Fri, Apr 15, 2005
I'd actually been trying to climb Grizzly Peak in Yosemite Valley for three or four years. Four or five times I'd planned on it, only once actually attempted it, and it has been on my hit list longer than any other peak. To others this was a strange peak to be coveting, even for a peakbagger - it is dwarfed by nearby Half Dome and has no popular routes to the summit - not one. The peak is located very near to Happy Isle at the eastern end of the valley. The popular Vernal Fall Trail (also the start of the John Muir Trail) follows along the west and south sides of the peak. In summer hundreds of visitors pass under its flanks every day, its summit just one of dozens of magnificent sights to be seen along the trail. I must have passed by at least a dozen times in the last ten years, and it has always caught my attention as something I'd like to scale.
Driving into Yosemite Valley shortly before 7a, Matthew drove us along Southside Drive while I stared up at the granite towers with my usual awe, but also with a more discerning eye this morning. In particular I was interested to see the conditions on Middle Cathedral Rock for our planned adventure the following day. There was snow at the summit, but from what I could see the technical sections on the NW side were completely dry. Driving around Lower Cathedral Rock I got a quick glimpse up to Gunsight, and could see that there was some snow in the gully - crampons and axe would be in order. We drove past Curry Village and directly to the JMT parking lot in front of Glacier Point's apron. Here we got our stuff sorted out and filled up our packs with gear, clothes, and water. We chose to take a short 30m, 8mm rope, a few pieces of pro, and a handful of slings. Most of Gizzly's SW Arete we expected to be scrambling with a few short sections of technical climbing. Roper has the route rated class 4, but a trip report we read from Jim Curl had it more like 5.7, and knowing Roper's penchant for sandbagging (more accurately, class 4 back in the day was a more serious exercise) we were more apt to believe the second source.
Shortly after 7a we headed out, a quick potty break at Happy Isle, across the Merced River on the old stone bridge, about a hundred yards along the JMT, and then we left the trail to head cross-country for Sierra Point. Not exactly cross-country, and not unfamiliar territory - we'd both been up to Sierra Point via a long-abandoned trail that leads up the west side of the SW Arete to a lookout point about halfway up to Grizzly's summit. It was "discovered" by Charles Bailey in 1897, and named for the Sierra Club (Charles died in a 400-foot fall during the first ascent of El Cap Gully). A gas-pipe railing was installed sometime later and is still firmly fixed to the rock at the lookout, a unique vantage point where four of Yosemite's major waterfalls can be seen at the same time: Yosemite, Vernal, Nevada, and Illilouette Falls. After a few hundred yards we came across the old trail (only the first section was torn up when the trail was abandoned, apparently there were too many injuries to visitors traveling on the steep, rough trail), and we followed this to its end. We reached Sierra Point by 7:30a, which is generally regarded as the starting point for Grizzly's SW Arete.
From Sierra Point we scrambled over class 3 rock along the south side of the arete, climbing about a hundred yards to a prominent cairn which marks the highpoint I had reached on my attempt several years earlier. John Wang and I had come this far without any beta, and consequently without any rope or gear, and were stymied by the class 5 rock we found before us. This time we wasted no time getting out our rope, putting on our harnesses and rock shoes, and starting off on the technical section. I was fairly confident that I could lead the section (how hard can 5.7 be?) and boldly climbed up to face the rock. I put in a piece of protection to avoid a pendulum off the thin ledge should I fall, and went about examining the rock above me for holds. Immediately I ran into trouble. The route up was overhanging, not terribly much, but the holds I could find gave me no confidence that I could pull myself safely up and over the obstacle. I tried jamming my hand, my arm, anything I could in the little alcove above me, but it seemed rather tenuous. I searched for other holds outside but found nothing to boost my confidence. Stymied, I announced to Matthew that I was going to try plan B, an alternative route that followed a narrow, slanting ledge up and to the right. The ledge was about a foot wide, but the main problem with it was a bulging rock that overhung the ledge, pushing me off the ledge and over the 15-foot wall. My pack was too bulky to let me get around and under the bulge. Backing off, I decided to try again without my pack - we could haul it if necessary. But again I was foiled on both route choices and had to admit defeat. Dang - we were making zero progress in a hurry.
I came back down and let Matthew go up to give it a try. He had no confidence that he could do better, but it gave me a chance to rest and also take pictures of the section we were trying to surmount. There just had to be another way - this seemed harder than 5.7. Matthew was the first to spot another alternative, an open book with cracks in its seam, further to the right. It would require a tricky downclimb of about 10 feet from where the cairn was located, and we used the rope to protect Matthew as he climbed down to the location beneath a large oak tree. It turned out to be easier than it had looked, the rope only helping marginally. Once were both down under the tree, Matthew headed up while I packed away the rope before following him. The crack lead around the corner where we were confronted by a 30-foot cliff on the right. Matthew walked out on the narrow ledge above, looking to find a way up to the left to a broader ledge about 10 feet above us. It was all friction with poor handholds, making for nervous moments. Matthew backed off and let me go at it. I found it similarly spicy, but managed to find some key holds that weren't quite solid, but good enough to give me the confidence to walk out over the exposure. I climbed up a short ways and then safely tucked myself under some low branches from a tree above, then turned to wait for Matthew. I could have lowered him a rope at this point, but Matthew decided to forgo the safety line and followed the same path I'd taken through this section. His scrambling had certainly grown bolder of late, a notable improvement since the previous summer.
The route continued upward, staying on the south side of the arete past a few short class 4, grunge-filled dihedrals and onto easier class 3 rock. Just as we were starting to think we were set for cruising mode, the south side of the arete lost its set of easier ledges as we were confronted by insurmountable cliffs. It looked like a dead end. We tried a different tack and traversed left around the edge of the arete and onto the west side. Lower down it had seemed the west side was fraught with cliffs, but here we found some horizontal cracks in the large granite blocks that allowed us to traverse across a steep section. Next came a series of improbable ramps, a single path that led us up this side, just below the crest of the arete. The exposure was significant and a bit unnerving, but the holds were fairly good. We inched our way across a short knife-edged section, gingerly stepping off onto an adjacent block with some air between the two. By now we'd been scrambling about 2hrs since we'd started up from Sierra Point (half that time was lost flailing with the rope) and we came to what we concluded must be the crux. Matthew recalled Jim's description of the crux 5.7 chimney mid-way through the route, and what we had before us certainly fit the bill.
The chimney was short, maybe 15 feet total, and slanted to one side with two chockstones that looked more helpful than in the way. The problem with the chimney was getting into it. Our position was off to one side, and it looked difficult to manuever ourselves around the edge and into the chimney. We considered climbing down to gain the entrance, but the chimney was near vertical lower down and much more difficult. As we pulled out the rope and gear and started strapping into the equipment, I generously offered to let Matthew take the lead to hone his 5.7 lead skills. He was on to my cowardice in an instant and politely declined. I thought climbers liked to lead," Matthew commented. That might be so, but that didn't really describe me too well nor most of the people that I climb with. Shoes on, rope strapped on, I was ready to go. The first move was going to be bold or painful, depending on the outcome. I could see no way to protect it, so if I popped out it would mean a short pendulum and then splat against the rock. I left my pack with Matthew to make it easier to climb, though wondering if the pack wouldn't help protect my spine when I peeled off. A deep breath, then "Climbing!", Matthew's reply of "Climb on," and I was off. I lifted myself up and into the chimney, wedging myself firmly into the rock as quickly as I could safely manage. I started breathing again. "Hey, that wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," I called back. I inched myself up the chimney, moving my feet a few inches at a time, one on the rock face in front of me, one under my butt on the back face. When I could reach up to the chockstone I grabbed ahold and pulled myself up, mantling over the top. The hard part was over. Now I just had to stand up, climb atop the upper chockstone, and behind it I found a very snug cavern in the rock from where I could belay Matthew up.
I threaded some slings through the rocks to make an anchor and started hauling the packs up. Mine came first, then Matthew's, though the second was a bit of a struggle as I had to bash it a few times over the lower chockstone before it came up. When I got it in my possession I noted the knot Matthew had used that was a few tugs from popping out and sending his pack about 300 feet down the west side of the arete. It was a simple overhand on a bight with the loop end almost pulled through. After he joined me there was a short lesson on tying packs more securely for a haul. Matthew had little trouble with the chimney and soon we were both inside. We still had about 12 feet to go up the chimney before escaping through a hole above us. It looked like some serious chimneying might be required straight up to get us out, and this was my first thought. But upon further examination of the airy cavern I found a circuitous, but less exposed way to climb up and out of the hole in our ceiling. Above, still trailing the rope down to Matthew, it was like coming out onto a new climb. The opening was out onto the arete itself, but it was a broader edge and the angle decreased to a much easier scramble from this point. I hauled the two packs up one after another, then Matthew came up in turn. We packed away the rope and harnesses, kept the rock shoes on "just in case," took some pictures of the great views, then started up the last 300 feet of class 2-3 towards the summit.
After about 10 minutes I decided to give the rock shoes (and my toes) a rest, pausing to switch into my boots. Matthew elected to keep his rock shoes on and got ahead of me a ways. I lost track of Matthew as he seemed to prefer staying on the rockier arete edge to the right while I chose the easier, but brushier ascent on the left side. 50 minutes after packing up the rope I found my way to the summit, but no Matthew. I'd guessed I'd gotten ahead while I took the easier bushwhack route. I found two football-sized rocks stacked near the summit, but no register or other signs of earlier ascents. I was disappointed to not find some summit signatures, thinking it might be an interesting collection, but little matter. The views were as grand as I'd hoped, even better than those from Sierra Point. In addition to the waterfall views (Vernal Falls looked to be just below us), one can see Half Dome, Starr King, Glacier Point, North Dome, and most of Yosemite Valley. All with a beautifully blue sky and mild temperatures. Matthew joined me a few minutes later and went about taking his own set of photos before we started down.
We both headed down to the west to get off the summit blocks, then I went ahead in a counter-clockwise direction to get down to the east side of the peak. A short 70 feet below the summit I waited for Matthew some five minutes on the south side of the peak before I began to think I had lost him somehow. I shouted to no avail. I climbed back up to the summit expecting to find him engaged in adjusting his pack or shoe laces or some such thing, but he was nowhere to be found. This was a little distressing, not because I lost track of Matthew (that happens regularly), but because it happened more quickly than it ever had before. I decided to head down to the notch on the east side of Grizzly Peak just above LeConte Gully (where we had both agreed we needed to head to). Retracing my spiraling route, I was surprised yet again as I ran into Matthew a short ways past where I'd waited for him earlier. Apparently he had gone clockwise around the summit in the opposite direction, finding another way off the summit blocks. If he hadn't run into some cliffs he'd have handily beaten me down to the notch. Once rejoined, we found the advertised class 3 route down the east side and into the notch, with a few places hard enough to keep it sporting and earn the class 3 rating.
From the notch we planned to head to Mt. Broderick, a modest peak between Half Dome and Liberty Cap that neither of us had been up before. We had first to climb up partway along the shoulder from the notch towards Half Dome before traversing right and down into the small valley between Half Dome and Broderick. There was a fair amount of bushwhacking in this section, though we got lucky in not having to spend much time route-finding (looking back from near Broderick we found we had managed to stumble upon the only obvious route through a cliff band down from the shoulder - the alternative would have been climbing considerably higher, nearly to the start of Snake Dike before being able to head back down). We stumbled through the forest and some heavy bushwhacking in the area west of Lost Lake, getting through the worst of it as we reached the north side of Broderick. We suddenly found ourselves out of the brush and on a use trail, ducks everywhwere - we the Snake Dike approach use trail.
We wandered around to the NE side of Broderick looking for the easiest ascent route, purported to be class 3. We found snow covering half of the broad slabs on this side and decided the friction climb we expected would be a snow climb instead. Much of the rock that didn't have snow on it was wet from the afternoon melt, and it seemed safer to travel on snow than rock in this case. I paused to put on my crampons while Matthew chose to climb without them, both of us using our ice axes. We followed a Z-shaped route up the side of the peak which allowed us to stay on snow the whole way and take the lowest angle approach (though faily steep in places). The snow depth varied from several feet to only a few inches, and I found that I was using my axe as a depth gauge ahead of me to keep from dulling my crampons further than needed. It took about 20 minutes to cover the distance on the snow. Our route curved around to the east side, and higher up where the slope lessened the snow gave way to dry slabs. We left our gear at the edge of the snow and hiked the remaining short distance to the summit.
We found several small cairns, no register. The views took in parts of the Yosemite High Country including Mts. Florence and Clark in the Cathedral and Clark ranges respectively. A large peak behind Mt. Florence could be seen to the left that we guessed might be Mt. Ritter, but it may also have been Mt. Rodgers or another peak on the Sierra crest in that vicinity. Looking over to Liberty Cap just to the south and higher than Broderick, we briefly discusses whether we should expend the extra effort to scale it while we were here. We both expressed ambivalence, inside thinking we should climb it, but hoping the other would make the decision for us. It wasn't yet 3p, and it seemed a bit of waste to head back to the valley with so much daylight remaining. We never actually verbalized the decision, but on the way back down I decided to forgo Liberty Cap and take us down the narrow valley between Broderick and Liberty Cap as a way to use up some of the remaining time. Normally it is pretty straightforward along a use trail that has developed over the years, but now the gully was partially filled with snow and there were a lot of downed trees to navigate through. The valley narrows the further west one goes, and Matthew was duly impressed with it to comment on it. The walls of Broderick and Liberty Cap rising strikingly on either side of narrow slice as we looked out on the larger canyon of the Merced below. I found the use trail traversing left around the west side of Liberty Cap and we climbed up and down and getting off track a few times before making our way down to the John Muir Trail.
Back among other hikers on this popular trail, we took another hour to descend to Happy Isle along the Mist Trail. Along the way we marveled at the force of the spring flow over Vernal Fall and took pictures of the rainbows and other features pretty much to the same extent as any of the hundreds of other tourists that joined us on the trail. 5p seemed a bit early to be returning, but I suppose it's better than an epic. We showered, bought supplies, ate pizza and drank beers over the next four hours, taking advantage of all the civilization that has been brought to bear on Yosemite Valley in the form of Curry Village. On the one hand it seems "dirty" that so much comfort has been brought to this famous symbol of the American Wilderness experience, but on the other hand it was quite a treat to reward ourselves with. In this case, we decided to take full advantage of it rather than dwell on the demerits. We would leave that to others to debate - another beer please!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Grizzly Peak
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