Sat, Jul 12, 2008
I was just late in meeting Michael for our 5a starting time at the picnic area west of the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite Valley. Being a Saturday in July, we expected this classic route would have some traffic and we wanted to get early start at first light. I had attempted the route some five years earlier with Romain Wacziarg, but a number of factors combined resulting in our bailing from the route around pitch 7 or 8 (out of 15 or so total). Romain had come back with another partner the following year and completed the route, but I had yet to give it a try again. I had climbed with Michael only once in the previous five years, so it was good to have a chance to spend a day together, catching up on each others' lives and doing a bit of climbing as well.
It was after 5:30a before we got started on the first pitch, one of the harder ones on the route. I gave Michael the lead, in fact offering to let him lead every pitch if he chose. He chose not to. Rats. I like being a belay monkey on the easy end of the rope. Michael proved a confident and competent climber, despite his talk to the contrary. A bigger plus, he was far better versed in the art of gear placement and ropework, something I tend to minimize mostly due to my inadequacy at it. He had more than a dozen helpful hints to offer over the course of the day, and if I can remember just a few of them I will be a better climber myself.
Having been on the first half of the route previously, we had none of the route-finding problems that had dogged that first attempt. We went up swinging leads (I got the class 3 simul-scramble leads for my first two turns), making it up the first six pitches in under two hours. My hardest lead, P6, saw me unable to free the 5.7 start - I had to place pro and then pull up on it to get over the hump. Viva la France! Another party came up hot on our heels and we paused to let them pass us. A Yosemite guide and his client were zipping up in quick fashion - the guide leading every pitch, essentially solo since he placed no pro and did not let the client belay him. He would then belay his client up the pitch he had just climbed. The guide also carried a second rope around his shoulders, to make rapping down a quick affair when the route was finished - it was obvious that he had made this climb a great many times. P7 was a toughie I was glad to let Michael lead - I had trouble just following it. P8, just before the pendulum, was more my style (that means it was easier, if you couldn't tell) and I was glad to draw that pitch. I watched the party ahead of now as they made their way across the pendulum, utilizing a fixed rope that had been left for that purpose. They made it look fairly tame and my concerns on this next pitch melted away.
Michael got the lead back for the pendulum pitch, struggling a bit on it while trying to find the right length of rope to grab to allow him to swing up onto the narrow ledge to the left. Eventually managing it, he made my own crossing rather easy by giving me the key knots to hold onto during the transit. P10 lead to the Canoe Tree, another tame lead for me. The only tricky part was trusting this half-rotted tree to hold together while grabbing it for the final moves to the next belay station. I think if the tree should fail the route will move up a grade to 5.9 as a result.
While I was belaying from the Canoe Tree, a pair of soloists came through. The first one seemed confident of his moves, the second one less so. They used a rope for a quick belay to get up to the tree, then continued on out of sight around the corner. Michael later reported that the second climber looked shakier, struggling on the pendulum and giving the impression he might peel off at any time. Fortunately no such accident occurred. P11 saw Michael in the lead once again, choosing a 5.8 crack instead of the easier 5.6 route around the corner. He reported pulling on three of the pieces he placed in this tough section. I did no better in following and reprimanded him later for making me work so hard in following. I would have taken the easier route around, but the need to remove those pieces he'd placed meant I had to follow the same way.
The pace eased, we change a few more leads, and Michael shouts down something from the top of the next pitch. The rope has gone slack and just sat in my hands, lifeless. I didn't know what he had said, but I guessed he was looking for a place to set up an anchor. After what seems like a short forever, some more rope went out and eventually I got the signal to climb up. Michael had been waiting for the previous party to rap off ahead of him, causing some delay. Since we are not rapping off ourselves, we climb through the rap station. This pitch is nearly horizontal, going across huge slabs of sloping granite that drop off to an abyss we cannot see. I found only one of the two bolts along this section described in the topo, and the protection I left for Michael appeared woefully inadequate only after he pointed out my inconsideration when he followed. Ooops.
Across the slabs, we found a burned out section of the route, perhaps caused by lightning or perhaps by careless overnight lodgers. Thinking we were done with the rope for the day, we packed everything up and put on our tennis shoes for the hike out. We refilled our water supplies (Michael was completely out at this point) from a small spring eminating from the rocks above. In following the use trail west for the last scramble out, we came to find that we were not quite as done as we had thought. We came upon a class 4 section that I had no interest in soloing in tennis shoes (nor in climbing shoes, if pressed). We spent probably 20 minutes looking for another way out, thinking we must have missed a key spot - it's supposed to be a walk-off from here. Eventually we came back to the class 4 section and slightly frustrated, proceeded to get out all our gear again. It would have seemed quite stupid to have an accident on such terrain with a couple backpacks full of gear on our backs.
With the last pitch dispensed with, we climbed to the top of the rim and declared ourselves done with ropework. All we had to do was descend the North Dome Gully about a mile away to the east, though not as easy as it might sound. The gully is somewhat tricky to find, with better parties than ourselves getting lost among some of the cliffs to be found enroute. Fortunately I had been up and down the gully a few times already so we had an advantage there. We found the use trail heading over to Washington Column easily enough, then wound our way through the brush and forest towards the gully. Michael began to drag some at this point, eventually declaring that he had had "a bellyful of adventure for one day." Too bad, so sad (as my daughter would say), we still had to get down the gully.
There are actually a number of braided use trails that traverse between Washington Column and the top of North Dome Gully, none of them more obviously advantageous. In order to avoid a spooky class 4 slab crossing lower down, I took us on the highest use trail that I found. Though regularly ducked (as are all the various options, it seems), Michael had hesitations in following. It is easy for doubt to creep into your mind when you can look down and see what seems to be a better trail some 50 or 60 feet below you. That I couldn't assure him that I had been on this particular path before didn't help any. Nevertheless I persevered with Michael in tow, following the higher use trail until we reached a large cairn marking the gully and the start of our descent.
The gully was in usual form, meaning steep, loose, and generally crappy footing. Michael expressed his disgust for this type of adventure, preferring the clean lines of rock and a defined path. I, on the other hand, revelled in this stuff, unashamed to declare my love for dirty scrambling. With Half Dome and Washington Column for an amazing backdrop, how could it not be wonderful? Somewhere along the descent Michael took a spill that caused some bloodletting from his left knee. This did not have a positive effect on how he was feeling about the route, nor did it make him any happier. We paused to bandage it up, then continued down, past the last short sections of class 3 until we reached a more regular use trail among the forested slopes near the bottom.
From the top of our climbing route it took us two and a half hours to make our way back to the car in the Ahwahnee parking lot where we arrived at 5p. After changing his shirt, Michael's first order of business was to get some liquid refreshments from the Ahwahnee gift shop. Our sweaty, salted, and generally worn appearance contrasted sharply with the general crowd that frequents this fine hotel, but it mattered little. We weren't the first dirtbags to crash the place. Drinks secured, we headed for Curry Village for showers, beer and pizza, in that order. It had been a fine day.
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