Yosemite National Park, and eleven of these are in Yosemite Valley specifically. This abundance of excellent climbs and tremendous climbing history is the main reason that I have been wanting to visit Yosemite for so long, and especially recently, since I now have a lot of the skills and experience necessary to tackle some of these climbs.
Aaron and I drove up to Yosemite on Saturday, September 11th, with very few specific plans in mind for our climbing adventures. We knew we had about four or five days together, and we simply wanted to get in as much climbing, and specifically as many big classic climbs, as possible. The one definite plan we had made was to climb Snake Dike on Half Dome with our friend John Leo, a fellow math grad student from UCLA, on Tuesday the 14th. We also had no definite plans for lodging, but we expected that we would find some way to stay at Camp 4, the traditional camping area for generations of Yosemite climbers. Camp 4 is one of the few camping areas left in Yosemite that require no reservations, but you do have to register and pay to stay there when you arrive. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, we knew that it would be booked solid for that night. So we opted to stay in Tuolumne Meadows our first night, about twenty miles (though an hour and a half drive) northeast of the valley. There are a number of excellent long climbs in Tuolumne, so we were considering the possibility of doing one of those, most notably the Regular Route on Fairview Dome, on the first or second day of our trip. When we arrived in Wawona, near the south entrance of the park, we were fortunate to find that the only campsite in the whole park that wasn't full happened to be in Tuolumne. We reserved one of the last three spots there, and started off on the long drive up to Tuolumne. The drive took us through part of Yosemite Valley on the way, and I must admit I was caught off guard when we rounded a corner and El Cap and Half Dome first came into view. This perspective is the first view of the valley that most visitors get, and I have seen pictures of it many times, but seeing it in person still made my jaw drop. I was mostly speechless and barely able to concentrate on navigating for the next few minutes, as Aaron drove through the Wawona tunnel, into the valley, right underneath El Cap and Leaning Tower, and finally back out of the valley. It was already past noon, so we knew that if there were to be any chance of climbing Fairview Dome that day, we would have to hurry. We'd have plenty of time to enjoy the views of the valley over the next few days.
While Yosemite Valley is best known for the towering cliffs and numerous waterfalls that make up its sides, Tuolumne Meadows is known for the huge domes that dot its landscape like rolling hills of granite. As we approached Tuolumne, we started seeing massive dome after massive dome, and our excitement to climb began rising. As Aaron drove more slowly, I scoured the map and the picture of Fairview Dome in the guidebook, trying to find our climb. Eventually we found it, and got out of the car to have a closer look. This was definitely the right dome, and the line that the climb followed was pretty easy to spot. The guidebook warned seriously about puffy clouds and the possibility of thunderstorms, and since there were a few puffy clouds visible, we decided to check with the local rangers just to be safe. We drove up the road a ways, and asked at a visitor center. The ranger said she didn't expect any bad weather today, and that there hadn't been any rain at all for over a week. So we drove back to Fairview Dome, and started to gear up. It was already 2:00 PM, and the climb would be twelve pitches, so we knew we had to move fast. Fortunately, the upper part of the climb is very easy, and the guidebook recommended that fast parties could avoid the crowds by showing up late and doing a lot of simul-climbing on the upper pitches to move fast. This was exactly our plan.
As we were getting our gear together and discussing our strategy, an old guy came down the trail and started talking to us about the climb. I could tell right away that he was an old timer, the kind of guy who probably had been climbing since the 60's or even earlier, and had probably climbed with some of the greats of his time. He was very talkative, and shared some good beta about the route we were going to do. When I asked him his name, he revealed that he was one of the guys who had done the first free ascent of the route back in 1962. We asked him what he thought of the weather conditions, and he figured the chance of a storm was slim. Though I was enjoying talking to him, we knew we had to get moving, so we took our leave after a few minutes. I'm pretty sure he would have talked our ear off if we had let him. In a way, he struck as me as an old stoner climbing bum. Not that he sounded stoned at the time, but the way he talked, he sounded like he was no stranger to weed either. Regardless, I always enjoy learning about climbing history, and climbing in places that have some real history. And I especially enjoy meeting someone who's a part of the history of a place, like this. That's part of the reason that I enjoy climbing at Tahquitz so much. So far, Yosemite was not disappointing me. But then again, how could it?
The approach hike to our climb was short and trivial, which was a nice break from many of the other places I've been climbing recently. When we finally were at the base and ready to start, I think it was close to 3:00. I led the first pitch, the hardest one of the route, at 5.9. The guidebook, and the man we'd met, had said “polished edges”, and man they weren't kidding. The crux section was short, with a thin crack/corner on my right, and the few crystalline edges I could find for my left foot were so polished that my shoe actually squeaked as it slipped off them. But the protection was good, and I made the two or three required moves without falling, although I did have to pull a really painful sort of backward finger jam with my right hand. We linked the next three pitches into two, and they were a little easier than the first: each 5.8, with similarly polished sections. Aaron and I swung leads on these, and at the end of our third pitch, we arrived at Crescent ledge. We knew the rest of the climb was supposed to be much easier, so we decided to start linking lots of pitches, and we figured we'd start simul-climbing as long as the climbing was easy enough. We had two-way radios on this climb, the first time we had used them, and they came in quite handy now. For most of the rest of the climb, we were a whole rope-length apart, but we could just radio messages to each other whenever necessary, instead of having to yell incomprehensibly. Aaron took off on lead, and we linked pitches 5, 6, and 7 with a good amount of simul-climbing. Then I took the next lead, and we linked 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 continuously. Five pitches of continuous climbing, with only an occasional piece of pro here or there! It was the most simul-climbing I've done on a climb, and it was also just a lot of fun to be able to keep moving continuously for so long. The rope drag got to be pretty bad toward the end, but it didn't matter too much. When I got to the summit, I very quickly set a nice three-piece, perfectly equalized anchor, put Aaron on belay, and radioed down to him to let him know. When he arrived at the top, we noted the time and that it had taken us three hours and fifty minutes to complete the climb. Not bad for a twelve pitch route!
The view from the top was awesome: granite domes as far as the eye could see in almost every direction, with a few more jagged peaks and ridges here and there. It was just before 7:00, and would be getting dark soon, so we hurried down. The descent was easy and actually quite fun: the whole back side of the dome sloped off gradually enough that you could just walk down it easily, and the friction was excellent. Aaron commented that you could probably drive a jeep most of the way up that slab.
After the climb, it was just getting dark, so we went to camp, cooked a quick dinner, and went to bed. The campsite was nice and spacious, not to mention chilly. Both of these would be a stark contrast to the rest of our stay at Yosemite, in Camp 4. The cold was understandable, as Tuolumne Meadows is at a much higher elevation than Yosemite Valley.
The next day, we woke early and headed back to the valley. Our first priority would be to check in at Camp 4, provided there was room. After that, we hoped to do another big climb. We ended up standing in line at Camp 4 for at least half an hour to register, but at least we got a site: number 14. We decided to set up our tents to stake out a space for ourselves, then we went to check out the Royal Arches, another major classic of Yosemite climbing. We were planning on taking a rest day the following day, but it was already getting a bit late to start climbing something big that day. So we found the base of Royal Arches, and scoped out the climb, but decided to save it for tomorrow. This would be our rest day, which meant we would probably do two big days back to back: Royal Arches on Monday, followed by Snake Dike on Tuesday. After making up our minds, we headed over to Manure Pile Buttress to climb something a bit shorter: Nutcracker, a popular five-pitch, three-star climb, but not nearly as classic as the other routes we were considering. We figured it would be pretty crowded, and as it turned out, we were right.
When we got to the base of Nutcracker, there were already two parties climbing two different first pitch variations, and we could see another party on the second pitch, plus at least two groups (one of which had three people) at the base waiting to climb. Furthermore, we'd passed a couple in the parking lot who were going to do this climb. That was the most memorable party, as the girl was an incredibly attractive Asian with a really nice rack (and no, I'm not talking about her climbing gear) and the guy was, well, one really lucky bastard. Aaron later commented that her rack must have been purchased (like her climbing gear) and I agreed, but that made it no less nice.
As we hate waiting in lines to climb, Aaron and I looked at the guidebook, and found an easy and hopefully quick alternative for the first pitch, well to the right of the real first pitch. We scrambled up the start of this, then roped up, and I flew up the rest of it as fast as I could. When I arrived at the big ledge at the top of what's usually the second pitch of the climb, I found two guys preparing to rappel, and shortly thereafter a girl made it to the top. She had been leading the second pitch, the shortest and easiest one on the route, when we looked up from the ground, and she was only now making it to the end of that pitch. Apparently she had struggled with a 5.6 section, and the guys already at the ledge had to lower a rope to help her through or something. I belayed Aaron up while she set an anchor, and when he reached the ledge, she was still working on it. Apparently this wasn't just a popular route, but a popular route for beginners. Fortunately for us, there now was only one party visible ahead of us, and their second member had just started the fourth pitch. Aaron took off leading pitch three, then I led the fourth pitch. The climbing was fun, and not too difficult, though there were a few tricky spots. Probably the most memorable part of that pitch was the small roof I had to pull, with a beautiful hand crack that afforded perfect hand jams. Unfortunately, due to our hurrying, I had left my tape gloves in the car, and had figured I wouldn't need them for this climb anyway. So I pulled off the lovely hand jams au natural, but it really wasn't painful at all.
At the end of the pitch, I caught up to the party ahead of us, so I called down to Aaron to turn the radios on, and radioed to him that it might be a while. After about five minutes of waiting, I made an excellent nut placement, clove hitched myself to it, and just hung out. I chatted with the guy ahead of me a little. He spoke in a foreign accent that I didn't recognize, and he seemed impressed with how fast Aaron and I were moving. I thought about the previous day, twelve pitches in under four hours, and thought, “This is nothing.” But I kept it to myself. Finally, he started up, and I moved up to set an anchor. As I did, he was working through the crux of the route just above me, and he said something about not watching him and stealing beta. I wanted to scoff at this, but I again kept it to myself. As I said, it was a popular route for beginners. We finished the remaining pitch in short order, and did the steep, dirty, and rather unpleasant descent to get back to the car.
It was now early afternoon, and we wanted to spend some quality time in El Cap Meadow, staring up at the big stone. We especially wanted to scope out The Nose, and plot and scheme for our attempt on it next summer. We wandered out into the middle of the meadow, each armed with binoculars, and me with my camera, and gazed upward. Aaron went over the whole route with me, just about pitch by pitch, and pointed out the major features and ledges that were visible from our perspective. He pointed out Sickle Ledge, the Stoveleg Cracks, Dolt Tower, the Texas Flake, the Boot Flake, and the Great Roof. My binoculars also wandered eastward, toward the North America Wall and Zodiac beyond it. We saw a few climbers on the lower part of The Nose, but didn't spot any higher up. We did see several climbers further east, however, on what we figured was Zodiac. After a bit of searching, I finally found the Nipple Pitch, just above them, confirming that they were indeed on Zodiac.
After staring at El Cap for a while, we turned around and looked at the Cathedral Rocks, right behind us. There was Middle Cathedral, huge and dark looking. One of the other ultra classics that we'd been considering was the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral. This route was not quite as long as Royal Arches, our planned route for the following day, but it was notably harder, and overall seemed like a more serious route. We couldn't see much of the climb from our vantage point, so we decided to drive over to it and have a closer look. On the way, we talked about strategies, about what we could do to aid through the crux if necessary, and things like that. We ended up hiking all the way up to the base, and basically got our hopes up enough to scrap the Royal Arches plan in favor of this route. I was psyched, because I really wanted to try something a little harder and more serious, and I knew that our only other climb would probably be Snake Dike, which wouldn't be hard at all, just a very long day. We headed over to Curry Village to make phone calls and check out the gear shop, which is without a doubt the most impressive climbing gear shop I've been to. While there, we checked out the SuperTopo for the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, and talked to a few people for some beta, particularly about the crux pitch. We also talked to some people in our campsite later on, and one couple had done the route the previous year. They also had a well-used copy of the SuperTopo guidebook, and they loaned us the page for the East Buttress. The SuperTopos are an excellent resource, and are much more detailed than the topos in my guidebook, so we were very appreciative. The key beta we got was that no aid gear was necessary to aid through the crux section; the bolts were closely spaced enough that you could just clip quickdraws and pull on them. Apparently this was a very popular alternative to actually free climbing that section. After another quick dinner, we got our gear and food packed and organized at the car, and set our watch alarms for 5:00 AM, so that we could get as early a start as possible.
Monday morning we woke at 5:00, hit the trail before 6:00, and we were climbing just before 7:00. I led the first pitch, a really easy one, then I linked it with the second, which involved pulling a pumpy little 5.8 roof. Aaron then linked pitches 3 and 4, and chose a lovely 5.6 straight-in hand crack over some awkward 5.7 liebacking. This brought us to the base of pitch 5, the crux pitch, with me lined up to lead, and it was barely after 8:00. So far, we were making great time, so we could take the hard pitch slow if we wanted to. I really wanted to give this pitch a shot. It would be the hardest thing that I had ever led, but because the bolts were solid and close together, I wasn't worried about falling, and I knew that if I got stuck, I could just start pulling on draws. The pitch involved tricky and delicate face climbing, straight up, for about twenty feet or less, followed by a few 5.9 moves around a roof. This was the only part of the climb that was even above 5.8. I started up, and after one small move, I backed down, realizing I needed to be a bit more clever. The climb seemed to stay mostly right of the bolts, and the guidebook indicated this as well, but to get there, I decided to move left for a move or two, then work my way over to the right. This trick worked, as did a few other clever, balancy, tricky moves later on. I made it through the whole section cleanly, albeit slowly, though at the very last move I did pull on a sling a little as I was doing a tricky mantle. After that, I traversed left easily, and placed a few pieces of natural pro before pulling the 5.9 section. The key move here also involved some trickiness, stemming my right foot way out to the right to take advantage of a small indentation. My left foot almost slipped at this point, and I thought I would fall, but I managed to hold on and pull through it. Near the top of the pitch, I spotted two nuts in the crack I was climbing. One was buried deep, and appeared thoroughly stuck, but the other came loose easily, and with a bit of finesse I was able to maneuver it out of the crack. It was a DMM Wallnut, #11. “Booooooty!” I shouted, and continued climbing. Aaron followed the pitch, and actually fell somewhere in the crux section, which surprised me.
The views from this part of the climb were spectacular, especially of El Cap. We could see the whole face of the big stone, west to east, and since we were well above the meadow and the trees, we could see everything from the top to the bottom pretty clearly. The climbing routes on Middle Cathedral probably provide the best views of the captain in the whole valley. The rest of our climb was easier, and relatively uneventful. Unfortunately, the views got worse as the valley filled with smoke from a nearby forest fire. At one point, on pitch 7 I think, I got slightly off route and ended up climbing a very dirty and loose section for thirty or forty feet. That was scary, but I lived through it. As Aaron was leading the last two real pitches, he dropped a few nuts. This is really surprising, because in nearly a decade of climbing, he has never dropped anything off a route. Apparently the DMM Wallnut that I had just bootied had a secret desire to be free, and this time it decided to take my #11 stopper with it. It almost took the #12 too, but fortunately that one came to a rest just below Aaron, and he retrieved it. He bought me a new #11 later that day. (Ironically, Corinne found a #11 stopper hanging in a tree a few days later. And guess where... at the base of Middle Cathedral. But it wasn't near the base of this route, and it also wasn't anodized, so it couldn't have been the one we dropped.)
When we reached the end of the route, we unroped and began scrambling up the scary third and fourth class gullies to the Kat Walk, our descent route. One of these gullies we dubbed the “Dirty Gully of Death”, because it was dirty and thus slippery, and if one slipped and started sliding, one would certainly go over the edge and die. When we finally reached the Kat Walk, we rested and ate some food, then started the long descent. The Kat Walk took us around to the back side of the Cathedral, where the view of the massive north face of Higher Cathedral Rock was incredible. We were now in the Cathedral chimney, a huge notch between the Higher and Middle Cathedrals, and the exposure and the echos were intense. The smoke and the smell of forest fire were also thicker now, but as we descended, the air cleared up a lot. We worked our way down the gully, with a few short rappels and a lot of boulder scrambling, and eventually, we found ourselves back in the talus covered gully that we had started the day in.
That evening, we went back to Curry Village to make phone calls and clean up, and we managed to meet up with John, our third partner for Snake Dike. John is a much less experienced climber, and we were a bit concerned about his preparedness for this climb. In fact, this would be his first multi-pitch climb ever. What worried us even more, however, was that he had mentioned recently that he sometimes had problems with fear of heights. Fortunately, none of this turned out to be a problem. We expected he might climb very slowly, but he really didn't even slow us down much.
John was staying with his wife and son in Curry Village, so we agreed that we would get up at 4:00 and meet him in Curry Village at 4:30. We'd try to start hiking immediately, and hopefully be at the base of the climb by 8 or 8:30. This would allow us plenty of time for the climb, and hopefully would put us ahead of any other parties. We would carry three quarts of water each, and would bring purification for the hike down just in case. Since I would only have my small climbing pack, my beloved Grivel Manu, I would carry the rack, and John and Aaron would each carry a rope. The rack would be minimal, consisting of just a set of stoppers, a set of aliens, two small Camalots (0.75 and 1), and several slings and draws. I would probably keep most of this on my harness the whole time, though of course I would have the option of racking things on the Manu as well.
The next morning, everything went according to this plan. The hike, though long and strenuous and largely in the dark, was also really pretty. The most strenuous parts were around Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, though the slabs near the base of Half Dome were no picnic either. We arrived at the base of Snake Dike, on the southwest face of Half Dome, a little after 8:30. Fortunately, our plan to beat the crowds seemed to be working, as we had hardly seen another person the whole morning. We rested a bit and used “the facilities”, and then geared up to start climbing. I wanted to lead the first pitch, with its runout 5.7 friction, but after that I didn't care too much. I ended up leading the whole climb, partly because Aaron thought it was a good experience for me to have to deal with mandatory runout on such easy terrain, and partly because he was starting to enjoy not having to do any of the work. He didn't even have to belay anyone the whole day! John belayed while I was leading, and I did most of the belaying of both Aaron and John when they followed. This also meant I was leading with two ropes, but that made little difference. The main rope was my pink rope, which was connected to John, and the second one was Aaron's skinny (and relatively lightweight) 50-meter rope, which he used back when he was a sport climber.
Me leading up the dike The climbing was really nothing but pure fun for me. The two crux sections, on the first and third pitches, involved nothing more than a few 5.7 friction moves, which was cake after the previous day's 5.10c friction. The difference was the runout, which made it a bit scarier, but still not too bad. I stupidly missed a bolt at the beginning of the pitch 3 crux, so I was really worried about slipping there and inducing a swinging almost-factor-two fall onto my belayer. Fortunately I didn't slip. After that, we gained the main dike, and much of the remaining climbing was a truly unique and beautiful experience. These dikes were apparently formed ages ago when cracks in the rock filled with molten volcanic lava, which subsequently cooled and hardened. The results are seams of weird, knobby, volcanic rock in the midst of vast otherwise-smooth slabs of granite. Those slabs would probably be somewhat tricky to climb, but if you stay on the dikes, the climbing is nowhere harder than about 5.4... and usually even easier than that.
When our dike finally ended several pitches later, the rock sloped off quite a
bit, and got a little blocky. After a pitch or two of easy climbing on this,
we got to the end of the established climb, to a point where the guidebook
simply had an arrow pointing up and the note: “3rd class slabs
forever.” This was no lie. At this point, we had probably ascended about
...wandering through a neverending slanted desert of granite half, or slightly more, of the vertical distance we had to gain. We still had about 1000 vertical feet to go. We unroped here, packed up the ropes and the rack, and began walking up the 45-degree slabs, feeling a bit like Bedouins wandering through a neverending slanted desert of granite. After what seemed like forever, we arrived at the top, and found ourselves on a large mound just behind the main summit. We could see many people, who probably had hiked up via the cables route, on the main summit, and a few people walking in between our false summit and the main one. The weirdest thing was the proliferation of cairns and other stone structures all around. My guess would be that some of the early climbers had set up a few cairns to guide other climbers (as climbers often do to mark a trail), and the tourist-hikers thought this was a fun idea, so they started building more and more cairns. Some of them were quite elaborate and quite high, and some areas had several cairns set up in a circle, making the whole landscape look like something not of this world, as though aliens had visited. We sat down on our false summit, and finally replaced our climbing shoes with hiking shoes. We wandered over to the main summit, and were greeted with the usual weird looks, as well as lots of people asking us how long it took us to climb up. Surprisingly, no one asked the usual question, “How do you get the ropes up there?”
At the summit
Me in the foreground, Aaron peering over the edge of “The Visor” After eating and drinking our fill, taking pictures, and gazing over the edge of the steep northwest face, we started the long hike down. The first step was to maneuver the cables route, and we were thankful that we had all brought gloves for this. The rock under the cables was extremely polished from so many people having hiked up and down it, so we found the cables quite necessary. The rest of the descent was pretty easy and uneventful, and it seemed to move quickly, although it still took us about four hours altogether. We hiked back into Curry Village at about 8:00 PM, just as we had hiked out: in the dark, wearing our headlamps. Altogether, we had been out for about fifteen hours: nearly four hours hiking up, six hours climbing, a good rest at the top, and about four hours hiking back down.
John met up with his wife and son, and we agreed to meet them for pizza a little later, after washing up and making a few phone calls. I tried to reach Michele, who was supposed to be coming in that night, and found out that she would be late. This worked out well for us, as it allowed us time for dinner and such. We met up with John and ordered pizza. He was gracious enough to pay for it, which was a nice way to repay us for being his climbing guides for the day. Aaron and I also got some cold beer, which was a nice luxury after four days of pretty intense climbing. Now that Michele was arriving, Aaron had decided he would probably leave the following morning. After all, we had done enough climbing for now. Three North American Classics in four days. That's hard to beat.
While Yosemite may strike many people as a wilderness area — and in its backcountry, make no mistake, it is wilderness indeed — Yosemite Valley is really like a city. It has restaurants and cafes, dining and lodging accommodations that range from primitive to four-star, a few grocery stores and gas stations, a post office, and even a U.S. magistrate. The rangers are like the police force and city government all in one, and the citizens are the vast numbers of visitors who come to Yosemite each year. There are the middle class citizens, who mostly stay in the hundreds of tent-cabins of Curry Village. There are the upper middle class citizens, who stay in Yosemite Lodge, or camp in their giant RVs. And of course the upper class is made up of the few who can afford to stay at the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel. The lower class consists of the relatively few people who do real camping at Yosemite: the climbers, the backpackers, and other adventurers, all of whom generally live on a much smaller budget than the other citizens. Camp 4, home to generations of climbing bums, is the ghetto of Yosemite.
When Michele arrived at Yosemite on Tuesday night, the 14th, I had been living the lower class lifestyle for four days. For four days, I hadn't taken a shower, I hadn't changed clothes, I had been living out of the back of a pickup truck, and I had been sleeping in a tent. Needless to say, I was filthy. Furthermore, I was also completely exhausted. I met up with Michele at Yosemite Lodge, conveniently across the street from Camp 4, shortly after finishing the hike back down from Half Dome. When she talked to her mom on the phone that night, I remember her saying that I sounded so tired that I was slurring my words. And yet the next evening, this filthy, smelly, exhausted lower class citizen was supposed to accompany his lovely cousin to the utmost of high class dining experiences in Yosemite: we had a dinner reservation at the Ahwahnee Hotel. How could this be?
The next day, after sleeping in late (probably until 8 or 9... which I would normally consider pretty early), I put on some clean clothes, and Michele and I wandered around some of the more touristy parts of the valley. We went to the Ansel Adams studio and the Visitors' Center. I finally got to read and learn all about Yosemite, the layout of the valley, its history, and the different types of rock that I had been climbing. After this, we went to Curry Village and hiked the short trail to Mirror Lake, but sadly it was completely dried up. (Every year, most of the streams and waterfalls in Yosemite slow to a trickle or dry up completely by late summer.) But the hike did provide some incredible views of Half Dome, from directly below the sheer vertical northwest face. We returned casually to Curry Village, where we knew hot showers awaited us. My only shower in six days, four of which were strenuous days of climbing, felt pretty damn good. I think I spent fifteen minutes just scrubbing the dirt off, and I washed my hair three times with Dr. Bronner's Magic Peppermint Soap. After I got out, I still found dirt on my ankles, probably the one place I didn't scrub. I also shaved for the first time in nearly a week, so I came out looking like a new man. Now I simply needed some stylish new threads to complete my makeover. Fortunately, I had come prepared for this. After our showers, Michele and I returned to the ghetto of Camp 4 to change. I crawled into my tent wearing old, torn up cargo pants, a tee shirt, and sandals, and I emerged a few minutes later wearing khaki slacks, a dress shirt, brown leather shoes, and a blazer slung over my arm, all perfectly clean. Of course, the sight of a climber wearing such attire in the middle of the ghetto struck me as so odd that I turned from my tent and walked immediately toward the street, in order to avoid being spotted by any familiar faces. I know it seems silly of me, but this sort of class-jumping just felt wrong.
Michele and I struck out from Camp 4 just in time to make our dinner reservation, but unfortunately we lost some time waiting for the shuttle bus. We arrived at the Ahwahnee Hotel a few minutes late, but it didn't matter. We found our way to the dining room, and a hostess showed us to our table quite promptly. We sat down and began to take in our surroundings. The dining room was quite elegant, but as with so many other things in the valley, it was apparently undergoing some renovations or maintenance, since this was the off-season for tourism. It was beautiful nonetheless, with high ceilings, a huge chandelier, and an antique decor. Live piano music, from a grand piano across the room, accompanied our dinner. We also quickly took note of the people around us, and realized that the Ahwahnee staff must not have enforced the dress code that they had told us. I particularly felt somewhat overdressed, but considering that this would be the one elegant event of my whole vacation, and the only time in a week and a half that I would be truly clean, I was pleased to be dressed so nicely.
The menu at the Ahwahnee was impressive, to say the least. One appetizer that struck my eye, as I have always been fond of soups, and especially exotic ones, was a chilled peach and wildflower honey soup. It was wonderful, and reminded me of the chilled strawberry soup that my sister had recently prepared for the family in Winston Salem. Like that one, this soup was served with a lace of cream drizzled through it, and it also included some sort of fancy pastry that gave it a lovely presentation. As a main course, Michele ordered lamb, which was served with sweet potatoes and vegetables and an excellent sauce. Unfortunately I don't remember the details of her meal. I ordered the smoked duck carbonara, which turned out to be quite an interesting and delicious combination: a penne pasta carbonara with shiitake mushrooms, and with thin slices of smoked duck instead of pancetta or bacon. The carbonara was wonderful, and the smoked duck was an excellent addition. Furthermore, the portion was quite generous, which is an important thing to a hungry climber.
Despite the wonderful appetizer and entrees, and the overall quality of the dining experience as a whole, the showstopper had to be the dessert. Michele had said before we ordered, “We should save room for dessert, just because I'm sure they have some awesome desserts here.” For me, this was no issue; no matter how much I ate, there would be room. After dinner, we perused the dessert menu, and one item caught both of our attentions. If I remember correctly, the description went something like this: “Dark chocolate mousse with a black cherry pinot noir soup.” The mousse was delectable, with a perfect velvet texture, but it was the combination of this with the “cherry soup” that made this probably the best dessert I have ever had. The soup, or sauce, tasted somewhat like mulled wine with a strong flavor of black cherries, or like a cherry pie filling with a strong flavor of pinot noir. However you describe it, it was an incredible pairing by itself, and in combination with the chocolate... I'm sorry, I lack the appropriate adjectives to describe this. The presentation was also wonderful: the cherry sauce in a shallow plate with several cherries still soaking in it, and the mousse in the center, in the shape of a disc, on top of a thin circle of dark chocolate cake that soaked up the surrounding cherry sauce.
Of course, all of this wonderful food was not cheap, but the bill was really quite reasonable, especially for such a special dining experience. We did conserve money by not ordering wine, opting instead for a good quality beer. After dinner and dessert, and conversations ranging from family to politics to southern California real estate, we decided to wander around the hotel a bit. It's a very elegant and historic hotel, and from what I understand, it's not exactly cheap. We also explored the grounds a little outside, and discovered a whole line of cottages tucked away behind the hotel. Michele and I agreed that if we were to stay here (that is, if we ever won the lottery) we would definitely opt for one of the cottages. They seemed so remote and private, and appeared to be quite comfortable, and yet were only a stone's throw from the main hotel building. After completing our tour, we returned to Camp 4 and our humble tent, and went to bed almost immediately.
The next day, we slept in a little, and after a little consideration and planning, we decided to hike up to Glacier Point. The trail was a bit strenuous, but not too long, and we could take a tour bus down for fifteen dollars. The views along the trail were excellent, and were surpassed only by the views of Half Dome when we arrived at Glacier Point. Once there, we rested and ate, and then took the bus back. The bus ride also gave Michele a chance to finally appreciate the view from the Wawona tunnel, which I had seen as I entered the park on the first day of my trip. Of course, by this time, we'd already seen many views of most of the same cliffs, and this was just one more, so I think much of its drama was lost.
Later that evening, Michele's friend Johanna was due to arrive, and Michele and I decided to make a nice elaborate meal of our own to share with her. We stopped at the Valley Store and bought a sizable hunk of beef, some vegetables, and ingredients for my mom's Lebanese rice. Back at camp, Michele took care of the rice while I prepared kabobs with the meat and vegetables. Fortunately for me, someone in camp had already built a fire to grill some steaks, so when I was ready, all I had to do was throw my skewers on the grill. Johanna had arrived by this point, so the three of us all enjoyed the meal together, and we shared a few skewers with some of our fellow campers. This, of course, is always a good way to make friends, especially with climbers.
The next day, the three of us got up and decided to do some more hiking. Now that Johanna was with us, we had a vehicle, so transportation was no longer a problem. We first drove toward Bridalveil Falls, stopping on the way at El Cap Meadow to check out the big stone. I again checked out the status of the parties on The Nose, and it looked crowded. There were at least six people on or making their way up to Dolt Tower. After wandering around the meadow for a while, we continued to Bridalveil Falls, and as soon as we arrived, we were spotted by my friends Corinne and Justin! They had just arrived in the valley, and I had planned to meet up with them later that day, but if we hadn't bumped into them there, we probably wouldn't have found them until we got back to camp that night. All five of us explored Bridalveil Falls, which was quite crowded with tourists. Like most of the other falls, Bridalveil was only a trickle, but at least there was some water. Just across the valley, Yosemite Falls, normally the fifth tallest waterfall in the world, was completely dry.
After this, we all headed up the road toward Glacier Point, where Michele and I had been the previous day. There were several short hiking trails in that area that led to spectacular views of the valley. We hiked first to Taft Point, then from there toward Glacier Point, taking a side trip to the top of Sentinel Dome along the way. Of all these, Sentinel Dome was my favorite, for two reasons. For one thing, it was another lovely granite dome, though most of its faces didn't look steep enough to warrant technical climbing. But more impressive than the dome itself was the view from the top. Sentinel Dome is the highest point on the southern rim of the valley, so the view from the top of it is a 360-degree panorama that includes the entire north side of the valley, Half Dome, and much of the surrounding wilderness.
When we reached Glacier Point, it was getting late, and Corinne was getting quite worried about some food that she had left in her truck. She had had no choice, as there were no bear boxes where we parked. We quickly hiked back to the cars, and found that animals had indeed attacked her food supply, though the damage appeared to be mostly from rodents and other small animals. We headed back down to the valley, and stopped by the Valley Store again for more provisions. The next morning, Michele and Johanna were to leave early and Corinne and Justin would have to register for a campsite, so we made a fairly quick dinner, had some cold beers, and went to bed.
I mentioned before that Camp 4 has been the home of many generations of Yosemite climbers. Back in the 50's and 60's, many of the first “climbing bums” began to live there full time, or nearly full time, often with no jobs and very little money. I had never really thought about it before, but I guess this is similar to some other adrenaline-heavy sports, like surfing or skiing. Some surfers in southern California just live to surf, and everything else, including job and home, comes second. And I've heard there are ski bums in Colorado who basically live the same way. With climbing, this trend started in Yosemite, and specifically in Camp 4, back in the 50's. It has now spread to many other areas as well. Aaron had a friend in college who was so addicted to climbing that he once seriously analyzed various brands of dog food and cat food, weighing their nutritional benefits against their cost, so that he could live on as little money as possible and save every extra penny for climbing trips and more gear. Unfortunately, a lot of the climbing bums in Camp 4 started to give climbers a bad reputation, as they were always trying to bend the rules, and often stole food, towels, and other provisions. As a result, the park service has toughened up their rules a bit in the last few years. But Camp 4 still remains a long-term home away from home for hundreds of climbers from all around the world. Many of the world's best climbers get to live there for free for a year or so by serving some time in Yosemite's volunteer search and rescue unit, the world-renowned YOSAR. But most of us mere mortals just come and spend a few days at a time, or a few weeks, or even in some cases a few months. Just think, if you traveled from across the country, or even more, from half way around the world, you'd want to be able to stay for a while too, right?
Practically as soon as I arrived in Camp 4, I remember noticing a number of foreigners. The first time I went to our campsite, there were two girls who were speaking with what sounded like a British accent, and I remember passing a number of other people speaking German or some other European-sounding language. Shortly thereafter, as Aaron and I were trying to find Manure Pile Buttress, we passed a pair of British guys who needed a lift to the base of El Cap. They were getting ready to climb The Nose. It was a little out of our way, and Aaron's truck was awfully full already, but their plight was near to our hearts, so we couldn't refuse. (We're hoping to do The Nose next summer.) When we dropped them off, we talked to them for a little while about their strategy for The Nose. They had plenty of time to tackle it, so their strategy was nice and relaxed: fix lines to Sickle Ledge or higher that day, then go back some time in the next week, whenever they felt ready and the crowds were light and the weather forecast looked good, and blast off. We saw them from El Cap Meadow later that day, and they were just getting to Sickle Ledge. Must've been a slow day. We saw them the next day back in Camp 4, packing their haul bags, and we talked to them more extensively about where they were from, how long they were here, and what they had been climbing. One of the interesting facts I remember from this conversation was that they had spent a lot of time over the last few weeks getting used to crack climbing. Apparently vertical cracks aren't so common in the UK.
Over the next week and a half, I met many more climbers from all over the world. As we got to know the other people in our campsite, I learned that the two girls I had first seen were from New Zealand, not Britain. Their names were Billy and Belinda, and they were a riot. Later in the week, we were also joined by two guys from Sweden. On my last night there, I got to introduce one of them to his first taste of S'mores, apparently a distinctly American tradition. He seemed very appreciative, and promised that he would bring the idea back to Sweden and share it with people there. I also remember one night seeing a large group of Japanese men at a big table at one of the other campsites. They seemed to be toasting something, with one man standing at the head of the table speaking, followed by everyone raising their beer cans with loud shouting. It was like something from a movie.
Perhaps my fondest multicultural memory of Camp 4 was when I returned to my campsite late one night to find the two girls from New Zealand, two guys from Scotland, an Australian guy, and a few Americans sitting around the campfire talking and drinking beer. I opened a bottle of Yosemite Pale Ale and listened for a while, warming my hands by the fire and warming my tummy with the cold beer. And what kind of stories do two Scots, two Kiwis, and an Aussie tell around a campfire? Drinking stories, of course. They were hysterical. At one point, Gina, the girl who had twice loaned me some SuperTopo pages from her well-used guidebook, piped up with a story about her 21st birthday. It was funny, but it was the only contribution by the Americans that night. When it came to drinking stories, we just couldn't keep up with these guys (and girls.) They had me laughing for an hour straight.
The day after Corinne and Justin arrived, Michele and Johanna left, and the three of us were itching to do some trad climbing. We decided to keep it fairly small, as it would be Justin's first time doing trad. We slept in fairly late, and as it turned out, the weather got pretty cold and cloudy anyway, so it was good that we hadn't planned to do a big climb. We eventually decided to climb the first few pitches of Central Pillar of Frenzy, a long beautiful route on Middle Cathedral. After arriving at the base nice and late and waiting for at least an hour behind another party of three, we eventually got to do just the first three pitches, then we rapped off. They were three excellent pitches, though. The first pitch was nice except for a section of 5.9 offwidth. The second pitch was a beautiful 5.9 finger crack, and the third pitch started with a perfect hand crack, followed by the most fun 5.8 roof I've ever pulled, followed by a slightly wide but quite easy crack up to the anchors. On the rappel, I followed the advice of the guy in the party before us and bypassed the first anchor, where he had stopped, only to find that he was completely wrong about there being a second anchor below it. As a result, I had to inch my way back up the rope for about twenty feet to the first anchor. Thank God I had my prussiks with me. That's the second time they've saved my life. This anchor in the middle of our rappel made a truly miserable hanging belay for three people, so we tried to get off it as quickly as possible. Our pairing of my 60-meter rope with Corinne's 50 just barely made it to the ground from there. So other than the unpleasant rappelling experience, the climb was fun.
The following day, we were considering doing Royal Arches, but I was really afraid that we wouldn't move fast enough. For one thing, we had three people again, and furthermore, these three people moved slowly, even for a group of three. And Royal Arches was a damn long route. So we decided we should try something shorter, and after considering a few options, we decided on Braille Book, a five-pitch 5.8 on Higher Cathedral. I originally hadn't wanted to do this because the approach and descent sounded long and painful, but now it sounded like the best option if we wanted something moderately long, on a big formation, and a fairly classic climb.
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.
When we returned to camp after our epic on Higher Cathedral, we bumped into Roger and Tony, two more friends from UCLA. We were expecting them the previous day, but they apparently had decided to stay in LA and surf for an extra day. The next morning, I met the rest of the gang, Alex and Ash, also from UCLA, and another friend of theirs named Adam. Adam had brought Jersey, a really cool dog that seemed pretty well-trained and rarely left his side. We were quite a large crew now. That day Adam and Jersey remained in camp drinking and chasing squirrels, while the other seven of us went to Pat and Jack Pinnacle to do some trad cragging. Roger and Tony went ahead, and it took the rest of us a little while to find the place. When we got there, Roger and Tony were climbing a nice looking two-pitch route. Alex and Ash started climbing a route next to it, and Corinne and Justin and I started to sort our gear, still disorganized from the previous day's adventure. Though it had been sunny and beautiful all morning, the skies had suddenly turned cloudy and gray almost as soon as we arrived at the crag. Corinne decided to lead the first pitch of the climb that Roger and Tony had done, but literally the moment she strapped on the rack, it started raining. After this, we kept joking that she was the bringer of bad weather. After all, it had been sunny and beautiful for a whole week, right up until the day that she and Justin arrived.
It seemed like a pretty good storm was rolling in. We even heard what sounded like twisters touching down across the valley, or at least really loud winds. Several of these sounds were followed immediately by the sound of a tree or large branch cracking. So we quickly abandoned Pat and Jack Pinnacle, and returned to Camp 4. By the time we got there, the rain had stopped completely, and the skies were mostly blue again. We decided to head over to “Jamcrack”, not far away. We walked there, and over the next few hours, we all got a chance to climb it. It was a really nice, albeit short, crack climb. The first pitch was an easy 5.7 hand crack, and the second was a 5.9 finger crack, which seemed a bit soft to me for 5.9. I led Corinne and Justin up both pitches, and left a toprope in place at the first anchor so that people could work on the two thinner cracks next to it. One was a 5.10c called “Bummer”, and the other was a 5.10d called “Lazy Bum”. I got to climb the 10c, and it didn't feel too hard, but we ran out of daylight before I had a chance to do the harder one.
That evening, since we knew it would be our last night there, we went to the grocery store one last time, and bought fixins for another round of kabobs. Justin and I prepared them, and this time, we had a ton of stuff, so we shared with everyone. The next day, we did a little more cragging at Jamcrack. We had to wait on several other groups, but Corinne really wanted to lead the first pitch. She did so successfully, although she had to rest once at the beginning. I ended up staying on the ground the whole day, as I had no strong desire to reclimb the route, nor to do any others nearby. For me, all the real climbing of the trip had already happened, and I was quite satisfied. At this point, I had drunk my fill, and I was finally ready to go home.