Lost Brother YVF

Fri, Jun 19, 2015

With: Tom Becht

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile
previously attempted Tue, May 21, 2013

Lost Brother is a largely forgotten feature of Yosemite Valley. It lies across the Valley from the more recognizable Three Brothers, the name never making it to an official map. I first found it on a sketch in Hervey Voge's 1st edition of A Climber's Guide to the High Sierra from 1954. It was omitted in subsequent editions but the name survives in various rock climbing guides including Steve Roper's Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valley. It saw a flurry of ascents in the early 1960s only to return to obscurities as the Valley's climbers looked to bigger projects. It was more recently brought into the news as the location near Taft Point where Dean Potter and Graham Hunt both died tragically in a wingsuit accident. In his guide, Roper has Lost Brother listed as class 4 by its easiest route which seemed right up my alley. A first attempt in 2013 got me as far as the notch with Taft Arete, about 40-50ft below the summit. From there it appeared to go class 5 beyond my ability (or perhaps nerve) to solo. I'd gotten Tom interested in the venture to return with rope and gear, and shortly after 6:30a on a Friday morning we were setting off from South Side Rd.

There is no maintained trail up the drainage we followed to the west of Lost Brother, but there appears to be vestiges of informal ones that we periodically made use of until inevitably losing the paths in the thick forest understory. In about 40min we reached the base of Lost Brother, by which time we'd climbed about 1,000ft and were high enough to start getting views across the Valley to El Cap and other features on the sunnier side. It was expected to be 95F+ on the Valley floor today so we were quite happy to remain in the shade. It is unlikely we would have taken on this effort had it been on the north side, exposed to the sun. The climb moved from forest to to avalanche/creek boulder scrambling. The rock in the main chute was well-settled and made for good scrambling. I made a navigation error in not turning up the first gully to the left that forms an amphitheater on Lost Brother's south side. It seemed steeper than I remembered and we continued up towards Taft Point. We turned left several hundred feet higher into the main drainage below Taft Point and Profile Cliff. I recognized my mistake but we decided to head up the higher drainage anyway, hoping we'd find a way back to Lost Brother higher up.

We found class 4 terrain almost immediately in a curved granite bowl, slick from water runoff and seepage. I climbed up on a series of sloping ledges to a safer stance at a tree. Tom preferred a rope belay so I flaked out the one I carried in my pack and tossed it down to him. After joining me at the tree we put the rope away and continued up on easier but still challenging ground. More vegetation meant stuff to grab onto as well as more bushwhacking. Tom's uncovered legs seemed to take the brunt of it. With this combination of scrambling and bushwhacking, we reached the top of the arete we were climbing, finally able to look over to Lost Brother. I was hoping we might find a traverse route over to the notch below the summit but alas, a near-vertical wall of granite would make this impossible. Below us a steep chute lead down to the amphitheater we should have been climbing. Without knowing if we could downclimb this (having a rope made it likely that we could rappel in the event we got stuck), we dropped into the chute and made our way down. At one chockstone we were able to tunnel under it through a small cave, and after about 10min we were able to start back up again.

We soon paused to put on our rock shoes as the bowl's angle increased. In other places this would be considered class 5 terrain but in Old School Yosemite it had been deemed class 4. Difficult stuff, this. It was a fun bit of scrambling that took all of our attention as we followed a series of cracks and ledges higher up the amphitheater. After about an hour of this effort we finally reached easier ground at a height parallel with the notch. To our surprise, a yellow fixed rope was found stretching across the slope. It ended a short distance from the notch, but originated hundreds of feet up Taft Arete. It appears someone had fixed this line to get from the top of Taft Arete and the Valley rim down to the notch on Lost Brother. It seemed a terribly inefficient and difficult way to reach Lost Brother. Later upon reflection, I wondered if it wasn't part of the recovery effort for Potter and Hunt a month earlier.

Another ten minutes had us traversing across to, and then down some slabs to reach the notch. Just above and behind us at the end of Taft Arete was a string of prayer flags that could probably be seen from the Valley floor if someone had binoculars. But what were they doing there? Another part of the Potter/Hunt episode? For a second time we got out the rope. I talked up Tom's abilities and sacrifices in volunteering to take the lead even though he had done no such volunteering. This was my way of getting Tom to do the hard and dirty work of leading while I took the easy job. Tom in turn downplayed his abilities, offered no guarantee he could climb it, but agreed to try, even if reluctantly. It wasn't the first time we'd played out this same scenario and it probably wouldn't be the last (we'd do it again the very next day).

The climb to the summit from the notch was as imposing as I had remembered, perhaps more so. The first part, a 15-foot climb to a large tree on a broad ledge on the south side was fairly easy - I had soloed that far on the first effort. Tom was at the tree in only a few minutes, but then slowed considerably. The rock goes vertical here, an off-width crack with a funny angle immediately opposite the tree, the only reasonable line of attack from first glance. Tom tried various ways to get his body partly in the crack and make upward progress to little avail. Failing this, he turned to a block about five feet high he could climb atop to reach the sloping face of the block above. It seemed almost possible, but the lack of holds and sloping nature were too much. Tom dispaired, "I don't know how to climb this," and "I don't think I can do it," were two of his staples while I encouraged him to try different techniques and keep at, all the while comfortably ensconced in the shade of my belay position. After about 20min's effort I had to agree with Tom that he wasn't going to do it. I suggested we should switch places and at least give me a try.

I didn't really expect to have any better luck and was starting to prepare myself for a second (and last) failure on Lost Brother. Class 4, my ass. After trading places I examined the crack, about 8" wide and curving to vertical at the top. I tried back-first, face-first and quickly gave those up without getting a foot off the ground. I explored the 5-foot block and the sloping face above, concluding the same as Tom - not that way. I went back to the crack and decided to try using the tree to best advantage and herein found the key. With my left foot on the tree trunk and my right foot and leg in the crack, I could slowly stem my way up the crack until I was able to grab a good hold over the top of the large block. It was a good first success, but we weren't out of the woods yet. Above this was another more fearsome vertical off-width that we had observed but disregarded while working the first problem. My hope was that I would find a way around it, which we did. This was accomplished by traversing a short distance on the south side of Lost Brother to easier class 3 scrambling that reached above the second crack. I was now only about 15-20ft from the top. The rope drag was becoming a problem and I was having trouble communicating with Tom who was now out of sight around the corner. A medium-sized tree offered a good belay position so I decide to stop here and bring Tom up. After joining me, he continued up with the second pitch, a short chimney followed by some awkward tunneling which led to the easy, open summit area.

We were elated. An hour and a half was spent getting us from the notch to the summit by noon. The views are quite stunning. Above us to the south, we could see folks periodically peering over the railing at Taft Point. Below could be heard the constant drone of cars and trucks on the roadway. Across the Valley rose El Cap and the Three Brothers. To the west were the impressive Cathedral Rocks, though smoke from a fire was marring the view in that direction. Among a small summit cairn, Tom found an old metal 35mm film canister that held a single folded piece of notebook paper. There were 11 parties that had signed in before our arrival, ours making an even dozen. The oldest entry was from the first ascent party of David Brower and pal in 1941. Two additional ascents were recorded in the late 1950s. Jeff Dozier (has a dome named after him in Tuolumne) made several ascents in the early 1960s as did Roper in separate, seemingly competing parties. In one entry, Dozier and party boast of a first ascent in 2 1/2 days with 150 pitons on the NW Face, declaring it a "damn fine climb". A month later Roper and Sacherer made the second ascent in 7 1/2hrs with the note, "shitty climb." In his guidebook published a year later, Roper was much kinder in giving the first party due credit without adding his personal touch. And then, much was forgotten. There were visits in 1971 and 1976 and lastly in 1988. Ours made the first entry in 27yrs though I know it had been climbed as recently as 2014 from a SuperTopo trip report. Perhaps they didn't notice the small canister? Though not the oldest register I've seen, it's certainly got the oldest average entry date. A priceless little gem we put back for the next lucky party to find.

After taking our various summit photos and letting the elation wear off some, we reversed our route back to the top of the first pitch. Here I was in favor of continuing down the way we'd come, while Tom suggested we rap down the east side to the notch. Whether the rope would reach the bushes below was the only real concern but I was happy to let Tom go first and find out. He was actually able to rap to a ledge only ten feet down to peer over the edge and see the ends of the rope where we'd hoped they'd be. I followed him a few minutes later. From here I recommended we rap down the huge dihedral where Lost Brother's South Wall meets the steep amphitheater. I recall some questionable raps and cool tunneling around chockstones. We spent almost 2hrs in this effort which I enjoyed more than that first time solo. For one, we had a longer rope and secondly, I was carrying more webbing with which to make rappel slings. That first effort I had to be miserly with leaving slings and downclimbed a lot of terrain that wasn't exactly safe. Tom and I made a series of six rappels with some downclimbing in between. The highlight was the tunneling through chockstones that went on for more than 10min. Finding three of the purple slings I had left two years earlier, we used these and other more secure places to rappel from. It was 3p before we were on easier ground and removed the climbing shoes we'd been wearing for many hours now. Another hour would be needed to scramble the remaining distance down the rock gully/dry streambed to our cars. All in all, one of the finest days I've spent in the Valley...


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Carson City comments on 06/22/15:
Hey Bob, wow, that first register entry on Lost Brother is 1941. I think that is the oldest one I've ever seen. What is the oldest entry you have ever seen?
In 2006 I was lucky to see the Black Kaweah register from 1924 before it disappeared a few years later. This one was pretty cool, though - we were only the second party to sign in since 1976.
Anonymous comments on 09/03/15:
So amazing. 1941...five months before Pearl Harbor. How the world would change as we know it, and continue to change at an ever faster pace, over the next seven decades, until today.

And yet not so for a little film canister sitting on a rock in Yosemite, or for those rocks themselves.

That's why I love Yosemite. Our human world may vacillate, but the Sierras will always be rock on rock, ice on ice.
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