This could be subtitled ‘Episode Ten in Bill and Dom’s Excellent Adventures’ after five previous trips to Yosemite, and further adventures in The Alps, Dolomites, Taghia (Morocco) and Riglos (Spain).
This year, Bill and I had booked flights to San Francisco a few weeks in advance, for a planned trip to Yosemite to climb North America Wall on El Cap. Subsequently, the ‘Ferguson Fire’ broke out, covering a hundred thousand acres of Mariposa County in Northern California and closing The Valley. Much head-scratching and Internet research (with some very helpful suggestions from the kind folks on the www.supertopo.com Forums) had various Plan Bs identified, but by the time we came to get packed it was looking like The Valley would reopen on the Tuesday after our arrival (thanks to the efforts of a thousand brave firefighters – thanks guys!)
The usual packing and weeding-out process resulted in three bags of 23.5kg each plus a couple of overweight carry-on bags. An uneventful flight on Sunday (direct to SFO – luxury!) had us landed by 3pm but the ‘green lights all the way’ vibe turned to amber when it took three hours to clear immigration. Then it was on to our well proven schedule of a stop in Tracy for a huge shop at Safeway and a cheap kip at Motel 6 before an early start and the remaining three and a half hour drive to Tuolumne. Tuning into The Hawk on 104.1 FM, http://www.104thehawk.com/ the Bob and Tom show provided a familiar soundtrack as we passed the ‘Yosemite Valley closed’ signs on the way, but didn’t get a whif of smoke (though the haze built as we entered the National Park)
Arriving in Tuolumne we pitched tents, and with a glorious afternoon in prospect, headed over to Fairview Dome to do the Regular Route on the North Face – one of the 50 Classic Routes of North America. Arriving, we found a team just finishing the first pitch. This is a 200ft crack with a couple of stiff 5.9 sections and is by some way the hardest on the route; probably worth E1 in its own right. After 4 pitches you reach the commodious Crescent Ledge. Here’s Bill soaking up the view. … and leading pitch 5.
After pitch 8 things mellow out significantly and we simul-climbed the remaining four pitches. The summit of Fairview Dome really does merit the name – there’s a stunning panorama over Tuolumne and the High Sierra. We were on top by 6pm, a bit over four hours after starting climbing and just short of 24 hours after clearing US immigration! Not too shoddy for almost 1,500ft of climbing and a pretty good remedy for jet lag – I slept like a baby!
Next day we planned on another amenable Tuolumne classic – West Crack on Daff Dome. A leisurely start saw us reaching the base of the route around 11am, just as the first drops of rain fell. The forecast had said 40% chance, and Bill professed that it would soon pass: ‘Just a lambing shower.’ Fifteen minutes later and the first claps of thunder were echoing around the dome, as the rain turned to sleet. Friction climbing on wet rock isn’t highly recommended and nor is being on the top of a dome in a lightning storm! We bailed, struck camp and headed down to the newly reopened Yosemite Valley.
Over 30F hotter and really quite smokey, it was a remarkable contrast to the sub-alpine conditions we’d just left. Even more remarkable, the whole place was nearly empty; extraordinary compared with the high season madness that is normally the case at this time of year. Amazing to be able to just walk on to an empty Camp 4! Having arrived safely in The Valley we were planning to start fixing on NAW the following day and looking forward to having the whole of El Cap to ourselves!
By the morning the smoke was already clearing in The Valley and folks were arriving in numbers. We were up early with the intention of ‘fixing’ – doing the first 4 pitches of North America Wall then leaving our ropes and rapping down for a final night in Camp 4 before heading up on the wall the next day.
The South East face of El Cap is dominated by a huge swirl of Diorite, a darker coloured rock, that looks a bit like North America, and this has inspired many of the route names hereabouts, including NA Wall. This was only the third ever route climbed on El Cap and takes a line up the left hand side of this feature. There’s a great account of the 1964 first ascent from Royal Robbins himself here: https://rockandice.com/snowball/royal-robbins-first-ascent-of-the-north-america-wall/
The good news from the day was that we managed to climb four pitches as planned – tricky aid relying on many fixed heads (insecure blobs of aluminium hammered into features in the rock which are too shallow or rounded for other gear) and the occasional sketchy cam on just two lobes. It was slow going as we dialed back into the aid climbing mode, after a three year gap (Bill pointed out that Alex and Tommy would have topped out in the time it took me to do the first 2 pitches), but by the end of it we felt we were getting back in to the rhythm of things.
However, as we gained height we became increasingly frustrated with minor inaccuracies in the topo: pitch lengths weren’t quite right or belays were in the wrong place. As I neared the top of pitch 4 the continuing struggle to reconcile guidebook and rock finally became impossible and the realisation dawned that we were on THE WRONG ROUTE. The final irefutable proof being that we were supposed to finish this pitch on a ledge beneath the righthand end of a huge roof, with a nasty looking off-width chimney leading up to it. There was no sign of the ledge, roof or chimney, and later perusing of the guidebook confirmed we’d done the first 4 pitches of Sea of Dreams; quite a proud achievement in itself but ultimately unproductive. A great example of SOD’s law! We rapped, pulled the ropes and were back to square one. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so settled for drinking beer instead!
After our first-day’s snafu, we at least knew where the actual start of NAW was (the other ‘unmistakable’ triple cracks with a roof, about 50m right of SOD). We’d also blown the dust off our aiding technique, and were a bit more organised. All that meant that we managed to get the first four pitches of the RIGHT ROUTE in the bag by late afternoon, taking us up to Mazatlan Ledge beneath the huge and now very obvious roof.
Although that’s only 4 out of 27 pitches, as a block we’d heard that they represented the technical crux of the route (all being C3ish) and we were pretty happy with progress. Very similar, in fact, to the pitches we’d climbed in error the day before: Lots of fixed heads, and a few stubs and frayed wires of no-longer-fixed heads! I managed to take a bit of a whipper on Pitch 4, when a poor cam placement pulled after a couple of hook moves and another poor cam, before downwards progress was arrested by a decent bolt.
For those who aren’t familiar with aid climbing grades, here’s a quick explanation courtesy of http://www.SuperTopo.com:
A1 or C1 Easy aid: All placements are bomber. Little danger of falling except through pilot error. Most C1 pitches take from one to two hours.
A2 or C2 Moderate aid: one or two bodyweight placements over bomber gear. Five- to 30-foot fall potential. Most C2 pitches take one to three hours.
A3 or C3 Hard aid: Three to five bodyweight placements in a row. Thirty- to 50-foot fall potential. Most C3 pitches take two to three hours.
A4 or C4 Serious aid: Six to eight bodyweight placements in a row and a 50- to 80-foot fall potential. Most C4 pitches take more than three hours.
A5 or C5 Extreme aid: More than nine bodyweight placements in a row. Eighty-foot plus fall potential. Most A5 pitches take more than four hours.
In this context the letter ‘A’ refers to traditional aid climbing where a hammer is used to place and then remove pitons, copperheads and the like; ‘C’ refers to ‘Clean Aid’ ie the pitch can be climbed without using a hammer and without relying on fixed gear. ‘CF’ is also ‘Clean’ but relies on the presence and condition of fixed gear. Our plan for the route was a clean, hammerless ascent, and so far we were on track.
Back down to Camp 4 for beers, a fire and an improvised game of Scrabble from a giant bite-sized candy selection pack (the letters SNICKERS make for a somewhat limited vocabulary and it was clear that we’d need to work on a ‘travel version’ if we’re going to play on the portaledge!)
The following morning we made a leisurely start ahead of an afternoon of toil. The first job was a major packathon, neatly sorting food, water and beer for each night into ration bags. We were targeting four nights with a contingency of a fifth, with three litres of water each per day (more than our usual September allowance, bearing in mind the temperatures in the mid 30s C) plus a few spare and enough beer for one each per night and one for the top. This required a quick excursion to the store to refresh beer supplies after Bill had accidentally broken into the wall stash the previous evening, which resulted in us taking some of the excellent Kona Big Wave brew with us. By a bizarre coincidence, this is also available on tap at our local at home, all the way from Hawaii!
Like most plans, our’s hadn’t survive the first encounter with the enemy! One knock-on effect of our ‘detour’ onto Sea of Dreams was that we were now highly unlikely to be back down before our seven-day camping window on Camp 4 had expired (there’s a seven-day limit on camping in the Park before mid-September; just one of the many logistical complexities to be factored in to your planning). The prospect of arriving back in camp, after four or five nights on the wall, to find our tents and gear impounded wasn’t appealing so we packed up and moved everything into the bear-boxes in the Meadows. No smoke in The Valley today and El Cap is looking glorious; and we’ve still got at least the whole of the South East face to ourselves.
The next task was to hump the food and soft furnishings to the base of the route, to add to the 30kg of water and 20kg of ropes and kit already on the wall, making for about 70kg in all. It’s mid afternoon and time for the final check list: Correct route? Yup! Sufficient beer? Yup! Okay, we’re off…
The sheer grim effort required to get yourselves and ‘the pigs’ up a couple of 200ft rope lengths of steep territory is always a tough introduction to the start of a big wall, with the bags at their heaviest and the wall generally at its steepest, and this was no exception. We started off with our tried and trusted ‘space hauling’ approach; that is with Bill jumaring up the free end of the haul rope, using his bodyweight to partially counter-balance the bags and with me using every ounce of energy to get the things moving – thankless work for Bill as for every foot you move up, you are immediately sent straight back down again. Later we adopted a three-in-one pulley system, with a Pro-Traxion, inverted jumar, pulley, Micro-Traxion and Gri-Gri, which was effective though laborious. Each ‘heave’ moving the bag about a foot, but at least it meant that one of us could haul whilst the other one jugged.
The topo labels Pitch 5 as ‘5.8 Squeeze!’ and I’m glad that the chance decision for me to lead the first pitch on Fairview Dome, together with the intervening random events, means this is Bill’s lead. He also got the horror offwidth on Sunkist and the huge wide crack on Zodiac – funny thing, chance! Anyway, he swam and thrutched with aplomb and then made light work of the steepening crack and roof above, before fixing the ropes and returning for a night on Matzalan ledge.
Meanwhile, I’ve got the portaledge set up and the kitchen unpacked, and the JetBoil is firing up just as Bill raps in: ‘I’m home! What’s for tea?’ A couple of brews, a mildly disappointing noodle meal and a very welcome beer later, and our journey through North America is well and truly underway. Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ lullabies away in the background.
An early start to Day 2 and the climbing is quite involved from the off. Pitch 6 has you speeding up a bolt ladder – easy if you’ve got a big ape index and a bit of height (luckily not Bill’s lead) before a wild pendulum to latch an arête and then scramble up some easy ground. Pitch 7 also involves a penjie, but this time you need to stuff a cam into a crack at the right moment to stop you swinging back. Another one where long arms are something of an advantage, and I pick up the gauntlet after a few frustrated swings from my vertically challenged partner. After that fun though, you are into a tricky C2+ thin crack on cam hooks.
Pitch 8 is a long meandering C1 and 5.8 free pitch which Bill cruised in Tennies. 9 is a long C1+ up a thin discontinous crack system, and 10 throws in some tough C2 with Bill improvising by looping a hanger over a broken RURP for the funkiest move of the route so far. There’s a crappy ledge at the top of 10, covered in loose blocks and without a bolted belay, so we holed up at 9 on the portaledge. Bill fires up the music player on his phone as an accompinament for supper and the soundtrack has so far included ‘We’re gonna meet on the ledge’ and ‘Wish you were here’.
Straight out of bed and into a 5.8 squeeze chimney – A great way to start the day, especially as I thought I’d dodged all the wide stuff by taking the even pitches. Rats – foiled again! Happily, pitch 11 of NAW is nothing like the horror show of The Hollow Flake on Salathé – fairly secure back and footing once you actually wrestle your way into the chimney (hint: take minimal gear; I ended up ditching my helmet so I could turn my head) and even some holds! This brings us to Big Sur – the major interchange on this side of the Big Stone (we could have done another few pitches on SOD to arrive at the same spot if we’d thought about it…. But that would have included the infamous ‘Hook or Book’ pitch – lucky escape!)
At this point the route takes a major swing leftwards and retreat, were it to be necessary, would become really quite challenging. The initial push of the first ascent team ground to a halt here for much the same reason. We convened a quick ‘state of the nation’ review:
Progress: A pitch or two off our target schedule, but not too shoddy.
Supplies: More than half our water left and plenty of food; we’d still got a little contingency but worth tightening up consumption a little to be sure
Team: A few bumps & bruises, but spirits high.
Decision: Press on!
Next is The Borderline Traverse – a long traverse up and out leftwards to a lower off and penjie – here’s Bill winding up for the swing
… and sticking it.
Another pendulum, a lot of back-cleaning allows the next couple of pitches to be linked in a huge 200 ft runout; the topo says C2 but there’s barely a placement I wouldn’t have abbed off. All that sideways progress made for a mighty ‘Geronimo’ moment as Bill cut loose from the end of his lower-out line:
Shaken, but not stirred, we finally felt we were in the groove; fitting, as we were actually in The Black Dihedral; the most obvious feature in the North America-shaped blob, and described by Tom Pratt on the first ascent as ‘The ugliest thing I have ever contemplated climbing’. I’m not sure about that, but the end of Pitch 15 certainly made for a tremendously airy spot – very atmospheric and appropriately we feasted on Black Bean soup in the Black Dihedral. Tonight’s soundtrack features Black Eyed Peas and The Black Keys!
We had a comfortable night on the ledge, though the slight phosphorescence in the quartz intrusions conjured all sorts of interesting faces and features in the flickering torchlight. By morning it was just rock again, but the holds on El Nino were looking well chalked and tick-marked. Impressive territory to be free climbing!
Here’s the view from above…
Bill cruised the first pitch of the day, up to The Black Cave – once know as ‘the most exposed bivvy in North America’.
There’s a fantastic photo of the first ascent team stacked in hammocks here. This is followed by the ‘the most exposed pitch in North America’, and it has to be in the top five I’ve done on El Cap. Even more fun and somewhat more testing than the Salathé or Shield roofs, it heads out of the cave rightwards and downwards, then up an overhanging corner crack to take a implausible looking traverse back left along a quartz vein, to finish about 50ft above and 50ft OUT from where you started. Awesome!
Pitches 18 and 19 both turned out trickier than advertised (or we were suckered by the couple of easier pitches the previous day) – anyway, we both added to our airtime logs for the trip. Bill’s attempt at surfing a fridge-sized rock was probably the winner, and reminded us both of the RoadRunner cartoon we’d watched on the plane; you know the one, where Wylie E. Coyote breaks off a huge slab of stone from a mountain top, hangs motionless for a few seconds contemplating his fate, before scrabbling ineffectually at thin air as gravity finally kicks in.
In a moment of clear thinking, Bill managed to push the ‘fridge’ outwards and away from himself, me and our ropes, before plummeting. No lasting damage, and the next pitch took us into the base of The Cyclops Eye (another of the obvious landmarks on El Cap’s South East face). It was only mid-afternoon, but this very commodious bivvy is such a splendid spot to spend the night that we decide to down tools and enjoy the last of the sun, whilst licking our wounds. We judged ourselves to be on track for The Igloo hopefully the following night and topping out and back for pizza and beers on the day after, fingers crossed. Meanwhile, the mood music for the night’s bivvy included ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Helter Skelter’!
The Cyclops Eye is big – REALLY BIG! It must be over 300ft in diameter and we spent much of the day circumnavigating it. Pitch 20 is a soaring traverse up and right out of the eye socket; a 100ft of piecing together gravity defying placements from the mish mash of fixed stuff and anything else you can stir in – proper C3 and not sure about the F! This runs together easily with pitch 21 making for a better haul.
Bill got the roof tussle on Pitch 22 which left me with the ‘reachy’ Pitch 23 and a really tricky move off the belay, followed by yet another wrong turn onto El Nino (yes, it’s obvious not to head right on the topo, but somehow we kept getting sucked in by the shiny bolts rather than following the rusting remnants of the ‘64 ascent.) Back on track and there’s some scary pulling on ancient rivets before a couple of hook moves lead onto the belay.
Bill was then confronted with the wildest pitch of the day: a few C3 moves onto the ‘5.7 Traverse’ (who are they kidding?) and a gnarly finish up to the belay ledge via some sketchy hooks (especially as we couldn’t actually find the hooks, which were buried deep in the bag!) That was followed by a genuine 5.7 pitch (no sandbag for a change) and we were in The Igloo; the historic bivvy site from the first ascent and a ‘must visit’ spot. We pondered a mad summit-dash, with only a couple of pitches left and a few hours of daylight, but decided instead to savour the ambiance.
In more good news, Bill found a stash of water; we weren’t short, with five litres still ‘in the tank’ by the time we arrived at the Igloo, but it’s always nice to have a bit extra. Unfortunately, I’d completely c@c#ed up the teabag rations, and having eeked out our last one over six brews we were now reduced to dunking dried mango into boiling water. Note to future self: whilst weight saving is to be encouraged, there are probably better targets than the teabags!
We settled in for the night with the thought that there were just two more pitches to go in the morning, then we’d be heading down for beers, showers, pizza and more beers!
This evenings anthem: Quin the Eskimo!
We woke early after an only moderately comfortable, but historically resonant night in The Igloo (Robbins, Frost, Choinard and Pratt slept here – it’s like a climbing hall of fame!) After more mango-infused water, it was time ‘to get this thing done!’ Only two pitches back to the land of the horizontal, but the final one is supposed to be the crux of the entire route. C3 or C4 depending on which guide you are using, and plenty of beta on the web to suggest committing cam hooking straight off the belay.
Anyway, before that there was the no small matter of Pitch 26 – yet another zigzagging meander making the most of natural features and avoiding drilled gear wherever possible; a testament to the ethos of the first ascentionists. Bill did a great job of managing the rope drag and the tricky climbing.
The last pitch had been somewhat hanging over me for the last four days. it’s not often that the crux pitch comes right at the end of an El Cap route, and the thought of grinding to halt at this stage, with the top within grasp, was unbearable. The tricky climbing kicks in straight from the stance, and looking up at the thin seam above, I was mindful of the definition of C4 (see the start of the article) and didn’t fancy the prospect of an eighty-footer straight onto the belay! A few deep breaths and I entered one of those magical bubbles of deep concentration that sometimes open up as you move into the ‘don’t fall zone’. The climbing was certainly quite intense, with about eight cam hook moves punctuated by a couple of half-in, tiny cams and bits of brass. After the first three cam hook moves I managed to place a Camalot red-yellow offset and a couple of moves later, got in a black Totem cam, and these certainly helped slow my pulse and take the sting out of it. I actually felt fairly relaxed, almost serene, as if the previous four days and 26 pitches had been a well-tuned preparation and all I had to do was execute. Anyway, it went, and we were back on top of the Big Stone once again, and completely chuffed to re-enter the world of the horizontal.
The usual last grim haul to get the bags up was followed by Bill’s ritual ‘half a handshake’ (you get the other half when you are safely back on the ground) and we were nearing the end of another of Bill and Dom’s Excellent Adventures. After re-packing the bags and a few cheesy summit photos there only remained the final grungy three-hour descent that stood between us and beer, a shower and pizza!
The beers were excellent – I think even a Bud would have tasted quite acceptable.
The showers were also outstanding…
‘Are you guests with us here at Half Dome Village?’ ‘No, but we have just spent 5 nights on El Cap – does that qualify us for a free shower?’ ‘Yeah – go for it!’
And the pizza filled a gap too.
In a further ‘That’s good, in’ it!’ moment, which seemed to summarise our good fortune on much of this trip, I had the following bizarre exchange at the pizza place:
After a lengthy wait for a pizza…
‘I’m so sorry, sir, I just dropped one of the slices of your pizza – I can make you a new one or give you a refund.’
Me thinks: ‘Aaargh – need pizza now!’ but says ‘never mind – couldn’t you just refund me a few dollars for the dropped slice?’ ‘I’ll get my manager.’
‘Sorry sir, I can only offer you a new pizza or a refund’.
Me: ‘If I take the refund then can I still keep what’s left of the pizza?’ Manager: ‘Yes, of course!’
Tiredness and beer meant I was out like a light as soon as I got into the tent, but only managed the usual crappy post-wall sleep (aches and pains despite ODing on Ibuprofen, and interrupted by regular wakening jolts as I readjusted position to avoid falling off the ledge, despite being on terra firma). These symptoms continue for a few nights.
Another stunning blue sky morning and it was time to gather yet more beer and head down to El Cap Meadows for the traditional celebration of being down and being alive, and to relive the adventure of the last few days: 27 pitches, (nearly all C2 and above with 8 of C3 and a final sting in the tail of maybe C4), over 3,000 ft of climbing, five nights and just short of five days climbing – NAW provided quite a voyage. We also got to visit some cool spots: Big Sur, The Black Dihedral, The Black Cave, Cyclops Eye and The Igloo. Gazing up at the outline of the continent sketched out on the wall above and tracing our journey through these features brought a sense of a job well done.
You can pick out the main features in the photo below…
El Cap was no longer completely empty (though there was still no one else on the whole of the east half) and we managed to spot four parties on the wall – three on The Nose and one on The Shield. We watched as one of the Nose teams grapples with The King Swing – eventually latching the end of the pendulum and resuming upwards progress; both reminiscing about our own experiences of that famous pitch and offering unheard encouragement and words of advice to the leader above. The guys on The Shield (or maybe a soloist – hard to tell at this distance) were halfway up the headwall, giving us another opportunity to reminisce about perhaps the most spectacular bivvy spot on the planet.
You can just about see them in the image below… If you know where to look!
With one last backwards glance, we leave The Valley (until next time…)
After all that nonsense, Bill and I both felt in need of a holiday so we awarded ourselves a day off to be ‘normal people’: Over the Tioga Pass to camp in The Pit in Pleasant Valley above Bishop, followed by a trip to the ancient Bristlecone Pines.
Here’s a picture of an ancient gnarly tough thing…
… standing in front of a four thousand year old tree
Then on to The Devil’s Postpile National Monument
… and a sundowner at the Mammoth Brewery, with for some BEER WITH ALTITUDE
Hard work being a tourist!
After an exhausting day of being tourists it seemed much easier to just go climbing again for our last day – but nothing too stressy! The criteria were: not far away, near the road, shady, and preferably single pitch sport. Thanks to the outstanding Mountain Project app we quickly identified that Dike Wall ticked all the boxes as well as offering ‘fabulous views’.
We weren’t disappointed – Set above Lake George, just near Lake Mary, the crag is a pleasant 20 minutes walk around the far side of the lake.
We did three really excellent routes: Mongoloid, 10b, up a striking Arête; Cromagnon, 10b, up an amazing wall of steep jugs; and Black Lassie, 10c/d up a thin corner and techy wall.
Then we were on the road north and homeward bound, with a night in the Hot Springs State Park to break the journey. … and a bottle of Arrogant Bastard to celebrate a brilliant trip – perhaps on this occasion we might just be “worthy”!