Climbing in Yosemite

South Face of Washington’s Column

The Yosemite Valley is a stunning paradise of gigantic granite cliffs that stand boldly above the gentle valley floor. These giant crags guard the ancient glen that was once carved by an enormous glacier. The Merced river flows gently through this ravine, but it is still foaming from it’s tumultuous descent from the high Sierras.

Yosemite Falls is the Queen of this pristine paradise. This 2425 foot cascade rages with the spring runoff and fills the valley with a gentle mist. The magical forests of ancient trees stand boldly and would have a million stories to tell, if we would only listen.

It is truly stunning just to be here, but I have some very high aspirations that are making me a bit nervous. I am a somewhat seasoned climber, but these granite walls are a bit daunting, and much bigger than the local crags that I have previously climbed.

The giant wall of El Capitan stands boldly above me, and I shiver in amazement at the thought of being suspended on it’s face for almost a week.

My present goals are a bit smaller, but I really want to climb a big wall. The longest route that I have ever climbed has been about 500 feet at Granite Mountain AZ, but these are far more grand. El Captain is about 3000 feet and the average time was about 6 days in the late 70’s. I am a moderately skilled free climber, but I have very little experience with the aid techniques that are required for the big wall routes. But, I do have a strong heart and reasonable goals. My fellow climbing partners from Flagstaff were busy working, and my job suddenly ended, so I seized the opportunity to visit this pristine valley for the second time.

Camp 4 was and still is an amazing mecca of climbers from all over the world. This walk in camp ground serves the climbing populous and is one of the most interesting melting pots in the world. One of my favorite reasons for pursuing adventure sports is the people that I have met along the way, and this campground is a great example. Professional and novice climbers from all over the world gather here to test their skills on some of the biggest granite walls on the planet, and they spend their evenings reminiscing around the campfires.
I was lucky enough to find an empty site, and quickly pitched my tent. The daylight was about gone, but a warm fire was raging at a nearby campground, and I wandered over to check it out. A small throng of enlightened climbers was huddled around the ambience exchanging tales of their exciting adventures, and they welcomed me to the party. It was a great evening of new friendships, and I met a couple of climbers who were looking for partners. One of them was ready to climb tomorrow, so we quickly made a plan before retiring to our tents.

Climbing is a fairly safe, but very serious sport, and for most mortals it requires a partner who you will be trusting your life to. This need can often be very positive because unlike skiing, the climber is forced to find a partner and this has often lead to some life long friendships. Scott and I had bonded a bit as we shared our previous experiences and had decided to trust each other with our lives the next day.

“Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel” is one of my favorite sayings, and it means trust your judgement, but cover your ass. I think that both Scott and I followed this example, so we chose a route that we both felt confident with, and spent the afternoon checking each other out. If you don’t fall you don’t need a belay, and neither of us fell, as we enjoyed a great day and gained each other’s trust.

The combination of adrenaline and beer is one of the best highs that I’ve ever experienced and we returned to camp 4 in a euphoric state.

A charismatic old brit was hanging out at the fire and had just returned from a fun adventure on “Washington’s Column”. “It’s a great route lads, and a shorter version of the nose of El Cap. It has most of the same challenges, but it is easier and a lot shorter.”

Both Scott and I were eager to do a big wall, and this one sounded great, but it would involve some techniques that were unfamiliar to both of us.

“Direct aid climbing” involves hanging a system of slings from gear that is placed in the rock, and using these slings to climb upward. This system of slings are called etriers and consist of 5 or 6 loops or steps that have been tied or sewn into an approximately 6 foot loop of nylon webbing. Most aid climber carry two sets of two etriers. This system allows the climber to move upward over terrain that he or she would be unable to climb without aid, but it is not a simple task. My previous aid climbing experience had involved following my old friend Rich Jack from Aspen, and Scott’s was about the same. But we had both read “How to Grunt and Dangle” by Warren Harding, and we had also absorbed a few tips from “Advanced Rockcraft” by Royal Robins.

The old Brit had given us a spark of inspiration, and we started to plan a trip, but we procrastinated by practicing our skills on some more short routes.

A few more nights of stories around the fire, and a few more days of staring at the big walls finally pushed us into making a plan.

“I think we’re ready to give it a go, and the weather forecast looks good, so, how about tomorrow?” I inquired.

“I think we need to do a little more preparation, so how about if we spend tomorrow scouting out the route and getting organized? The weather looks like it’s gonna hold for a while, and we could be ready to go bright and early on Thursday,” he replied.

“That sounds like a good plan,” I replied somewhat reluctantly, and we spent a relaxing but somewhat intimidating day buying food, packing and staring at the giant tower that was more than twice as big as anything we had ever climbed.

Dragging camping gear up a vertical wall of rock is as hard as it sounds, but Washington’s column offered an excellent alternative. There was a comfortable ledge about 400 feet from the ground, which could be gained with 4 pitches of moderate technical climbing. An early start would give us enough time to climb four more pitches above this ledge and retreat to a comfortable camp. The 4 pitches above Dinner Ledge were quite challenging, and completing them would give us a big head start for the final day.

Almost all of the early Yosemite big wall climbs involved finding a system of cracks in the granite walls which would allow the climbers to place protection and give them something to hang on to. There are many cracks and features on the huge walls of this great valley, but most of them do not continue for the full length of the climb. The first ascent parties would thoroughly scout the unclimbed face and plan a route that looked feasible from the ground.The early pioneers had managed to piece various crack systems together and had developed a technique called a pendulum to traverse to another crack when the one they had started became unclimbable. The first step involved climbing to a high point on the disappearing crack system and attaching a solid anchor. The lead climber would then signal his belayer to lower him about 20-30 feet. From this point he would run back and forth across the face until he gained enough momentum to reach the adjacent crack where he would attach another anchor and continue climbing. This was obviously quite challenging to follow as well, and would probably be the crux of our climb.

The four pitches to dinner ledge were fun and challenging, but easily conquered and we quickly hauled up our gear. It was an awesome ledge with stunning views of Half Dome and the Yosemite valley, and we enjoyed a casual lunch in a pristine paradise.

“Wow! What a cool spot,” I exclaimed! “This is probably the best camping spot I’ve ever had!”

It would have been very easy to take a long siesta, but we were on a mission to climb, and the giant wall was taunting us. The next four pitches involved some very exciting techniques that were fairly new for both of us.

“Which pitches do you want to lead?” I inquired.

“The first one looks steeper, but the second one has a pendulum. The guidebook shows another pendulum on pitch 12, so we can each do one. I’ll take the first lead, if you don’t mind.” Scott replied.

“It’s yours, buddy, give it hell.” I replied, as I quickly set up the belay.

The first pitch was extremely steep, but most of the protection had already been fixed. It was probably only A1, but it still involved climbing and finding a balance point on the steps of nylon webbing as he reached to clip the next fixed pro. He was hanging by a few threads of fiber above the vast valley and his adrenaline was reaching new levels.

“How are you doing up there,” I inquired as I carefully fed the rope.

“This is really cool, and not as hard as I thought, and the view just keeps on getting better. This looks like a good ledge, so I’m gonna stop and set the belay. OK, off belay, your turn.”

The most popular technique for following an aid route involves using a set of Jumars or mechanical rope ascenders. For this technique, the leader fastens the rope to a secure set of anchors, and the 2nd climber uses the mechanical devices to ascend the fixed rope. These devices are used in pairs, along with the etriers and are designed to slide upwards and grip the rope securely. With a good system of balance and technique, it can be quite easy, but lacking either one of those can make the experience quite desperate. I had previously practiced this technique in Monument Valley with the Banditos, but it was very challenging, and probably as exciting as leading. It involved more dangling and grunting, and my adrenaline was soon flying as high as Scott’s, as I reached the ledge and exchanged jubilant high fives.

“Nice lead Scott!”

“Thanks John. That was really fun. It’s your turn now.” He replied as he prepared the next belay.

This was my first real aid lead and it took a few moments to master the techniques, but the placements were solid and I wandered upward past another small roof.

“Wow This is really cool, and look where we are!” The extreme exposure of the overhanging roof caused my adrenaline level to surge, but the technique started to click just as the crack disappeared. “This must be the pendulum! This fixed pin looks pretty solid, but I’m gonna back it up anyway. OK tension! OK, I’ve got 2 really solid anchors, and there’s another backup 6 feet down, so I guess I’m ready. It looks like I need to go down about 20 feet.”

“OK, lowering,” Scott replied.

“That’s good! Tension! Here I go!”

I tried desperately to remember Royal Robbins advice as I started to run across the vertical wall. It was a huge rush to be on a giant swing about 600 feet above the valley, but my mind was focused on the goal and everything else seemed to vanish. The first swing didn’t even come close, so I ran back across the wall and gained as much momentum as I could. This swing was still a bit short, but I had gained a great deal of momentum and the third try finally reached the adjacent crack.
This new crack offered a somewhat relaxed stance and a good chance for protection, but placing pro here would endanger my partner and the climbing wasn’t that hard, so I ascended another ten feet to a hanging belay with fixed anchors.

“Yahoo! That was really wild! The rope is fixed. Climb on.” I exclaimed, as I found a comfortable stance and enjoyed the stunning view.

Following a pendulum is just as challenging as leading it, but Scott remembered the techniques and quickly cruised up to the belay.

Our new skills were improving rapidly as we aided up two more pitches of easier climbing to a comfortable belay. Dusk was rapidly approaching and the alpen glow on Half Dome was stunning, so we spent a few moments relaxing and absorbing the brilliant vista.

Our two 50 meter ropes were just long enough to reach the comfortable ledge, so we fixed them to very solid anchors and rapped down to a luxurious camp. The day had left us quite exhausted, but it was very satisfying to know that we had achieved about half our goal, and the weather was holding. The light show on Half Dome continued until dark, and we enjoyed a fine dinner before passing out on the comfortable ledge.

“Good morning campers!” I exclaimed, with my usual morning ritual, as the dawn gradually arrived.

We had both slept well and eagerly awaited the days challenge.

After a quick breakfast of energy bars and a bit of gear preparation, we prepared to jumar up the fixed ropes. We were becoming confident with this technique, and quickly reached the high point of the previous day.

“It’s technically your turn to lead, but the 12th pitch has a pendulum, and I’d hate to deprive you of getting to lead it, so I’ll take this one if you don’t care.” I offered.

“That’s a hard offer to turn down, John. It’s yours.”

The route continued with intermittent free climbing up to 5.9 and a few aid moves and the summit was getting ever closer, but the warm autumn sun was starting to bake the south face.

“Do you have any more water?” inquired Scott, as he reached the top of the 11th pitch.

“Nope, It’s all gone. I’m really thirsty too, but there’s only one more pitch, and the cold beer is waiting in the valley.”

Scott aced the last pitch, and a long scramble brought us back to the valley floor where we enjoyed a jubilant evening at the Ahwahnee Hotel bar.