Fri, May 17, 2002
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Eagle Peak later climbed Tue, May 14, 2013|
The last few times that I have visited the Valley, I was intrigued by the possibility of climbing a steep canyon on the far west side of El Cap's Southwest Face. From the road below, I could not see the entire route, but it looked steep and scary. And fun too, I suppose, or I wouldn't have given it any further thought. Checking the topo map I found that this canyon had a name, El Capitan Gully, but I could garner very little info about it on the web and in the message boards. One site I found was a trip report from someone who said they'd climbed halfway up before turning around, having encountered class 5 climbing:
Setting off from Camp, we walked west past El Capitan, and up towards El Cap Gully. After some devious route finding and some serious 4th-5th class climbing in my Tevas, we found ourselves about halfway up at about 4pm. We then decided to head back to Camp 4 and decided what to do.
I decided later that they'd simply headed up the wrong route. There is a detached pinnacle called K P Pinnacle that guards one side of the gully. There is a very steep chute SE of El Cap Gully between K P Pinnacle and El Cap's Southwest Face called West Chimney, and I suspect it was this chute they attempted to climb.
In addition to El Cap Gully, I was curious about Eagle Creek, which descends steeply between El Cap's Southeast Face and the Three Brothers. I found no beta on this route, but from the map it looked less steep than the Gully. I got the idea that I could make a loop out of this climb of El Cap - climb El Cap Gully, cross over the summit, and descend via Eagle Creek. If I didn't make it up the Gully, maybe I'd go down and try the easier-looking Eagle Creek. I would probably not have made a special trip just for this adventure, but it so happened that Michael, Monty, and I were planning to climb Half Dome's Snake Dike on Saturday, and since I planned to arrive early on Friday, it was just this type of adventure I was looking for to fill my day.
I left San Jose quite early, at 2:45a, so that I would have all day to extract myself from whatever predicament I might get myself into. Traffic is amazing at that time of night - so few cars it makes you think everyone had left town. I arrived in Yosemite Valley at 6:30a, and 15 minutes later I had parked my car on Northside Drive just west of El Cap Meadow, and was on my way. Temperatures were cool, ideal really, and not a cloud in the sky. In addition to the usual dayhike gear I had in my pack, I carried a 37m/7mm rope, a harness, rappel device, a few pieces of protection, some slings, and my rock shoes. I simply did not know what I might find on the route, and wanted to be prepared to bail out on a rope if necessary.
I followed Ribbon Creek north, clambering over boulders, walking through forest on the east side of the creek, and generally enjoying a nice cross-country hike on the valley floor. El Cap's imposing Southwest Face was mostly dark, and seemed quite still in the morning air. I'm sure there were a number of climbers hunkered down on the huge wall, but I could make out none of them from my vantage point. Behind me on the south walls of the valley rose Leaning Tower just right of Bridalveil Falls. The sun had just begun to strike the upper reaches of El Cap as I passed by The Nose in profile. Ribbon Creek is fed mainly from Ribbon Falls, which has significant flow only in the spring. When it flows, the creek makes a noisy ruckus as it dances and tumbles its way down to the Merced River, and I delighted in following it upstream. A smaller branch comes out of El Cap Gully, and where they merge I turned right and headed up El Cap Gully. The climbing in the lower section is pleasant class 2, with an occasional class 3 move to get around some obstacle. As much as possible I followed the streambed, a jumble of rocks and boulders that were not much trouble to climb. On either side the walls steepen some, with much lush vegetation, particularly on the SE side where there is little sun until later in the day. In fact the whole gully is mostly blocked from the sun, and I wasn't to see the sun for the next three hours.
I was a third of the way up, having encountered no difficulties, before I was forced out of the streambed by a small cascade that the stream dropped down. I climbed on the left (NW) side of the creek, encountering steep, loose dirt, and what I'll call class 3 bushwhacking - actually using the branches to pull myself up and make progress. I had my first doubts about my venture being successful. There was a small series of difficulties, none of them dangerous on their own, but combined I began to wonder how far up I'd be able to go. I pressed on, but the uncertainty kept me keenly focused on the moment, and allowed no time for the mind to wander to other thoughts as often happens on hikes. Looking across the stream, the right side looked to be easier in this section, but I had already committed myself to the left side, and seemed to be making steady progress. Shortly I was able to climb back to the streambed proper, and continued climbing the easier class 2 boulder field I found there.
I climbed up past the base of H B Pinnacle. A steeper, narrower side chute goes up the north side of the pinnacle. It looked like it might go class 3, but then again it might prove harder once attempted. But I was heading up the main gully, and would leave H B for another day (as a side note, there is an easier chute to the upper reaches of H B Pinnacle that can be reached by climbing higher up El Cap Gully). I was beginning to think this climb, though steep, was going to be a piece of cake (and I was forgetting my earlier hesitations). So far it had been much easier than Indian Canyon, and I began to wonder why the Indians didn't use this route instead of the other. I soon found out why.
At about the two-thirds point the easier climbing ends, things get more difficult in the gully. Looking up, the small stream was flowing out of a narrow slit in the granite streambed. There were no boulder fields above here. The canyon walls close in sharply on the gully at this point. The right side rises precipitously to the El Cap plateau and offered no chance of passing that way. The streambed itself would require class 5 chimney climbing with a guaranteed soaking to boot. The wet rocks would probably be too slippery to climb safely besides. My only chance was the left side, which was quite steep (though not vertical like the right wall), but was broken by ledges and fissures, and had a number of bushes growing in places as well. The gully here curves around to the left so that I could not see more than about 50 yards of the route ahead of me, and I had to simply trust and hope that I could find a way to make it through. My concerns about getting stuck returned, and weighed on me fairly continuously the rest of the way up the gully. I pondered this state of unknowing, how it increased my adrenaline, how it worried me, and how it made me uncomfortable. I imagine this is similar to how it feels when peaks or new routes are climbed the first time, and how different it is from a second or later climber who has the certainty that a route would "go." Nowadays it is usually possible to get a great amount of beta on a route such that there is little doubt about what to expect. Going without beta (especially if available) seems foolish, but I had to admit there was a unique sense of excitement along with the more negative feelings. And I definitely liked it...
I climbed out of the streambed on the left side, aiming for a series of ledges with shrubs about 30 feet above me. One of the hardest sections was this first part getting out the streambed, and it took about 15 feet of class 4 climbing (fall, you might die sort-of-exposure) to get me to the bushes. Normally, bushwhacking is about the worst sort of scrambling one can do - besides being environmentally unfriendly, it's slow, injury prone, and often just makes you feel silly for fighting a vegetable adversary. Here I found that bushwhacking can actually be preferrable to the alternative. The bushes offered security from the steep granite slopes below, gave me something to hold on to, as well as something to pull myself up with. I cannot remember being so grateful to have so many bushes in my way. I stayed 20-30 feet above the streambed on the left side for a couple hundred yards as I slowly made my way along the ledges and through the bush.
I spotted a sling in the streambed, and took a short detour to go down and investigate. Above and below this point the streambed seemed impassable, but I managed to find a way out to the sling. A carabiner hung on one end, the other end of the worn sling attached to a piton banged into a small crack. Besides being loose, it was only inserted about an inch and a half. Someone had evidently used this to rappel down the gully some time ago. While I was feeling pretty good for having free-climbed to a point someone else had chosen to rappel, I realized it may well have been a big wall climber who had a 100-lb pig to negotiate back down to the valley floor - you aren't going to live long if you try cliff-bushwhack climbing with such an unwieldy load. I kept the booty as a souvenier, stuffing it in my pack.
I climbed back up to the left side and continued making my way along the ledges and through the bushes, and soon I was able to see the tall trees that lined the exit out of the gully. It seemed so close as I drew nearer, but the climbing didn't get any easier. I had somewhat hoped the gradient would roll off, but it kept up a consistent steepness with steady class 3-4 climbing. When I was not 50 yards from the exit, I was stumped by the toughest climbing yet. The bushes and ledges had given way to smooth granite slopes punctuated with thin ledges and thinner cracks. Water was dribbling down the rock in a number of places, making sections of the rock slick, and limiting my choices further. As I made slow progress up these slabs, I ran out of options and found myself slipping and my arms tiring rapidly. A slip here would land me 20-30 feet down and likely with serious injury. I tried my damnedest to climb with my hiking boots the entire way, but was stopped at what seemed the last possible obstacle. For one 10-foot section I had to resort to my rock shoes (and darned grateful I'd brought them) to give me enough traction on the smooth rock. The sun had managed to find it's way to only this last section of the gully, and I dug in for my sunglasses as the bright light on light-colored granite had me squinting excessively. I was finally able to climb out of the gully at 10:45a, and greeted the trees as though they were long-lost friends that had just been rediscovered.
I climbed out onto a small rock outcrop to take a break and revel in my small victory. Looking back down the gully, it seemed to roll away into nothingness, and was a rather imposing sight from above. I would not have guessed that a passable route existed to the valley below. I found the trail just above the top of the gully, and followed it around towards El Cap's summit. I kept trying to gain a vantage point to look down in the gully, but would have had to walk dangerously close to the very edge to see anything beyond the upper hundred yards that just seemed to fall off vertically. I reached the summit at 11a, marked by a ridiculously large cairn that seemed to be erected over time by folks with a lot of time (and not a lot of imagination, I hesitate to add). I took in the views under beautiful 70 degree temperatures and gorgeous skies. I took pictures of the towering walls that lined the south side of the valley (to be studied later for future adventure routes), Half Dome to the East, and the Valley below.
It was still early in the day, so I decided to head for Eagle Peak which marks the highest of the Three Brothers on El Cap's east side, about two miles away. After hanging around El Cap for about 20 minutes, I followed the trail from the summit northeast towards Eagle Peak. The trail mostly contours along the Eagle Creek drainage, first losing, then regaining about 400 feet of elevation. Where the trail heads back down from a saddle, I struck off cross-country (to save losing another 100 feet of elevation to where the trail junction is) and rejoined the side trail to Eagle Peak. The peak itself is a rocky outcrop perched above the trees that offers a fine view, much better than that found at El Cap. The whole of the east end of the valley could be seen far below, as well as the upper portion of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point, and even Nevada Falls. In the High Country could be seen Mts. Hoffmann, Conness, Florence, Clark, and others, all still draped in snow. Not a minute after reaching the summit I heard a voice behind me, and found a young woman making her way to join me. She was the advance party of a group that had hiked up from their campsite at the top of Yosemite Falls. Five minutes later the rest of the party showed up, and soon there were 10 of us perched on the summit blocks, admiring the views and taking pictures of each other.
After the last picture was taken, I wished them luck and bid them goodbye, and headed back down the trail. Before I reached the main trail again at the saddle, I peeled off to the left (west) and began heading down towards Eagle Creek. It grew steep at first, but under forest cover I could bounce off trees and bushes as I made my way down the loose earth, thick with pine needles and other organic matter that slid out from under me. When I reached the creek the route leveled out some, though the bushwhacking increased. What I found was that most of the Eagle Creek route is a lot of bushwhacking. Nothing terrible, but a consistently good deal of pushing through the bushes, descending ever further down the steepening slopes. In the upper reaches the creek offered no advantages like the boulders I had encountered in El Cap Gully, but instead made following it difficult as it went over small dropoffs and under heavy brush in places. So I stayed to one side or the other, passing from side to side as the way looked easiest.
It took nearly three hours to descend, an indication that it was a far from trivial route. The heavy vegetation made it difficult to see far ahead, and I would take advantage of whatever rock outcrops I could find to try to gain additional visibility (and get some closeup views of the Middle and Lower Brother formations). The route steepened the further I went down, and my options seemed to decrease accordingly. At times one side or the other would be excessively steep as to effectively bar progress, but I managed to find a way down on the opposing side of the creek. The route is steepest and narrowest about two thirds of the way down where it constricts to a small gap between Split Pinnacle and the Lower Brother. I exercised a great deal of caution in this section, sticking to the left (east) side of the creek, doing a good deal of class 3 climbing down rocks, bushwhacking, and sliding down more loose, steep slopes.
Once past the constriction, the canyon opens up and the climbing grew easier. There were large stretches where I could follow the creek that now had many boulders lining the streambed (this was preferred due to the absence of bushes). Further down the forest grew thicker and the bushes dropped off to almost nothing as the forest canopy cut out most of the light that the bushes thrive on. I heard voices calling out to the west, cries for help it sounded like, until I realized they were climbers calling out belay signals to each other - back to civilization! As the canyon opened wider I kept to the west side angling back towards the direction of El Cap where my car was. I wandered by the (very) popular climbing routes found here (After Six, and others) where there were a dozen climbers on the rock or standing about readying their gear. I was surprised to see so many climbers on a Friday, but had to admit it was a particularly fine day.
I walked out to the parking lot nearby and then to Northside Dr at El Cap Meadow, and looked for vantage points to take pictures of El Cap's Southeast Face and The Nose. The rock walls are so overwhelming that it is hard to capture a recognizeable picture when so close. I walked out into the meadow that borders the Merced River to get a good picture, where I found a number of other folks picnicking and watching climbers. I met one woman by herself who had some friends who'd been four days on Mescalito (a route just east of The Nose, on the Southeast Face) and were poised to top out the following morning. She helped me spot several other parties lower on the route and elsewhere that would have gone unnoticed by me without her help. Five days on a rock face - I have to admit some curiousity, but just couldn't picture myself on such an adventure.
After taking a few pictures I returned to the road and finally my car at 3:45p. It had been a long day, and I was certainly tired. Fortunately there was plenty of daylight left to check into the tent cabin in Curry Village, shower, meet up with Michael and Monty, eat dinner, and get to bed shortly after 8p. Fun as this day had been, it was just the warm up for the main event on Saturday - Half Dome's famous Snake Dike...
Hope you'd like this short article that I just found in an obscureYosemite Valley newspaper. It is about Jack London, later the famouswriter, but in 1895 still in high school, and just beginning to writefor the school magazine. I didn't find this episode mentioned in anyof London's biographies:
Yosemite Tourist, Friday, August 2, 1895, p. 1
Out All Night
Down near the Bridal Veil there are two camping parties... Tuesday they joined forces and [decided to make] a side trip to the top of El Capitan... At an early hour that morning Misses Mabel Applegarth, Jessie Supplee and R. Parrow, Bert and Ted Applegarth and Jack London, left camp. In the distance, far above their heads, to the left of El Capitan, was an apparent open space. By reaching the top of the wall at this point they could then go quickly to the rear of El Capitan and then come out to its summit. But they didn't. They took along sixty feet of rope. Their first attempt to gain the top of wall was a failure and so they changed over to an other one. Here they clambered, step by step, hand over hand, for hours. Fortunately, Jack London knew how to handle the rope, for he would attach it to a spur of rock and then they would crawl up. In many instances the girls had to be "boosted" by some of the boys. Late in the afternoon they gained the top of the wall. Too late to go to the top of El Capitan, they started to reach the road at Gentry's; but night coming on they camped for the night. Around a blazing fire, supperless and blanketless, they passed the night... An early morning start brought them back to camp in time for breakfast.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: El Capitan
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