Living the High Life

My friend Rob Totte and I spent the past two days crawling up the sides of Yosemite Valley. We’ve done a little rock climbing there while participating in a few classes there, but this was the first time we’ve attempted multi-pitch climbs on our own. The experience was like no other I’ve ever had.We arrived at Crane flat late Friday night and set up the tent. We got to Yosemite late enough that there was no one attending the entrance gate at Hwy 120 and the Crane Flat campground. Our camping spot’s number was posted on a piece of paper on the booth at the campground gate. Also posted on the booth were the weather forecasts for the next day or two: high 72 deg, low 38 deg. We set up the tent, placed our food in the bear-proof lockers, then retired for the night.At 5:30am we woke to Rob’s watch alarm and very cold noses. Deciding it was too cold to get up, we slept in for another half hour. As we consumed a breakfast of bagels and cream cheese and/or peanut butter, the pink and yellow clouds of a beautiful sunrise could be seen over the tops of the pines. We left for the valley floor around 7am and arrived at the Lower Yosemite Falls parking lot around 7:30am. We had decided to try our hand at a 3 pitch route called Munginella at the Five Open Books formation just west of the falls (which are completely dry at this time of year). Despite it being a fairly easy climb for Yosemite standards (rated 5.6), it is a fairly popular route due to the views it offers of the valley, so we wanted to get to it early to avoid waiting in line. We usually climb 5.10 to 5.11’s in the gym, but trad climbing (placing protection while leading) is much more difficult, let alone Yosemite trad climbs.We hiked to the bridge at the base of the falls to find the head of the route’s approach. The exposed rocks of the river bed had kept the heat of the previous day’s sun, resulting in a welcomed warm respite from the morning chill. The information that we had for finding the approach was sketchy at best, so we just started hiking in toward the base of the cliff on what looked like something that might be considered a trail. We had to climb over a number of small boulders and scramble over scree, but we finally came to an area that looked like it might have some routes on it. We happened to come across a guy who pointed us to the direction of Munginella. We took a look at our Yosemite Free Climbs book and the details seemed to match up, though we weren’t completely certain. Regardless, giddy with excitement, we set up a belay station on a tree at the base and Rob led the climb up to the first pitch. After he had set up the next belay station, some more climbers hiked up to the base of the route (it was starting to get warmer as the sun’s rays hit the valley floor). I asked them if they knew for sure if the route we were on was Munginella. They said that, no, in fact it was a route called Surprise (Surprise, it’s not Munginella!). Not only that, but after I called up to Rob with the new information and he decided to clean up the gear and downclimb, two guys walked up asking if anybody knew where Munginella was! So much for getting a head start. As he descended, a flock of birds flew by, their collective wings causing a burst of noise that echoed off of the side of the wall.As luck would have it, those two guys who had asked about Munginella had an additional map from SuperTopo that was more useful in locating the elusive climb. Feeling pity for our troubles, they were gracious enough to let us climb first. At this point it was about 8:30am or 9am. Rob led the first pitch up to a tree growing on a ledge. I led the second pitch, missing the next belay station and ending up right at the top! Thank goodness the rope was 60m and the pitches were short. Most of the climb was a blur. I was so focused on the climb that I thought of little else. Where’s the next foothold? Will I be able to pull myself up if I jam my hand in that crack? Where’s a good place for the next piece of protection? How far up am I from the last piece of protection I placed? I’ve got to be quick about this…judge the crack and pick the right protection the first time. Okay, need to shift my weight to the other foot. This one is getting pretty tired.We came to Yosemite to learn and I learned quite a bit on just that first climb. I definitely need to pay more attention to the route beta before leading a climb. Most routes are set up for a 50m rope, so I won’t always be so lucky when missing a belay point. Also, since I had climbed so high and Rob was out of sight once I reached the top due to the curvature of the face, it was difficult to communicate with him when coordinating the switch from climbing to belaying. After that climb we carried personal FRS radios with us. Another climber also suggested rope signals. We’ll have to try that out for future climbs if the radios fail.With our first multi-pitch climb under our belt, we took a few pictures at the top with Rob’s digital camera then hiked down. We had left our sweatshirts and a Nalgene full of water at the base so we went back to retrieved them. We weren’t sure how to get back to the parking lot, so we just found what looked to be a trail headed downward (as faint as it was) and took it. We had to scramble over a few large boulders but finally found the groomed path between the falls and the parking lot. Super hungry from the morning activities, we tossed our gear in the car around 12:30pm and headed to Curry Village for some pizza!Not satisfied with the amount of abuse our bodies had taken that morning, Rob suggested that we try a climb in an area recommended to him called Church Bowl. We stopped in at the Mountaineering School in Curry Village to ask for directions before heading out. Church Bowl is just north of the road that runs between Yosemite Village and the Awahnee Lodge. We wanted to save something for the next day so we decided we would do a single pitch 5.6-8 route or two and call it a day. We came across a couple of climbers at the base that gave us conflicting information about what routes they were on compared to the diagram in our book so it took us a while to figure out what to climb. We settled on a route we believe was called Uncle Fanny’s Crack (5.7). Somehow we decided that I should lead it. It didn’t look all that difficult from the bottom, but there was a chimney about halfway up that was just brutal. It was narrow enough that I couldn’t fit inside easily and the crack was deep enough inside that it was difficult to reach in and get a good hold. Not only that, but the gear slung around my torso kept getting in the way and certainly didn’t make the climb any easier. After what seemed like an eternity of wiggling and squirming I finally made it to the top of the chimney and had a little bit of face work before reaching the top. By the time I reached the top and set up the anchor my mouth felt like someone had just placed several wads of cotton into it. I hadn’t done a good job of keeping myself hydrated and was running on empty. I called down to Rob to bring up a Nalgene of water. I guzzled it when he reached the top and drank about 4 more liters before the day was through. I decided to call it my Peein’ Clear Plan (a play the name of the Sprint PCS cell phone service for those of you not-in-the-know). Thoroughly exhausted from Uncle Fanny’s Crack, we called it quits for the day.Before heading to the Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria for a nice, warm meal, we agreed that we should check out the next day’s climb called After Six at the Manure Pile Buttress just east of El Capitan. It was still light out and we didn’t want to waste another half hour or so Sunday morning looking for the climb. We figured there would probably still climbers there that we could ask. After Six is another popular climb and is rated a 5.6 in the book but as we found out, it’s really about a 5.8 now that a tree halfway up the first pitch is now gone. Manure Pile Buttress was easy enough to find. We just parked in the El Capitan Picnic Area and took the trail that looked like it headed toward the rock. Sure enough, After Six was right there at the base and a few pairs of climbers were doing what they do best. Satisfied, we left to get dinner (ribs, corn, beans, and carrot cake… mmmm…) and a good night’s rest. We retired for the night around 8:30pm.We woke at 5am Sunday to the sound of Rob’s wrist watch alarm. It was cold again, though surprisingly not as bad as the previous morning. It was very dark, though. The sun hadn’t risen yet and the tall pines blocked much of the faint illumination provided by the moon and stars. We came prepared, though. Our Petzl LED headlamps came in very handy both that morning and the previous nights. I never thought I’d really have much of a use for a headlamp. Since I’ve been doing more camping, though, it’s amazing how much you appreciate not having to devote one hand to managing a flashlight. That, and the light moves exactly in the direction that you look.Packing up the tent was not a fun experience. The moisture in our exhailations during the middle of the night had condensed and collected on the underside of the the rainfly. Handling it meant handling near-freezing water. But we got everything packed into the car, ate another breakfast of bagels with cream cheese and/or peanut butter, then headed for the valley floor again around 6:30am. The sunrise wasn’t as beautiful as the previous morning. We thought we might pull off at the overlook to take a picture of Half Dome from Hwy 120 but the view wasn’t as spectacular as it had been Saturday morning.We arrived at the El Capitan Picnic Area around 7am. It was still too cold to start climbing so we sat in the car with the heat on for a little while. Rob got out his binoculars to get a closer look at the climbers on the face of El Capitan who had spent the night there in their bivy tents. Someday, we said, someday.We pulled our gear together around 7:30am and headed for Manure Pile Buttress. Once again we were the first to the rock, but this time we knew exactly where the route was. Rob led the first two pitches of After Six. I was glad he did. They were tough enough just to climb, let alone place the protection I imagine. The first pitch was definitely not a 5.6. It was more like a 5.8 or so. Rob is definitely the stronger climber of the two of us and I’m glad he was up to the task. The scramble up to the second pitch wasn’t too bad – just 3rd class terrain. A Yosemite Mountaineering School instructor passed us while we were setting up the second belay (we knew because he was wearing a shirt with the YMS logo on it). Apparently he had some time off and was just free soloing the route. Amazing. While I was belaying Rob on the second pitch another pair of climbers met up with us. The one leading the climb was a guide who currently lived in Colorado. His partner was a client just wanting to climb in Yosemite. It’s a line of work I hadn’t even thought of but an interesting one to consider.I led the third and fourth pitches with ease. Well, they were actually pretty easy sections of the climb: a 5.4 and 5.5 respectively I believe. At this point that pair of climbers had past us and another trio showed up. Oh, and this 70 year old guy who was free soloing past us as well. We’re sure he was a Yosemite legend and we would have instantly recognized his name if we were more up on the history of climbing in the park. According to a brief exchange he had with the guide, he had climbed this route about 300 times in all his years of climbing. Crazy.The 5 pitch put us to the top. Somewhere along the route we had skipped another pitch – probably the 3rd class scramble. This last section had three variations: a 5.6 route to the right, a 5.7 along a corner crack in the middle, or a 5.8 zig zag crack and face climb. The glutton for punishment that Rob is, he jumped at the opportunity to lead the 5.8. Afterall, how tough could a 5.8 be, right? I swear, that thing had to be a 5.8d++++++++. It was the toughest 5.8 I’ve ever done. Words cannot describe just how challenging it was, though in hindsight I guess it wasn’t that bad since neither of us fell. I just remember cursing under my breath the whole way up as I cleaned the protection that Rob had placed. A feeling of accomplishment swelled within me as I climbed over the top. Rob had needed to set up the anchor about 25 feet from the edge because he had used all of the large cams on the climb and that was the nearest he could find cracks small enough for the protection he had left. I waddled up the slab at the top and just laid down on the rock next to him. We had done it. We completed a 5-pitch, 600ft climb on our own. After the feeling of euphoria had worn off, we took a few pictures to commemorate our accomplishment then sorted out the gear. The hike down was perhaps more dangerous than the climb up. It was very steep and there was a lot of loose dirt, leaves, and pine needles the whole way down. It would have been very easy to twist an ankle or take a tumble if we hadn’t been careful.It was about 2pm by the time we got back to the car. Rob wanted pizza from Curry Village for lunch again. I settled on the food that we had brought, a combination that my friend Brad introduced me to: pepperoni and cheese wrapped in a tortilla.It was about 3pm when we finished lunch. Figuring we still had several hours of daylight left, we decided we wanted to get in one more single pitch climb before heading back to the South Bay. We drove back to the El Capitan Picnic Area to give a shot at doing another climb at Manure Pile Buttress. We settled on a 5.8 crack climb next to the start of After Six called After Seven. Since I had led some fairly easy sections of After Six, I was eager to try something a little more challenging. After Seven was a lot of fun. It was difficult but not unreasonably so. There were a lot of nice places for foot and hand jams – as my hands and feet can attest to. My big toes felt like they had had a very large object dropped on them multiple times by the time I was through. Once again I wasn’t exactly sure of where to set up the belay station, so I just picked a ledge near the top large enough to sit on and set up the anchor. We later realized that the actual top was only about 20 feet above me. So once Rob was up and attached to my anchor, I climbed up to the top. It was a fairly easy climb, one that I didn’t even need to place any protection for. When we had both reached the top, we walked over to the large ledge and sorted out the gear once again. We were about to climb down the 4th class escape route when another pair of climbers finished and offered to tie our ropes together so we could all repel down instead. The ledge would have been too high for just one rope – we were probably about 120ft above the ground at that point. It’s nice to be a part of a community that sees the benefit of cooperation.Overall it was a terrific weekend. The views and weather were spectactular. Clinging to a rock face several hundred feet above the ground was a thrill. I was a little nervous about that at first but did not dwell on it too much. I think all of the climbing I’ve done in the gym has made me more comfortable with heights than I had been before. Having the rope helps, too, but it is only as safe as the protection that it’s attached too. The difficulty of the climbs we did, which were only rated 5.6-5.8, put into prospective just how difficult the Nose on El Capitan would be (rated 5.13d). I’m not sure I’ll be doing that one anytime soon. That’s okay, though, because I had a lot of fun doing the routes we chose and won’t mind sticking to those types of climbs for the time being.I’ll try to post the photos that Rob and I took soon.

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