Upper Pinnacle

Mon, Apr 18, 2005

With: Matthew Holliman

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

Continued...

This isn't really KP Pinnacle we found later. There are something like half a dozen pinnacles found on the ridge beteen El Cap Gully and El Cap's West Face. This is the highest pinnacle in the series and the most northerly. I don't know if it has any unofficial name.

Day 4 needed to be the easiest since we were driving back to the Bay Area afterwards, so we chose a short excursion to K P Pinnacle. This feature is located on the far west side of El Capitan, the highest of a series of pinnacles that divides El Cap Gully from West Chimney. It doesn't stand out in any particular fashion, its summit well below the rim of El Cap, and only about 100 feet above the notch separating it from El Cap. It was only in climbing El Cap Gully a few years earlier that I had noticed this well-formed pinnacle tucked away in the folds of the Valley's recesses. It had looked to be class 4 from the cursory inspection I made at the time, and it has been on my list of Yosemite features to visit ever since.

Around 6a we parked alongside Northside Drive just past El Cap Meadow, where Ribbon Creek crosses under the road. The approach we planned was far easier than that described by Roper in his guidebook. Roper describes an approach from the south via West Chimney, a class 5 route in and of itself - we planned to hike up the class 2-3 El Cap Gully and approach from the north. In the early morning light we scrambled along the boulders lining the creek. While there was a good deal of water in the creek, there wasn't as much as I might have expected in spring, and we had no high water trouble as we followed it upstream. Where it forks we turned right (the left fork comes from Ribbon Fall, the right fork from El Cap Gully) and continued following upwards.

The sun was behind El Cap and our path would keep us in the shade for most of the morning - this would make a nice shady route for those hot days of summer, but now we were wishing the sun would give us a bit of helpful warmth. From my previous visit I knew to stay on the south side of the creek as we headed up El Cap Gully, and this we did, avoiding much of the steep brush I'd wallowed in before. The easiest route is to just stay on the south side of the creek, bypassing some impasses in the creek by sidehilling no more than 100 feet from the streambed where necessary. We didn't dial this in until the way down however, and I led us astray for a short while as I climbed much higher on the south side of the gully than needed at one point. We struggled a bit with deep, loamy earth on steep slopes with some class 3-4 rock climbing as well (the ugly variety, not the type we would otherwise heartily recommend). Back down near the stream after this distraction, we did a much better job of just heading up the canyon. There are a number of pinnacles that line the gully on the right side, K P being the highest and furthest up the canyon. The north facing walls of these pinnacles are imposing and almost sinister looking. They see very little sun and have growth sprouting from most crack and covering every usable ledge. Significant gardening would be required for any climbing one might do on these walls.

As we neared K P Pinnacle's North side, we were confronted with hard snow filling the bottom of the gully, extending up and around the corner to the notch between K P and El Cap itself. We weren't prepared for this, expecting only patches of snow, and had not brought either crampons or axe. We tried kicking steps with our soft boots, but could only manage minimal ledges on which to place our feet. We used the bare branches of shrubs on the south side of the gully to pull us up and secure us from slipping down the slopes. Matthew found a twisted stick a few feet long that he fashioned into a makeshift axe. It may have been more of a psychological help than a physical one - it looked like it would easily have snapped in a hard fall. Higher up we used the rocks embedded in the snow (evidence of high rockfall) or whatever indentations we could find to continue up. It wasn't pretty, but it worked, and eventually we managed to work our way up the side gully on K P's northeast side heading towards the notch. The slope steepened appreciably and there were several rock bands that were to prevent us from heading directly to the notch as originally planned. Instead, we had to move onto the marginal rock/earth mixture we found on the north side, off the snow field. Trees and shrubs held the rock/earth mixture together for the most part, which was a good thing as it turned out. Still, it made for dirty climbing as we scrambled up a steep, wet gully filled with ferns and grunge.

About 100 vertical feet below the summit we came up short as our gully ended on a small perch below a 15-foot impasse. In dry conditions it would rate maybe class 3 to climb up and reach a low-angled slope above. But today the low angled slope was covered in snow, and this was slowly melting away, leaving the vertical section wet all over and slippery with lichen in places. I tried climbing this briefly, but the feeling was so insecure - not knowing how my boots would cling to the wet rock - that I quickly backed down. It looked like I could get a piece of pro in about halfway up the thing, so it was decided to give it a try with a belay. Out came the rope, much flaking and reflaking before we were ready, and then I went off to try again. A medium cam went in nicely, the only one I could place, and the only one needed as it turned out. I had expected I might just use the cam to aid this annoying section, but the confidence it gave me in protecting a fall was enough to make easy work of the climb - my boots held on the wet rock and I was able to do an easy mantle to the slope above.

I felt silly dragging a rope behind me on a ten degree, snow-covered slope, but dutifully ran it out to a medium sized tree above where I could belay Matthew up. Once he joined me, I suggested he could set out on the remaining distance to the summit on lead, which he did. But it was much too easy a traverse to be using a rope, and after some 5 minutes of this we just abandoned the rope and continued up without it. There was nothing more than class 3 above the belay (the crux where we needed the rope may have been worthy of the 5.2 rating the route has), but it was interesting still with some stemming across a tree and a blocky summit at the end. It was 9:45a when we landed on the summit, a bit more than three hours from the road. I looked around for a summit register which I imagined might go well back in time and have only a handful of entries - "who climbs this thing nowadays?" I thought. But there was no evidence of previous ascents, no cairn, no register, no rappel slings rotting on a horn. It was a bit disappointing in this regard. The most interesting view was of the next lower pinnacle to the southwest, maybe 100 yards distance. It didn't have the small summit block of K P, but it looked to be a much tougher climb on the three sides that were visible to us - perhaps a nice goal for some future adventure. Beyond this lower pinnacle was the sunny west end of Yosemite Valley, and across from that the Cathedral Rocks, Leaning Tower, and Bridalveil Fall - not a bad backdrop after reaching the top.

After taking our obligatory photos, we scrambled back to our belay tree, collecting our rope back up in the process. We moved the belay to a tree lower on the slope, and then one at a time rappeled back over the crux on the north side. We set up two more rappels to get us back down to the snowfield the easy way - it was much more fun rapping down a grungy crack than trying to climb it (or worse -downclimb it). We even had a short section where the rappel went over an overhang to give us a little extra thrill hanging from the rope. Two of the three rappels we did from around the base of a tree to avoid leaving any unnecessary gear. The second rappel we had to leave a single sling - it was a bit regrettable since we had found the entire route free of gear when we ascended - it would have been nice to leave it the same way when we left.

The snow was softer now in the late morning hour even though we had yet to see any sun, and it was possible to plunge step our way down to the base. We did a better job of descending the gully by sticking to the boulders on the south side as much as possible, with only a few minor detours for the larger obstructions. It was around 12:30p when we got back to the car, about five minutes apart, having gotten separated from each other halfway down the gully.

It had taken about what we expected, half a day, and despite a few surprises it was more or less what we had anticipated overall. Not the best Yosemite has to offer by any stretch, but a fun little adventure before it was time to drive back home.


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