Ahwahnee Ledges
Cathedral Spires

Fri, Mar 7, 2003
Etymology
Ahwahnee Ledges
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

I was heading to Yosemite Valley during an unusually mild break in winter to climb Half Dome with John from SummitPost. Our climb was scheduled for Saturday, but I had Friday off as well and spent it scrambling about the Valley. A month earlier I had found a partial route up the north side of the Valley between Indian Canyon and Royal Arches, starting from the vicinity of the Ahwahnee Hotel. I had run out of time to complete the route at the time and retreated after scrambling about half way up over the course of three hours or so. I dubbed the route the Ahwahnee Ledges since I had no beta on it, but will be happy to conform to an existing name should someone point it out to me.

Driving from San Jose around 3a, I arrived uneventfully in the fine morning hour of 7a at Yosemite Village. My first order of business was to look for water to fill my water bottles as I was afraid there was very little to be had on the cliffs above. This turned out to be more difficult than I thought. The Village itself was closed up tight, and I could find no drinking fountains or open restrooms with a cursory drive around the village. I ended driving back to the Merced River a short ways away and filling up directly from there, giardia be damned. I then drove to the parking lot north of Ahwahnee Meadow and headed east on the trail. There was no one stirring about on a chilly March morning, except for myself and a few deer grazing alongside the road.

Following my previous route, I hiked a short distance on the trail before leaving it to climb a high boulder pile that leads to the vicinity of Church Bowl, I think (I'm a little fuzzy on this climbing area). Before reaching the high point of the boulder field, I exited to the left where a very large and obvious ramp heads off diagonally up and further to the left. Climbing the first couple hundred feet of class 3 slabs is one of the more challenging parts of the route, but having been up it before I repeated the climb with little hesitation. The sun had risen from behind Half Dome and was warming the Valley as though it were spring. One could hardly tell that it was still winter, though being March I guess that's a pretty close introduction to spring anyway. There was no snow on the route, and I didn't find any the whole morning I was on this side of the Valley. It had simply been too warm and too long since the last snow, and it had completely melted off. The same was not true for the south side of the Valley, as I had a fine view of Glacier Point and the Ledge Trail that I had descended a month earlier. It still had snow in the upper half of the gully, though almost no snow had fallen in the last month. There's just too little sun in that gully to effectively melt the snow in winter.

After reaching the top of the ramp, I contoured around to the left for about 50 yards before resuming the climb up, this time through the understory of the oak forest that grows along the cliffs here. A 30-foot band of cliffs blocks the right side, and lower cliffs on the downhill left side kept me confined to a narrow ledge running up under the trees. Manzanita generously sprinkled in the understory kept this from being an easy walk, and just enough bushwhacking to keep me interested without retreating. I found an interesting class 3-4 route up through the cliff band on my right, and after crawling under a few large branches found my way to the boulder field midway up the route. It occurred to me that in spring this route could be terrible with mosquitoes, and similarly annoying with flies and heat in the summer. But right now it was near-perfect.

I climbed up the boulder field a few hundred feet before heading right (east) and down to a junction between two ledge systems. The temporary streams that coursed down this junction were now dry, so it was easy to cross over the steep section and up to the east side where I'd seen the more viable route from below. The lower part of this second ledge system had fine, grassy benches that reminded me of the higher alpine valleys found in the High Country. The grassy benches ended at a Y junction where I found a 1-foot cairn left by a previous party. The left branch headed up through wooded territory which would eventually connect to the North Dome Trail. That looked the easier route from below. The more interesting route went up to the right over more steep benches towards the top of Royal Arches, and it was this way that I chose to go. I was not in the least disappointed, as I found it another 500ft of challenging class 3 climbing mixed with easier sections. In a few places I wandered back and forth along a particular bench looking for the easy way up. I sort of assumed there ought to always be the easy way, but that wasn't always the case as mountains and cliffs in particular aren't formed with the allowance for human travel in mind. But I did find a way in each case, even if it was in the slightly class 4 range.

It was 9:30a when I topped out on the rim, a short distance above the end of the Royal Arches route, and maybe half a mile west of Washington Column. There was a fine first view of North Dome itself. I wandered over some sandy benches looking for a use trail heading up to the North Dome Trail. Later I found that most of the climbers on Royal Arches take a use trail that heads to Washington Column near the cliff edge. Had I known that, I would have headed down to the cliff edge. Instead, I tried a more direct line to Washington Column that had first to traverse a forested creek basin. This turned out to be one tough bushwhack as I plied my way down to the creekbed over and through all kinds of trees and shrubs, some dead and decaying, others vigorous and resistant to my attempts to navigate. Finally crossing the stream, now but a trickle, I continued up the other side until I came to an expansive granite skirt, low on the southwest side of North Dome. Though angled and mostly smooth, it was easier to travel along the edge of it rather than under the stubby oaks growing nearby. I found my way eventually to the top of Washington Column, or rather the thin connecting ridge between it and North Dome, looming high above to the north. Having been out to the tip of Washington Column before, I didn't make the short detour to visit it this time (highly recommended viewspot though). Still, I had pretty good views of both Half Dome and Clouds Rest, though better ones were to be had atop the column.

I planned to descend North Dome Gully, figuring I'd have an easier time of it since I'd already climbed it once. That was not to be the case. There are a number of thin use trails that head down (traversing, actually), and the ones I followed looked wholely unfamiliar or petered out after a short distance. I found myself on some low class 5 slabs in tennis shoes wishing I wasn't being so foolish. After a few tense moments during which I had the time to contemplate the utter lack of enjoyment I would have if I slipped and tumbled a hundred feet down the cliffs here, I carefully retraced my steps and found a far better route a bit higher up. Still, I didn't recognize any of the traversing part that I'd taken before. I was beginning to understand how parties get into trouble on this descent route, particularly at night after a hard big wall climb. Eventually I found my way to the top of the North Dome Gully proper. A short rope had been left to aid in the descent of the initial steep, loose section that appeared to be under the influence of heavy erosion, not just from climbers but from the stream that comes down in wetter times. Thankfully it was dry today.

After this it was a straightforward descent, no more route-finding troubles. There are several possible trails one could follow, but they all go in the generally correct direction, heading downward with a diagonal slant to the southwest. near the bottom of the class 3 slabs, I found a bolt that had been placed in the rock not four feet above the bench below it, on standard class 3 terrain. The hanger was bent to one side, evidently bashed into its new position by someone trying to hammer it out. I picked up a rock to do likewise, but after a minute of futile, but stress-reducing assault on the steel object, I too gave up. What a silly place for a bolt. It looked almost like it had been placed in practice rather than to aid a difficulty. I heard voices and looked up to see climbers on the lower pitches of Astroman. I watched them for a short while, but since they didn't move after a few minutes I gave up and decided climbing as a spectator sport leaves something to be desired.

I continued down and shortly met the Valley Loop Trail around 11:15a. I took this west past the base of Washington Column around the Ahwahnee Hotel, and back to my car. It had taken less than half a day and I still had plenty of time for an afternoon adventure. So I had some drinks and snacks that were in my car and drove west, heading for Cathedral Spires.

This isn't a climb of Higher Cathedral Spires, so stop here if you're hoping to get beta on the route. I was out for a ropeless scramble to check out the base of the route and managed to scramble the first pitch before retreating. Still, it was a fine way to spend a winter afternoon in Yosemite Valley.

Following my climb of the Ahwahnee Ledges, I parked along the junction of Southside Drive with the connecter to El Cap Meadow that goes over El Cap bridge. It was 12:30p, and I had about 5 1/2hrs of daylight left. I carried no rope or climbing gear, but I did take along an axe and crampons since there was snow on the south side of the Valley, particularly in the upper reaches where I hoped to be able to descend. I found the climbers' trail easily enough (having descended it from Spires Gully six months earlier made it trivial), and followed this up towards Cathedral Spires. Where the trail forks I took the right fork (the left trail presumeably goes around the east side of Lower Cathedral Spire), and climbed the lower reaches of Spire Gully. Higher Cathedral Spire (HCS) rose high above me on the left side, now and then visible through the forest canopy. I left Spire Gully and began the steep climb up and around to the southwest side of HCS. I found much loose dirt and debris which made climbing a bit of a pain, but not technically difficult. There was little snow to be found in the lower reaches, all easily avoided.

I climbed up to the narrow saddle connecting the backside of HCS to the still higher ridge behind it, looking for the start of the original 1934 ascent called the Regular Route. The guidebook had said that the start was marked by a cross etched in the rock, but this I could not readily find. The rock further east looked very difficult, more than the 5.easy rating of the first pitch, so I surmised I had overshot the start of the route. Climbing back down a short ways, I did indeed find a white cross etched in the rock at the start of the first pitch, as advertised. The first pitch is rated 5.5, followed by three 5.9 pitches. Without gear I had no chance of summiting, but I thought I might be able to free-solo the first pitch to at least get my hands wet (with sweat?) on the route. I eyeballed the route and tried climbing it directly, but backed off after climbing about 15 feet or so. Hmmm. That didn't seem easy class 5. Then I tried a different tack to the left, following some cracks that allowed some decent hand and foot jams to make progress. This I followed until just below the tree that marks First Base, so dubbed by the first ascent party as the first belay spot. I didn't like the look of the exposed bulge that I needed to traverse past to the right for the final problem of the first pitch. Backing off, I looked around and found an exposed but easy traverse around the left side of the tree. The exposure was several hundred feet nearly straight down the west side of the spire, and the lack of protection and being out there all alone made me extremely cautious in crossing the exposed section that was no more than 10 feet long. I tested every hold multiple times, wary of loose rock the spires are known for, and slowly made my way across. Pulling up into the trees I took a deep breath and dropped my pack.

Whew. That was a bit spicy. I had a snack and looked around, fairly proud of my modest accomplishment. I scouted the route ahead further, finding several fixed pieces of gear with slings hanging down from the vertical cracks above. It looked like there were two routes used here, the regular route on the left side, and a more aesthetic, but technically challenging finger crack on the right (turns out I had it backwards, as the original route took the more challenging 5.9 finger cracks on the right). I wouldn't have been able to lead either variation with a rope, and I certainly wasn't going any higher solo. That was fine with me, as I'd already reached as high as I'd hoped to get. I would have to come back with more talented rock climbers than myself to reach the summit some time in the future.

After my short break I reversed my route for descent, having a bit of trouble about halfway down where I forgot one of the moves. Seems my legs were about a foot short of what I'd used on the way up, and I couldn't figure out how to lower myself. I felt my arms getting pumped a bit too much so I had to climb back up briefly before trying again. After failing a second time and stepping back up to rest again, I wondered if I might have bitten off a wee bit much on this. Hmmm. I'd been priding myself on downclimbing better than my upclimbing, but this one was giving me fits. Fortunately on the third try I was able to get down, and my heart rate and adrenalin levels returned to normal.

Back at the saddle, I turned my attention to the higher cliffs to the south, looking for an interesting route to the valley rim. There was a good deal more snow there, and the cliffs didn't look to make for an easy scramble. The first couple hundred yards are so were easy, then things got tough. There was some fairly steep snowfields, some bushwhacking, and some ugly rock climbing over boulders littered with pine needles and grunge-filled cracks. What I'd hoped would be fun class 3 was more like shakey class 4. In several places I backed off after getting a little too frightened (I think of this as a self-preservation emotion during climbing), and in at least one place I made a messy transition that I hoped dearly that I wouldn't have to reverse. I found there were several interesting spires along the buttress to the east, both looking more impregnable than HCS, though only 40-50ft high. No evidence of pitons or slings could be seen to indicate anyone had bothered up them. I soon found that I was not far below the top of Higher Cathedral Rock, and at or just above the top of HCS behind me, and it made for a great photo of the top perch on that formation. And it made me want to climb it even more. I eventually gained easier ground above, and followed the arete to the summit area, a point some distance above the top of Higher Cathedral Rock. Not really any named summit, just a point along the rim with some flat spots (great bivies) and some swell views of El Cap, Three Brothers, and the Valley. I found much evidence of previous camps here, and made a small pile of the rusted tins and plastic spoons I found, though too much to carry back in my small day pack.

After about 20 minutes of checking the site out, I continued south along the ridge which eventually connects with the rim proper. At a saddle I looked for a descent route that I had espied from the valley below. As I'd hoped, the east slope was filled with a continuous run of snow for at least 300ft to help me down the steepest section. Even better, the snow was a great consolidation that took plunge steps that sunk about 6 inches. To be safe I strapped on the crampons though it was probably unnecessary, and axe in hand I made my way down the slope. So much easier going than the way up, even if it wasn't nearly as exciting. I was able to drop more than half the vertical distance to the valley floor before running out of snow to travel on. After this there was some minor bushwhacking to contend with as I made my way down to the east side of Lower Cathedral Rock. Eventually I managed to find the use trail I had taken on the way in, and by 5p I was back at the road and my car.

I hadn't actually climbed any named peaks all day, but it still felt highly gratifying, having scrambled first one side of the valley, then the other, both in the same day. I could recall some years ago when I was pretty proud to have done this using the trails (Ledge Trail and Yosemite Falls Trail). Doing so without benefit of a maintained trail felt even better. That was enough acclimatization for one day. I would sleep well in preparation for our climb of Half Dome the following day.

Continued...


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