Arrowhead Spire 2x YVF

Wed, Oct 28, 2020

With: Robert Wu

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX
previously attempted Tue, Oct 27, 2020


We had failed to climb Yosemite Valley's Arrowhead Spire on our first attempt the previous day, launching ourselves up the adjacent Arrowhead Arete for three pitches before recognizing our gross error. We were ill-equipped with sufficient gear to finish climbing the beefier Arete and frankly I had no business being on a 5.8-5.9 climb of this magnitude. By the time we had rappeled back down to the start of the two routes it was far too late to consider climbing the Spire route, so we headed back down to the Valley floor to recoup and try again the following day.

Our big advantage on this second try was that we had the long, devious approach route down pretty good. We spent 45min plying the trails to the start of the class 4 ledges, another 20min to climb the ledges and make the traverse around to the start of West Arrowhead Chimney, and a last 35min scrambling up the gully to the start of the route. After changing into our climbing shoes, we left our boots and some extra gear at the base and scrambled through the oaks to the start of the Spire route. We climbed the initial 5.4 step without using the rope, then explored the long ledge system wrapping around the base of the Spire. The ledge goes around to the southeast side of Arrowhead Spire, but there didn't look to be any 5.6 climbing on that side, so we returned to the west side where the route described in the SuperTopo guidebook starts. The guidebook lists it as a two-pitch climb, but we thought it better to break up the first pitch into two shorter ones for less rope drag and easier communication. Our first pitch goes up about 90ft, following a broken chimney/trough, with the easy sort of climbing I enjoy most. The only difficulty was the final reachy step around a bulge that had me glad for a top rope. A rusty piton with an attached ring halfway up the pitch is the first reminder that this route dates back to the 1930's. It took about 30min to get both of us up to a large oak wrapped with rappel slings at the base of a wide chimney. So far, so good.

Our second pitch (and the upper part of the guidebook's 1st pitch) goes about 40ft up a wide chimney with some stiffer, but still manageable difficulties. Robert again led this one cleanly while I flailed a bit, but not desperately so. The really remarkable thing is how vertical the entire route feels, yet the climbing never exceeds 5.6. It really helps make a hack like me feel like a climber, if only for the moment. We took about 45min on this pitch, finishing at a roomy belay ledge, nicely shaded and the best such spot in two days. With my back against a cool, granite wall and resting quite comfortably, I belayed Robert from below as he made his way up the full 130ft to the summit on our 3rd pitch. The climbing goes up some large flakes to start, then transistions to more face climbing on knobby holds, an easier pitch than the previous two. Robert was up in less than 20min, but then began a long pause while he worked out an anchor strategy. I waited silently from below, watching the rope slip down some, then taken up, then slip down again, repeatedly. I couldn't figure out what he was doing up there because I knew from the previous day that there was a large pine at the summit with rap slings, and I figured it was the obvious belay point. How hard could it be to throw a sling around the trunk and bring me up? More than 30min went by and still no call down saying, "Off belay!" I pulled out my phone and went through the day's news items and stock prices, checked email, replied to one, then put it away. Still nothing. The rope periodically moving (so I knew at least that he hadn't plunged over the side to his demise) but not really going anywhere. Eventually I did what I dreaded to do, call up - "Hey Robert, everything OK?" He was far enough away that I really couldn't understand his reply, but at least he knew that he was taking a while. Eventually he got things sorted out, pulled up the remaining rope and belayed me up.

When I reached him, it was clear what had taken so long - he hadn't used the tree for his anchor, but rather created a far more elaborate hanging belay on the summit block above and right of the tree. He apologized of course, but I could now see what had taken so long. He'd decided not to use the tree because it would be difficult to protect me climbing to the top of the summit block, at least by the route he'd taken. I surveyed the summit block, Robert and the tree before asking, "Couldn't I just climb the tree to get up the summit block?" Robert looked at me a little blankly. He didn't consider using the tree because that has always been unfair means by the more ethical code he'd been taught by his mentor. One of my mentors once said, "If you can hit it on the way down, you can use it on the way up," which clearly puts trees and bushes in play. So Robert watched me Tarzan my way up about 10ft, climbing the tree branches like a ladder to land atop a large, roomy block. The belay was ineffective during this, but it was no harder than a class 3 scramble. I moved across the block until I was just above Robert, at a set of rap slings that he was using as part of his anchor. I clipped into these with a sling and had Robert take me off belay. It was easy enough then to boost myself atop the small, higher perch that serves as the highpoint.

It was a very impressive summit perch, with a spectacular view of the Valley floor, Yosemite Point, Indian Canyon, Half Dome and a more than a dozen other familiar Yosemite features. Directly behind the Spire rises the far more impressive Arrowhead Arete we had mistakenly played around on the previous day. And directly below, looking straight down the north side was the 100-foot drop to the notch with the Arete. I climbed off the block while Robert dismantled his anchor and joined me on the summit blocks for his own summit pose. We spent another 10min or so atop the summit, among other things, hiding a register that might take a little hunting to find. The rappel down to the notch with the Arete was an exciting one, free-hanging for most of the distance. It took almost the full length of our doubled 60m rope. Once at the notch, we were back on familiar territory since we had done the last two raps from this point the previous day. These we executed in turn, getting us back down to our boots and other gear about 40min from the Spire's summit. After packing up, we headed back down the gully, rapping the two dirty pitches (one at the bottom of the gully, the other at the class 4 ledges) as we'd done the previous day and returning to the parking lot in just over an hour. Finally, Arrowhead Spire done right...

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