Jun 9, 2012
Today's agenda was a climb of Leaning Tower in Yosemite Valley via the class 4 notch between two of the Cathedral Rocks known as the Gunsight. Should our efforts prove no great burden, the plan was to continue up to Dewey Point and return via the South Rim Trail. To facilitate this possibility, we left Bill's Subaru at Discovery View (just outside the Wowona Tunnel) and reconvened our group of five on Southside Drive just northeast of Lower Cathedral Rock. The turnout along the Merced River was just enough for 3-4 cars, located just before the left-side fork that returns to the Valley exits. It was 6:45a before we had our logistics dealt with, our gear ready, and finally heading out.
The first order of business was to find the trail somewhere above the road to the south. Some steep climbing through forest and large boulders found us the trail about 100ft above the road. We followed this east until we had a bead on Gunsight where we once again headed into the forest to the narrow gap in the Cathedral Rocks. It was around 7:15a by the time we'd gotten up the talus and boulders that litter the bottom of the narrow canyon. The sun was partially shining in the groove - a rarity - but it didn't last long before becoming blocked by Middle Cathedral Rock.
Bill was the first to reach the class 3-4 stuff and went at it without hesitation. Unlike on previous visits, there were now fixed ropes covering all of the class 4 sections, not just the most difficult one near the top. The exposure is not great for the most part, and there are plenty of holds, so most of us chose to scramble up without using these ropes. At a few of the tighter spots, Adam belayed Laura on the rope we carried, a 30m/8.5mm rope that was much easier to manage than the large ones we had used the day before. We spent most of an hour and a half scrambling the Gunsight from its base to the top, the saddle between Middle and Lower Cathedral Rocks. It is a very fun mix of scrambling on usually good rock, with a combination of cracks, slabs and a few chockstones to negotiate. All of us enjoyed it a good deal. Adam was the only one of our party to successfully negotiate the most difficult section near the top, on the left side across from the fixed rope. Bill had tried it before him and backed down, and feeling that having climbed it once in the past was enough, I joined the others in chosing the fixed rope option.
After taking a break at the saddle, Bill pressed us to make the short side trip to the summit of Lower Cathedral Rock, about a ten minute's effort. Though there's no real use trail, the route is easy and involves no bushwhacking. There is a swell view of Yosemite Valley and El Capitan from the summit. We all made the side trip at our various paces, taking varied amounts of time to take in the views before reconvening again at the saddle some 40 minutes later.
Up to this point had been rehashing prevous adventures, but from here on the terrain would be new to all of us. I had some concern that descending the west slope of Gunsight to Bridalveil Creek might involve some serious bushwhacking. After checking out several options, I led us down what seemed to be the best choice and was very pleased to find that there was no real bushwhacking at all. We followed animal trails down steep slopes of duff in the oak forest understory, grabbing branches for balance and to slow our descent, taking less than ten minutes to reach the creek.
Our second concern (mine, really, as I don't know if the others had even given it much thought) was similarly alleviated when we found the creek level low enough to be easily managed. After removing our boots, Bill went across first with the aid of a stick for balance. I asked him to toss it back to us once he was across so we might reuse it, but it smashed into several pieces when it hit the slab of granite on our side of the creek. No matter, I went across without it almost as easily. One by one the rest crossed, all without mishap. We dried our feet and put our boots back on, then started up for Leaning Tower.
This part, the climb up the east side of Leaning Tower I expected to be class 3, though I can't really say where I got that information from. Roper has it as more difficult than that at class 4-5 and from what we found, it was pretty spot on. The fastest way to the summit would probably be to follow the talus chute up to the notch on the south side of the summit, then climb the class 4-5 slabs for several pitches to easier ground and the summit above. But not knowing this, we aimed instead for some large trees on the east side, making the assumption that trees make for easier ground to cover. This was a mixed blessing. The route turned out to be a good deal harder than expected, taking us a full two hours to reach the summit. But it was a fantastic adventure climb and most of us enjoyed it immensely. While it started off easy enough, the route quickly grew steeper as we found ourselves on class 3+ slabs with some good features that faded to much weaker features for foot and handholds. Unhappy with the way things were shaping up, Laura prudently asked for the rope that Adam was carrying. We set up an anchor and belayed her up to the start of what I'd call the 4th class stuff. Adam started up these broken slabs but it seemed clear we'd need to belay Laura here. I called him back and tied the rope to him, then sent him up again to look for a good belay. Trouble was, Adam was treating this like a regular rock climb and began heading up a more difficult line, ignoring an easier, albeit brushier bypass. As he began to slow to a crawl my patience with him grew thin - I didn't want this to be another 4hr rock climb - so I soloed up to the start of the brushy bypass and asked Adam to climb back down. He did so nervously - there was no protection placed as of yet - but competently and soon joined me. I explained to him that the use of the rope was to be kept to a minimum in order to save time - we still had a long day ahead of us and didn't need to stretch this out unnecessarily. Once this was explained he got with the program and we had none of this same issue going forward. We let all three tie into the rope about 15ft apart, then belayed them all at the same time.
Not that there weren't other issues, mind you. Laura was beginning to not enjoy this very much. Less confident than the others, she was understandably nervous, and not knowing whether even bigger problems lay ahead didn't help matters. For my part, I didn't mind the extra delay to use the rope to belay where needed - after all, that's what we brought the rope for. The others seemed to be on the same page as well and looked to be having a good time with the adventure as it was unfolding, albeit a bit more adventure than planned, perhaps. Shortly after 11a we reached a large tree we'd been aiming for, belaying Laura up to join us. We were roughly at the same height as Lower Cathedral Rock now and there was a fine view of El Capitan rising up behind it.
Scouting about, we found what looked to be a sure class 3 exit off our face to the gully just to the south. It didn't offer a shortcut or even an alternative to the summit, but it did provide a way out of the difficulties should it become necessary. We talked about our alternatives and the escape route, pressing Laura to make a decision on what she wanted to do. It was clear her good humor had taken a back seat by now and her apprehension was obvious. She really didn't want to quit on us, but she also wanted to know how bad things would get further up. Of course none of us had any real inkling - we had no beta at all and could only guess. My best guess - more of the same. Adam and Bill went ahead to scout the route above, climbing through an awkard bit of brush before disappearing. Laura was as much worried about slowing us down as she was concerned for the difficulties. I assured we we had plenty of time and asking for a belay was a sign of prudence, not weakness. She elected to continue and we followed the others up through the bit of awkward brush.
The climb went better above, with less brush and better quality rock. With four of us scouting for routes, we found more than one way to make upward progress, reconvening again where possible. Some convenient ledges were a welcome respite from the hairier sections. Adam and I opted for a more direct route up the right side while Tom pioneered a brushy gully that Laura followed into, adding some choice words where appropriate. Adam was the first to reach the summit shortly before noon, followed by the rest of us over the next ten minutes. The highpoint was a large, pointy block with a perch that could hold three close friends. To make room, I moved off the summit to the south, finding a cozy spot from which to take a break. There is a fine view of lower Yosemite Valley with a clear view to Discovery View where Bill's car was waiting for us. Across Bridalveil Creek was Middle and Upper Cathedral Rocks, El Cap and the northern rim of the Valley to the north.
At this point I expected our efforts to get off Leaning Tower would take the same several hours as it did for the ascent and figured our best bet would be to then return back over Gunsight and forget about reaching the south rim. But several fortuitous bits came together. First, from my lower perch to the south I spotted some colored slings around a tree lower down. More careful scanning spotted other rap stations on what looked to be the standard descent route off Leaning Tower to a notch on its southeast side. Our rope wasn't long enough to reach from one station to another, however. Adam then reported he had seen a pile of old ropes stashed on the north side of the summit. We discussed briefly our options. We didn't know who had left the ropes, nor for what purpose. Were they a forgotten stash or left for emergency purposes? Were they even useable? Clearly our predicament was nothing like an emergency, but we could all see the advantage to using them. We decided to use them in the rappel.
Sending Adam to retrieve several of the ropes, he returned with two from the bottom of the pile that he said looked better than the rest. In order to make it down in one rappel we downclimbed some slabby class 3 slopes at the top to a second, lower rap station I had spied from above. The ropes were static lines, several seasons old at least. Tom and Laura questioned the wisdom of trusting them, and they had a point. Should one break from the sudden sharp bends they would take going through the rappel device, it would very likely result in a severe fall down the smooth granite slopes. So rather than set up the standard two rope rappel where the ropes are tied together with a double fisherman, I tied each directly to the rap station with a figure eight. This would allow us to rappel normally on the ropes, but not retrieve them. But, should a rope break, there would be no sudden calamity as the second would act as backup. Going first down the ropes, Tom was still unsure about the quality of the ropes so I tossed our own rope down in tandem so that he could use it for an emergency hand line. This seemed to satisfy him and away he went. The ropes held nicely. They were just long enough to get him down to the easier class 2-3 rock near the notch where he unhitched and then waited for us.
We sent Laura, Adam and Bill down in succession after Tom. Figuring the ropes had proved serviceable enough on the first four descents, I coiled up the emergency rope, put it in the pack, and followed the others down to the notch. The notch proved to be a small adventure all on its own, with a fantastic drop down the west side that would have been great fun had we a couple of full-length ropes to rappel with. The east side of the notch marked the top of the gully we had started up hours earlier, the same exit gully that we had marked halfway up. Had we reached the notch on the ascent rather than climbing the east face we might have attempted to climb the rap route, but it seems doubtful we would have succeeded with only a 37m rope length.
It was now after 1p and I expected the vote to have us return to Bridalveil Creek and Gunsight rather than continue the adventure into more unknown. It was no surprise that Adam and Bill were eager to continue. Tom had a plane to catch the next morning but was hoping to maybe catch an earlier flight back in San Jose this evening. He realized now we'd not get back early enough in either case. Somewhat to my surprise, Laura announced she had all day at our disposal, evidently regaining some of her lost strength and enthusiasm. Onward and upward.
The route and distance to the Valley's rim seemed innocuous enough, but had any of us looked closely at the map we'd have found there was another 2,500ft of elevation gain to be had before reaching Dewey Point. It would take us another 2 1/2 hours, probably twice as long as we'd hoped it might. The going was steep and far from trivial. We first tried to follow the obvious ridgeline, but large fractured blocks forced us to the left side where we encountered far more brush than we might have preferred. Most of us were taking it in stride - after all, there was little that we could do at this point. Laura was not liking things much at all at this time and her usual good demeanor was again waning. About halfway up we paused to wait for Tom and Laura to catch up. Bill found a rubber boa nearby that displayed as much energy as a sack of wet clay. He picked it up and let it curl itself up into a ball to play dead. It had no aggressive behaviour whatsover and seemed only to wish to be left alone. Knowing that Laura has a strong fear of snakes, we thought it might be funny to surprise her with our find. We set it next where she was likely to sit down when she joined us. The snake moved very little, content to wait for us all to leave. We marveled that it should be able to hunt anything at all. Surely every other forest creature could outrun and outmanuever this thing. Perhaps it snuck up on sleeping prey, we mused.
Our little joke completely backfired as any sane, non-male human might have predicted. Laura jumped nearly out of her skin, panicked, ran away a short distance and whimpered, shaking from the fright. We tried to explain that the snake was completely harmless and wouldn't (couldn't, in fact) hurt a fly, but of course this didn't help at all. Finally realizing this, I went over (without the snake) to console Laura. She was not happy with us at all, but she soon stopped shaking and we got on with the task at hand - finding the trail somewhere high above us.
It was 3:45p before we reached the trail and Dewey Point, a fantastic overlook on the south rim. It is a popular winter destination for skiers and snowshoers from Badger Pass. I'd always meant to pay it a visit but never got around to it until now. After taking the requisite photographs, we packed up and headed west along the trail. Bill and I were intent to hit all the named points along the way including Crocker Point, Stanford Point and Old Inspiration Point. Crocker Point was the most impressive viewpoint we thought while Stanford was the least so. Crocker stuck out over a sheer cliff while Stanford was lower and brushier and not really much of a point at all, though it sported a small class 3 summit block. Around 4:40p we came across the first water source since leaving Bridalveil Creek many hours earlier and with some of us out of water, it was a welcome relief. When Bill noticed Laura restocking a full three liters he commented, "You know, we're only an hour away from the car." It was worth a small laugh, but Laura was taking no chances.
While the others went ahead, Bill and I used the GPS to narrow down where Old Inspiration Point could be found. It is not along the rim trail as the other three viewpoints were, but some quarter mile along a brushy ridge, the old trail no longer maintained, nor locatable from what we could gather. It seemed more of a bother than we wanted at the time, so we decided to leave it for another day. We met the first of several parties as we left Dewey Point, and then many more as we neared the end of our trail. We were disappointed to find that the new Inspiration Point is not marked at all on the trail and we (along with other parties we met) were left to guess as to its whereabouts. The area marked on the map is completely in the woods and devoid of any views, but further down the trail there seemed to be a use trail that led to a clearing with views. Why the old Inspiration Point was retired we could not guess.
It was 6p before we returned to the busy parking lot at Discovery View. Though we had barely covered seven miles, it had taken nearly 12hrs to do so and had been a full day. Tom had gotten two long days in partial compensation for the recent trip to Oregon that had been spoiled by weather. Adam got four days of roped climbing that more than doubled his previous experience. Bob and Bill added four new summits to pad their stats for the year. And Laura had gotten "Bobbed", which roughly means you're no longer having fun while Bob still is. But she was a good sport in the end and shared her beers with us back at the Merced River where we rinsed off before starting the long drive back home. We drank to adventures old and new, particularly the latter which were already being hatched as the summer was getting into full swing...
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