Arrowhead Spire YVF

Tue, Oct 27, 2020

With: Robert Wu

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX
later climbed Wed, Oct 28, 2020

Arrowhead Spire, not be confused with the more famous Lost Arrow adjacent to Yosemite Falls, is found to the east of Yosemite Point in the Castle Cliffs area, a somewhat obscure feature that was first climbed in 1937 by David Brower and Richard Leonard. It is rated as 5.5 in Roper's 1971 YV guidebook, and 5.6 in the more recent SuperTopo YV Free Climbs guide. Immediately adjacent to the north is the much higher, and more difficult Arrowhead Arete, 5.8-5.9, depending on which guidebook you're referencing. Both are obscure classics and infrequently climbed, only getting new life from the inclusion in the SuperTopo book. The approach for both is long, described as heinous and strenuous in the guidebook which accounts for it relegation to the obscure. Arrowhead Spire is named on the USGS topo maps and is part of the Yosemite Valley Features list I've been working on over the years. It was one of two objectives that brought Robert and I to Yosemite Valley for a few days in late October. We would fail spectacularly today, coming back the following day to do things right. We would have to leave our other objective, K P Pinnacle, for a future visit.

Visiting Yosemite Valley has been a pain all summer due to covid and entry restrictions that require special permits just to enter the park. Having done the dance a few times already, I had gotten the procedure down, getting a $2 reservation from the government website, and entering after hours to make things easier with a self-issue check-in slip. I met Robert at the Church Bowl parking area (aka, Ahwahnee Meadow Picnic Area), for a 7a start. The weather today would be near ideal, perhaps on the warm side, but luckily most of the day was spent in the shade. The long approach takes several hours and we could use as much daylight as possible in late October. Having climbed a number of times together this summer already, we had gotten our respective roles down to where we hardly needed to discuss it ahead of time - Robert would carry all the protection and do all the leading, because he was the only one between us that could lead above 5.7. I would carry the rope and provide webbing and rings for the rappels. I also saved the GPS coordinates for the approach provided by Supertopo and studied the approach route as best I could. Online comments suggest getting lost enroute is fairly common and I wanted to be sure we got the approach part down.

We set off from the parking lot on the Valley Loop Trail, heading west. The trail climbs above the government buildings in Yosemite Village as it heads towards Yosemite Falls. We reached a boulder field just above the village before realizing we'd gone a few hundred feet too far. We backtracked to the SuperTopo GPS coordinate that proved spot-on to find the unmarked junction. The unmaintained use trail soon becomes well-defined, described as the old Indian Trail that used to ascend Indian Canyon. The trail makes numerous switchbacks as it climbs through the forest, some downfall encountered to scramble around or through. The trail then angles left and becomes steeper and less well-defined, eventually running out at the base of 100ft of dirty class 4 ledges. We scrambled this past a tree with a rappel sling and then higher until we reached the base of a vertical wall. This marks the beginning of a long traverse around the south end of a buttress forming the southern extension of Arrowhead Spire. The traverse climbs up a short distance heading south, then down about 100ft to begin a more level traverse through oaks and manzanita heading west to reach the bottom of West Arrowhead Chimney, a wide gully with a bottom that drops away spectacularly to the village below. The gully (or gullies, actually) lead up to the start of the climb. The right side is immediately blocked by chockstones, so one has to scramble up the left side, the crux of the approach, a messy bit of loose rock and dirt that has seen some washouts and changes over the years. Robert went up a sketchy boulder move to the left of the dirtiest section while I avoided this gully altogether by traversing further left onto more crappy loose slopes where I could scramble 150ft higher before moving back to join Robert in the main gully. Choose your preferred poison on this one. Above the difficulty, the scrambling becomes easier class 3 on fairly solid terrain in the gully until the start of the climbing is reached. It is pretty obvious, because the gully becomes a steep chimney with huge chockstones, the preferred descent route for Arrowhead Arete.

When we were at the base of the gully we had our first view of what we thought was Arrowhead Spire. It is a very high, impressive looking pinnacle of rock sticking off from the main wall to the left. It seemed obvious to us that it was our objective. It turns out we were looking at Arrowhead Arete which only appears to be a spire - it is actually connected to the main wall behind it to the north, out of view from our southern perspective. This confusion was the cause of our spectacular failure. Arrowhead Spire looks like a puny runt next to it, and we took that to be some unnamed minor pinnacle, and set about climbing the wrong objective. It was only later that we recognized that it should have been obvious that what we were looking at was far more than the advertised two pitches of roped climbing. It is truly astounding, the number of facts one's brain will dismiss when they contradict preconceived notions.

Right from the start, the climbing didn't match the topos or descriptions we had from multiple sources, but we were able to dismiss this as something to be expected from Valley obscurities. After leaving our boots and excess inventory at the head of the gully, we scrambled right to the start of the climb leading to the notch between the two features, and belayed from here. Robert went up a difficult first section that immediately seemed harder than 5.6 (in fact, it was the 5.8 start to the 1st pitch of Arrowhead Arete). He spent about 30min making his way to a scraggly tree with a rap cord from where he belayed me. I found the climbing impossibly hard and had to have Robert hold me tightly on rope through the 5.8 section. Pitch 2 became a three-hour marathon of continuing to ignore the obvious. Robert started up with two options - go left up a near-vertical dihedral that he felt he could climb, or traverse right to aim for the notch between the two spires. I voted for the notch because I believed we wanted to be on the south side where the route was described to be. Robert did this after many hesitations, highlighed by a fall when a hold broke while tryng to make the transistion to the right. I quickly caught him and he received only minor scrapes to his elbow, and eventually he made it up to the notch. Once there, he reported there was no obvious way up from there and all options were far more scary than the left side dihedral. After some discussion on how to retreat from the notch, we settled on using a rap station installed there to lower Robert back down, retrieving his placed gear on the way. Once he was back down in the little gully below the belay tree, he climbed back up over me and went about working his way up the dihedral. This was the first 5.9 pitch on Arrowhead Arete and naturally took him some time to work through. Eventually he reached a couple of pitons 110ft up where he made an anchor and belayed me up. If I flailed on the 1st pitch, I utterly cratered on the second. I pulled on cams, pitons, rope, anything and everything to get through it. If this was 5.6 climbing, I had digressed embarassingly so.

The third pitch did not go any easier, and even as we started it, we still clung to the illusion that we were climbing Arrowhead Spire. Robert made another inspiring lead, cool and methodical, plenty of cursing and a few loud screams as he powered through a 5.9 bulge/corner near the top of the pitch (this is the crux of Arrowhead Arete according to SuperTopo). Out of view some 90ft above me, I heard Robert call down, "I think we climbed the wrong route." I wanted to dismiss this immediately, but it was finally dawning on me that we were most certainly climbing stuff harder than advertised. I flailed badly again on the third pitch. I would make wildly dangerous and desperate moves only possible with a toprope. At the bulge crux I warned Robert I was about to make another such move so that he would hold me tight. I reached, shifted my weight and watched my hand slip slowly off the rock and my body move backwards. It was alarming for only the first fraction of a second as the rope held me nicely only inches off the rock. I recovered, made the move on a second effort and joined Robert at the 3rd belay. Immediately behind us, we were looking down on the top of a most impressive spire and I then recognized what Robert had alreadly concluded - we were on Arrowhead Arete. We could clearly see two rap stations on the summit of Arrowhead Spire, and all the confusing pieces of the day's puzzle were starting to make sense.

What to do now? Robert was quick to suggest we should rap off without finishing the Arete. It was almost 3p and it didn't take much to conclude we would be finishing the route in the dark, the rappels and return by moonlight, at best. Robert wondered if we couldn't descend and then climb Arrowhead Spire, but I concluded that would have us finishing into the night as well. Better to descend, lick our wounds and climb it another day. With the help of fresh webbing I'd brought for the job, we made two rappels to the notch with Arrowhead Spire, then two more rappels to return to West Arrowhead Chimney where we'd left our boots and gear. There was some comical rope messes in the process, but we got it sorted out and safely made our way down without any real incident. It was after 4p by the time we got down and it was clearly too late to start on Arrowhead Spire. After identifying the true start of the route, we made our way back down the gully, debating whether to retry the route the next day or make a second attempt on K P Pinnacle. We would settle on trying the route again the next day. For safety concerns, we rappeled the crux section at the bottom of the gully, traversed back around to the southeast side of the Spire and rappeled the class 4 ledges, finishing with the rope work after 5:30p. We watched the sun make its last play on Sentinel Rock and the south rim of the Valley as we descended the use trail and Loop Trail back to the parking lot over the last half hour, finishing the day at 6p.

There would be little time for cleaning up before darkness overtook the Valley, but I managed to enjoy a refreshing shower in the bathroom at the picnic area from a still-warm jug I had left on my dash. The drain on the cement floor of the bathroom made this an easy matter with little mess. Afterwards, we drove to Yosemite and Curry Villages in search of food options, finding nothing. Curry Village was eerily quiet with everything dark and no cars in the large lot. The taco truck we had feasted at only a few weeks earlier was gone and the village appears to be closed up tight. Normally it is open year-round, but it seems that Covid and fewer visitors have led to the decision to close it for the winter season. We ended up eating from the random food items we'd brought with us and headed off to sleep in our vehicles by 8p. Take Two would begin at 7a the next morning...

Continued...


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