Tue, May 14, 2013
I had viewed Three Brothers from all angles on both sides of the Valley over the course of many years. I had taken the trail to the summit of Eagle Peak, but had never set foot on the more difficult-to-reach Lower and Middle Brothers. How was one to reach them? They looked impossible from the east and difficult, at best, from the west. There is little modern information on the features. Most of what's available can be found in the old Voge and Roper climbing guides from the 1950s through 1970s. The various routes listed there are considered too much effort by modern standards - brushy, heaps of talus, questionable rock quality and too little actual climbing. Just the sort of thing I love. In perusing Ropers old Yosemite Valley Guide, I found a historical nugget in Michael's Ledge. This feature runs diagonally up the southeast face of the Brothers, first climbed by Charles Michael in 1920. As the Yosemite postmaster, he had a reputation for climbing "everything that didn't require a piton" and made numerous climbs around the range. Michael Minaret in the Ritter Range was named for his first ascent of that impressive pinnacle in 1923. Roper listed the climbs to Lower and Middle Brother via Michael's Ledge as class 4, which meant it could be anything up to class 5.6 by today's standards. Perfect. I needed a ropemate and figured Adam would fit the bill nicely, one of my few climbing friends available during the week on short notice. This wasn't the sort of climbing he liked to do, but I enticed him with the offer that he could pick the routes we do the following day.
We planned to meet at the Camp 4 parking lot at 7a. Adam was there first, had found it full, and returned to Yosemite Lodge where he'd spent the night. As I was driving past the lodge on my way to Camp 4, I spotted Adam in his truck. We decided to simply start from the Yosemite Lodge parking lot. We hiked around one of the northside trails, past Camp 4, the YOSAR camp, and Leidig Meadow. We left the trail, crossed the road and started up the Eagle Creek drainage, heading for the start of Michaels Ledge about 200ft above the Valley floor. There was no use trail that we could find, but the wide, sloping ledge was not hard to locate. It is covered in trees and brush and not too difficult to navigate along. We spent about an hour on the class 2 effort of the lower portion of the ledge, with some easy class 3 moves but no real exposure. We had nice views for much of the ascent. There was a mix of easy sections along with a bit of bushwhacking that Adam wasn't overly fond of.
Shortly before 9a we came upon a section of fixed ropes about 100ft in length. Though the scrambling along this traverse was no more than class 3, it had significant exposure. The ropes looked to be several years old, held in place with nuts and slings, and tied together with a number of carabiners. It seemed like this was the section for which the route earned the class 4 rating. We decided that Charles Michael was a brave pioneer given that he negotiated the ledge without the nice handholds. We were happy to use them. Just past this section the brushy ledge gives way to more open terrain, but one of terribly loose rock. Roper's guide mentioned a section of rotten rock, so it came as no surprise.
For the easiest route, we were supposed to continue along the ledge until at the large rock face that forms the SE Face of Middle Brother, then take a loose chute up to the top of Lower Brother. But Roper wasn't clear on this point,simply mentioning two large pines which we only later identified. Instead, we started up what looked like good class 3 rock about 100 yards left of the easier route, and for the most part it was good class 3 rock. In fact it made for very enjoyable scrambling with tremendous views. We would spend an hour and a half climbing this fine line, though not without some trouble. Adam managed to scramble past what I thought was the crux of the route where our options narrowed to a bulgy move around a chockstone of sorts. I tried to follow but found the mantling move difficult, more so due to the exposure. I cried uncle. Adam was getting better at this rock climbing thing than myself.
We had a rope and gear with us, and I thought this would be a judicious use of it. As it was in my pack, I was lucky that Adam was only about 10ft above me so I could toss the rope up to him. He spent some time anchoring himself to some nearby shrubs while I changed into rock shoes and put on a harness. The move was far less intimidating with the reassurance of a rope holding me from above. We packed up the rope afterwards, leaving our harnesses on. The climbing going higher was easier now that I had my rock shoes on. A few minutes later we started up differing lines, myself following a ramping slab section to the left while Adam tackled a shallow gully to the right. Well above him, I could see that his line was going to narrow some with fewer holds and damp grasses and sedges lining the gully. I called down to suggest he traverse over to my route, but he continued up, hoping to make it work. It didn't. Some sketchy downclimbing and traversing resulted, chewing up some time. I didn't mind, having a fine perch from which to take in the views of Yosemite Valley and watch Adam work his way out of a jam.
The time spent working out the traverse seemed to unnerve him a little and his climbing was less confident afterwards. Higher up he struggled at a section that I found only mildly difficult, eventually asking for me to toss down the rope. When he came up to join me he commented "I guess now we're even." That wasn't really true, because he was still climbing in his boots while I had the advantage of rock shoes. Ten minutes later we pulled up onto the ridge that forms Lower Brother. The highpoint was found just south along the ridge where there is a commanding view of the Valley, looking both east and west. To the southwest loomed Cathedral Rocks across the Merced River. Nearer at hand, there was a fine view of the East Ledges descent off El Cap as well as Split Pinnacle and Manure Pile Buttress on the west side of the Eagle Creek drainage that splits El Cap from Three Brothers. One option I had considered was going down the west side of Lower Brother and then attempting Split Pinnacle. But it looked hard from our vantage and the descent down the west side of Lower Brother was uncertain. We started to consider Middle Brother, instead.
I was carrying a copy of Roper's guide which we got out to review the 5.7 SW Arete route to Middle Brother, first climbed by David Brower and partner in 1941. The route starts about 100yds from where we stood, where Lower Brother's ridge meets the steep step up to Middle Brother along the arete. It looked hard. Everything in Roper's old guide seems hard though, I have to admit. We decided to "give it a look". We walked over to the start and then scrambled up the first 30ft or so of easy but brushy class 4. An old sling around a tree marked the start of the real climbing where the route goes up and right along a thin ledge to unknown stuff above. We considered further. Clouds were gathering over Half Dome and other places towards the east. We had a thin 30m rope which would allow only short rappels if we got in over our heads and had to retreat. Neither of us were too excited about the prospect of this, and it was not hard to talk ourselves out of it. I suggested plan B - climb Middle Brother by the class 4 route using Michael's Ledge. Down we went.
Back at the junction of Lower and Middle Brother, we found the easier route down to Michael's Ledge that we'd missed on the way up. It's located right up against the SE Face of Middle Brother and is a horribly loose mess, but really no more than class 3 all the way down to Michael's Ledge. We took care not to knock rocks down on each other, but it was impossible to stop some rocks from dropping all the way down to the Valley below - hopefully no one was on the obscure routes located on the lower SE Face of Lower Brother. This was one loose gully. Meanwhile, the clouds overhead continued to gather and darken as though something was seriously going to develop. There was no forecast for afternoon thunderstorms but we weren't going to bank on that.
Once again on Michaels Ledge, we turned left and continued upwards. The ledge is not the nicely continuous one we had found earlier, but instead crosses a series of broad gullies that require some downclimbing to connect. The mistake we made more than once was following too high on the ledge only to find ourselves cliffed out and having to backtrack. At one of these we decided to make a brushy rappel. Going first, Adam took so much time and made it look thoroughly unpleasant with his griping and swearing in regards to the brush that he felt was attacking him, that I scrambled back and down an alternate route in less time than it took him to complete the rappel. There was a mix of some nasty bushwhacking with easier slabs, in all taking much of an hour to negotiate since we had first rejoined the ledge. We were looking for a turn around the corner where Roper promised low-angle, tree-covered slabs would lead to the summit of Middle Brother. For the most part we could see nothing but gigantic cliffs rising up on our left which made it easy to decide to continue. Adam began to question our sanity in continuing on the seemingly endless route with the weather worsening. He'd had enough of the adventure, it seemed, and was looking for an exit strategy. In contrast, I was having a great time of it and was going to continue whether he turned back or not. Bravely, Adam motored on. Eventually we reached what seemed like the tree-covered slabs we were looking for, even if they were hardly low-angle. Maybe "low-angle" was simply in comparison to the cliffs.
It was a brushy affair continuing upwards, now ramping towards the left. This section, though not all that long, would take us well over an hour. The route steepened as we got higher, forcing us into a narrow channel that did not have any obvious escape route. We had to hope in luck some, that climbing higher into the channel would reveal an exit. Luckily it did, but it was not easy. Adam's energy was flagging in line with his enthusiasm. He paused to put on rock shoes while I scrambled up a low fifth class section. From the safety of a tree above, I waited some time for him to move again, then watched as he moved out onto a face to the right of what I thought was the easier crack option. He made slow progress and eventually backtracked, slower still. Time dragged on. He shouted up for some help on which route I'd used. I shouted down, "To the left!" Adam spent more time further left than I knew existed, finding it led nowhere. Eventually he decided having a rope tossed down was the best option. I tied it off to the tree I sat on and belayed him up.
I was coiling the rope once again as the first drops of rain began to fall. We continued upwards for another half an hour, wondering just where the top was as we got wetter and wetter. I put on a fleece to guard against the encroaching chill of a damp cotton tshirt. We eventually reached easier ground near the top and paused to put on more clothes. Lightning and thunder began to roll around the skies with increasing frequency. The rain was steady, but not heavy. I had a cheap $0.99 plastic rain jacket that would subsequently get mostly shredded in the manzanita, but it did it's $0.99 worth. As we found our way to the summit we had a quick conference on how to proceed. Though Roper's guide was silent on the topic, I suggested we continue north to meet up with the Eagle Peak Trail. This seemed better than returning the way we'd come. Continuing upwards, it would be too difficult to follow the ridge directly, but it seemed we could make our way along the east side through the brush that we could see before us. As we huddled for a few minutes under the shelter of a large boulder along the summit ridge of Middle Brother, Adam smiled and asked if I thought we'd gotten ourselves "into a bit of a pickle," a nice way of saying a potential epic. We had, it was true, but things did not seem desperate, at least not yet.
It would take another hour to make our way through the brush we found there, but it worked. Meanwhile, to the rain was added a mix of hail and we continued to grow wetter as we worked our way along ledges, cliff bases and over some horrendous brush, the kind you grab with both hands to balance as you walk over the same stuff below you, hovering on branches several feet off the ground. About where the GPS showed it to be, we eventually stumbled upon the Eagle Peak Trail. We were out of our pickle for sure now, and though we'd both been there previously, I suggested we ought to go to the top of Eagle Peak to complete "the Triumverate." I wasn't sure if that was even a word, but it was convincing - we hauled our soggy butts up to the rocky summit. The winds were howling and we came down as soon as we touched the highest rock. My camera was packed away to keep it out of the rain, so for a two hour stretch while we were being pelted I took no pictures.
Our return would follow the trail back towards Yosemite Creek and down the Yosemite Falls Trail. It was not a short distance, some 7-8 miles from Eagle Peak back to the Valley, but at least it would be all on trail. Portions of the trail had become a soggy mess, but by now the rain had let up and would soon stop altogether. We peeled off layer by layer as we warmed and the outer layers dried. There was almost no one on the otherwise busy trail network leading to the top of Yosemite Falls. Undoubtedly most everyone had immediately started down the trail when the thunderstorm had started hours earlier. Aside from a pair of soggy backpackers we met going up the trail, the only other folks we saw were two Swiss climbers who had just finished three days on The Nose of El Capitan only an hour before the rain started. They considered themselves fortunate. They made good time hauling their heavy loads down the trail at pretty much the same rate that Adam and I descended with much lighter daypacks.
The rain had brought out fresh smells and colors to our surroundings. Lichens and moss were a vibrant green, having come to life, saturated with the rain. It was really quite pleasant now that the rain had stopped and it was an extra treat to have this popular trail mostly to ourselves. We paused at Columbia Point to take a look at the soggy Valley. Some sun could be seen on the south side of the canyon rim, but further east over Half Dome the rains looked to continue. It was 7:30p before we returned to the Valley floor, then a short hike back to Yosemite Lodge. Adam paused to inspect a piece of rock that we had passed by in the morning - Swan Slab. We had enthusiastically hoped we'd be done early enough with the Three Brothers to do some rock climbing in the afternoon. Now, after more than 12 hours on the go, that seemed almost quaint. Adam inspected the damp granite, not at all convinced as I was that it would be dry by morning.
Back at the cars, we got out of our wet boots and made plans. Or at least, I did. Adam wasn't sure what he wanted to do other than get a shower. He was losing his enthusiasm for rock climbing the following day, a bit despondent and thinking he might just drive back to Sacramento. His mojo had been left somewhere up on Lower Brother. The free shower in Curry Village was divine. I always take the handicap stall when I can because it has so much room that it feels luxurious. Afterwards, I went to the picnic area at Ahwahnee Meadow and began preparing dinner in the van while Adam was using the Wifi at Curry Village to check on some Ebay listings. I gave him only a 50% chance of showing up for dinner afterwards, but he came through. He watched the rest of In the Line of Fire with me while he ate his dinner of ramen noodles. Yum. We spent the night in our cars parked at Yosemite Lodge. So far, we haven't had anyone disturb our sleep there...
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