Royal Arches YVF

Sun, Nov 2, 2003

With: Romain Wacziarg

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow
later climbed Sat, Jul 12, 2008


Matthew had left Yosemite Valley late the previous night while Romain and I bedded down in our unheated tent cabin. It was cold outside, in the 20s at night, but probably 10 degrees warmer in the tent, and with our warm sleeping bags we slept fairly comfortably. We got up around 7a and had breakfast in Curry Village. Neither of us expected we'd be able to climb Higher Cathedral Spire with the new snow that fell a few days ago. I had suggested Grizzly Peak as an alternative, while Romain came up with Royal Arches. His plan seemed more audacious, so I took an instant liking to his choice. He had been researching the route a good deal before he came to the Valley which helped win me over. I had only climbed with Romain once before on Michael Minaret, but he showed himself to be a very capable leader though he considered himself a beginner. Romain might be just the guy to go up Royal Arches with, I figured. I knew I didn't have the skills to lead it myself, and I wouldn't want a guided climb where the outcome was all but certain. Romain and I together would make for an interesting challenge of this famous Valley route. Grizzly Peak was far shorter and mostly easier - I could do that with anyone at some future date.

After breakfast we drove over towards Cathedral Spires to at least verify the conditions. The sun was shining on the upper tip of both spires, but most of the route would remain in the shade for the whole day, and there was snow on most of the slopes and ledges. It looked chilly and miserable even as we viewed it from our heated car. Royal Arches it would be - it had the added advantage of being on the sunnier north side of the Valley.

It was 8:30a before we were out of our car and approaching the route. It had taken until this long before the sun had reached the lower pitches of the route. I was having some doubts about winter climbing - seems this kind of weather might best be used for long hikes where the constant movement can keep a body warm. We had some trouble finding the start of the route. Two other climbers were high on the first pitch of the 5.7 alternative start, but we soon found the traditional chimney start around the corner to the left. We were all high on ourselves and our abilities as we roped up to tackle the first of 16 pitches, but it didn't take long to get a reality check - climbing is so much easier when doing it indoors mulling over a guidebook. Romain headed up the slanting chimney and promptly got sketched even before the first piece of pro was placed. Another downside of winter climbing was the size our packs - stuffed with warm clothes in case the weather turned nasty, they were bulky and awkward to climb with. Romain decided to send his pack down and have me haul it when I followed. Argh. This was looking like a lot of work from the start. An additional problem we found was the smoothness of the rock, worn slick by the thousands of previous parties that have collectively made this one of the most popular routes. After some 45 minutes or so Romain finally pulled over the top of the chimney to finish the first pitch. It would not go much faster the rest of the day. When it was my turn to follow I found myself cursing and swearing up a storm in no time at all. I got jammed in the chimney with my larger pack and couldn't move. As I struggled I heard some muffled noise above. "What?!" I shouted up. Something about not feeling so good, then a moment later Romain threw up his breakfast. While on one level this was a bit amusing, on a more serious one it was well, serious. I had a few seconds to imagine how I might extracate myself from this position should Romain be incapacitated above me. I might fall twenty feet or so, but it didn't look like a fatal fall. It would certainly put me out of the mood to climb for long time. I couldn't climb up without a belay, although maybe if I ditched the packs... While I was mulling this over Romain recovered, in fact he felt much better afterwards - he'd been somewhat queezy for part of the morning whether due to nerves, food poisoning, or something else we'd never know. I ended up wriggling my pack off me, tying it off, climbing up to a tree, then hauling the two packs after me. It was a lot of work. I was climbing in my Martha Stewart gloves to keep my tender hands from getting damaged in the cracks. This also helped to keep my hands warmer even if it meant the holds were less secure. Romain was climbing barehanded and his fingers got chewed up a good bit on this climb - standard rock climber's abuse.

We climbed some third class debris to the start of the second pitch about 50 yards away. Being polite, Romain asked if I wanted to lead, but I told him it was all his today - I would be happy as belay slave. Romain cheerfully tackled pitch two, purportedly class 5.4. Hah! This was a crack on face pitch with a trickle of water running down the middle to keep everything nice and slick. This pitch again took some time for Romain to get over, a nasty bulge half way up proving to be beastly. When I followed this pitch I had nothing but praise for Romain's abilities on lead - I would have packed up and called it a day on this one. How this could be rated 5.4 was beyond both of us. Something was wrong, or this climb was terribly sandbagged. Days later someone told us the easier route goes around to the right of the crack we took on the main face.

It was nice letting Romain do all the hard work while I took in the great views around the Valley. If it wasn't cold I might have thought it idyllic. Another party had started up the first pitch as we finished it and they were closing in again on the second one. If they climbed any faster we'd have to take a break to let them pass, chewing up more valuable time. The first party that had started before us was nowhere in sight.

The third pitch was purported to be 4th class - no rope needed there, right? But where was it? Looking ahead the route seemed to go straight up. Romain started up. I questioned the choice thinking maybe the route goes around to the right more. We discussed it a bit, but in the end I went with Romain's selection - I've made too many route-finding blunders in the past to take my opinions too strongly. The route quickly became 5.6, but we no longer trusted any of the ratings on our topo. Climbing up a body-width crack, it was quite enjoyable except for our cramped belay station in the trees above. Looking around for where to go next, we both eventually concluded we'd gotten off route - nothing matched our topo any more, and we knew it couldn't be that wrong. It was almost noon and we'd chewed up 3 hours on 3 pitches, and one of those we would have to reverse. We were a bit of joke and we knew it, but it was still pretty fun just climbing around on the rocks of Yosemite.

We set up a rappel, one aspect that I'd more experience than Romain, so he let me do most of the rope mismanagement. On the one hand I say I hate rappels because it gives me the willies and I'm afraid someday a mishandled rappel will be the death of me. On the other hand I just love bounding down sheer faces on a rope. Romain went down first, followed by me, then we had a pow-wow. We both were of the opinion that we'd never get to the top before dark. We still had 13 pitches to go and maybe six hours of daylight. Nothing we'd done so far led us to believe it would get any easier. Looking around we could see the party behind us had already called it a day. Perhaps they were lamer than us, though that was hard to imagine. We walked around the corner with a little downclimbing and found the route where I had suspected it to be. Lucky guess. We decided we may as well go on as far as we felt comfortable or until the weather turned on us, I was fairly confident we could rappel everything (all two pitches) we climbed already.

We used a rope on the third pitch despite the class 4 rating. There was some water coming down making the hand and foot holds chancy. It seemed much harder than class 4. Later it was apparent that this was the fourth pitch (5.6 rating) that we climbed and the third pitch had been the easier section before it that we thought no more than class 3. And so it goes. After pitch 4 we had about 100 yards of class 3 terraces that made for a nice change and easy progress. It was getting noticeably colder the higher we went due to the winds that increased as we left the more sheltered pitches below. Above us we spotted the other party rappelling several pitches ahead of us. Looks like no one was going to the top today. Pitch 6 is one of the harder ones at 5.7, but the hardest move is getting up the first 8 feet in some finger cracks and pockets. Romain offered the lead on this one and I was happy to oblige, figuring I couldn't get too hurt if I crashed five or six feet. I had the darnedest time getting up too. I had to climb without the gloves, smashing two fingers in these tiny pockets. Having no upper-body strength, it took everything I could muster to lift my body & pack weight up on a few fingers. I placed a small cam above me. After two unsuccessful attempts to climb higher I shamelessly used the cam to pull myself up, ruining my free-climb attempt. Later Romain admitted to doing the same thing. After that initial eight feet, the rest was easy going and I was soon up at the top of the pitch setting up an anchor around a tall, dead pine. The other climbers were rappelling on a line to the side of us and I chatted briefly with the second waiting his turn to go down. He asked if we had headlamps and bivy gear and seemed relieved that I told him we had no intentions of going to the top. They had turned back at the pendulum three pitches higher due to cold and threatening weather, and were surprised to find another party behind them still heading up.

Romain came up and then took the lead for the 5.5 rated 7th pitch. It had one awkward move in it that had Romain stumped for a short time. I had an easier time of it, but then I had a rope above me to give me extra confidence. It was another fine lead and I again complemented Romain on it. With us both huddled around a tree growing in the near vertical crack system, we held a short conference. It was 1:45p and we wanted to be sure we'd get off the route before dark. We decided to retreat.

Retreating was easier than we expected, taking less than three hours. We rappelled a more direct line on pitch 6 (following the line taken by the other party), packed up the rope for the terraces of pitch 5, and rappelled the face variation for the last pitch. If one looks for any amount of time you can find rappel slings littering the route on both sides. With so many parties climbing the route, almost every conceivable wrong turn has already been taken and a party has retreated from it. It was 4:40p when we reached the Valley Floor, a most enjoyable day for only seven pitches. Next time we would carry less gear, get an earlier start, and with prior knowledge of the route we ought to be much faster the next time.

We went back to Curry Village for the requisite shower and pizza and beer, making plans to climb Grizzly Peak the following day. Unfortunately we woke up to three inches of snow on our tent cabin roof and the ground, and it was coming down hard. So much for climbing, winter had arrived for good it seemed. We packed up our stuff after breakfast and exited Yosemite while we still could (stopping to take some pictures of the snow and wildlife first). Another fun weekend drawn to a close...

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