Saturday, June 30, 2018

Mauna Kea: Sea to Summit

In the past few years I’ve developed an interest in the state highpoints. Yes, some of them are silly, at least as far as a climbing objective, but with state highpoints it is more about visiting new areas than difficult climbing objectives. It’s a different thing. But many lists, at least for me, are about visiting new areas. When I first starting doing the Colorado 14ers it was more about visiting different areas of the state and learning the ranges. The 14er list was just a manageable number to direct my wandering. Sure I could chosen different peaks in each range and sought more solitude, but lists save you that effort.

Jus like with the Colorado 14ers, I’m not in a great hurry to get all the state highpoints, but I do have a goal of getting at least one per year. Last year I failed and didn’t get any, so this year I was determined to make for that. Earlier this year, Mark, Derek and I linked up three highpoints that border Colorado. Two of these (Kansas and Nebraska) were drive-up highpoints. We didn’t hike at all. We could have started anywhere and made a hike of it, but didn’t. Mauna Kea is similar in that you can drive to the summit, but here I didn’t make that choice. The Nebraska and Kansas highpoints are not mountains, or even hills. Mauna Kea is a mountain.

Measured from its base, deep in the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on earth, rising over 33,000 vertical feet from its volcanic vent in the frigid, dark depths. If you dropped Denali in the ocean next to Mauna Kea, it would barely break the surface. Mount Everest would be 4000 feet short of Mauna Kea’s summit. For most mountains on earth, certainly all the 14ers, it is impractical to start a summit attempt at sea level. Despite the difficulty, Tim McCartney-Snape did Everest from the sea. That’s amazing. And it inspired me to do my “Poor Man’s®” version of it on Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level at 13,802 feet. As already stated, a road goes clear to the summit. This is the longest, hardest cycling climb on earth. The total gain is the greatest and the altitude and the grade make it absolutely brutal. It is more vertical gain than two Mt. Evans from Idaho Springs, with much steeper grades. It makes Alpe d’Huez (most famous climb in the Tour de France) look like a grocery run. The grades are so ridiculous that the shop were I rented my bike stated flat out: “You can’t ride to the summit on a road bike.” Which isn’t really true, as this account proves. This rider did on the same gearing that I was riding: 34-32. Originally, I was thinking of riding the whole thing, but this was my 25th anniversary trip and I decided to hike the 13-mile roundtrip Humuula (check this) trail to the summit with Sheri. This meant I’d get off the bike at 9200 feet.

I rented a BMC RoadMachine from Mountain Road Cycles in Waimea and picked it up the day before the big ride. The bikes 28cc ties made me think I was riding a mountain bike, but that appears to be the trend nowadays. To ride the gravel sections above the visitor center, you’d want even wider tires, and realistically you’d want a full-on mountain bike. My carbon bike was also outfitted with Shimano Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting and this was the primary reason that I rented this bike. I wanted to try this relatively new technology out. Conclusion: I want it. Yes, it is at least a $500 upgrade to my existing bike (provided I don’t have to replace my chain ring or rear cassette) and probably more like $1000, but it is sweet. Lately, I’ve been dropping my chain when I put considerable torque on my pedals while cross chained. Yes, better shifting and cable adjustments should eliminate this problem, but with electronic shifting it really can’t happen. The electronic shifting does the micro adjustment of the front derailleur depending upon which gear selected in the rear cassette. That’s so cool. The shifting is quick and precise at the very light touch of a button. No pulls of any cables required.

I did a shake-out ride of 30 miles, mostly downhill back to the hotel. The next morning I was up at 5 a.m. to dress and eat. My bike was waiting on our balcony, prepared with a couple of water bottles. I took it and my shoes down to the lobby via the elevator and then I walked, barefoot, to the Pacific Ocean. Standing ankle deep in the tiny surf at 5:32 a.m., I started my wrist unit. I walked back to the lobby, stopping to wash the sand off my feet, put on my shoes and socks, and hopped on the bike.

Sheri waited 90 minutes before following me in the car. Frankly, this ride would have been nearly impossible for me without her support. The only available water is in Waikoloa Village, less than an hour into the ride, and at the Visitor Center, which was about seven hours into the ride. Having Sheri to constantly supply me with food and water was a huge advantage and quite a psychological boost as well. It broke the climb up into small sections and even though I never stopped for long, just the two or three minutes at the car with Sheri was a nice little rest. I only needed to carry one bottle once Sheri caught up to me. I downed a tremendous amount of liquid and ate regularly, trying to avoid any bonking.

After riding south on Queen Kaahumanu Highway (highway 19) for six miles, I turned east and up on the Waikoloa Road. I rode this until I hit the Mamalahoa Highway (highway 190), where I turned south again and even went downhill. In fact, by the time I hit the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, I’d done any extra thousand feet of climbing. I soon turned left onto the Saddle Road (highway 280) and here the climbing became relentless and occasional quite steep.

It was 46 total miles for me to get from my hotel to the saddle. It took me six hours and I’d gained nearly 8000 vertical feet already. What did I have left? For Boulder readers, I now had to climb the equivalent of a steeper and longer Magnolia Road and then climb two Green Mountains on top of each other. And now I was entering a list mist with increasing winds. I grabbed my jacket for the next section, up the Mauna Kea Access Road, expecting to be cold and to suffer. Suffer I did, but the weather cleared and I have nearly perfect conditions the entire day, save for the ever present wind, which I think is impossible to avoid.

“Just six miles to go!” Sheri encouraged me. The first mile was pretty easy and I thought maybe this won’t be too bad. Wrong. It got so ridiculous that the only way I could keep moving upwards was by switchbacking across the full width of the road. This worked well, though, and, I was able to creep upwards. At the top of one particularly nasty section, where Sheri had parked, I sprawled on the hood of the car, hyperventilating.

I could not have rode this section continuously and I’ve never seen a road hill that has done that to me. I’ve ridden Haleakala four or five times, usually in around five hours (35 miles, 10,000 vertical feet), but I’ve done it in four hours. This took me seven hours. Mauna Kea is a much more difficult climb. And it isn’t nearly as pleasant. Frankly, there isn’t much to recommend on this ride, besides the difficulty. The road riding up to the saddle is quite busy, though there is a very wide shoulder and is very safe. The access road is much nicer and we encountered hardly any cars while on it. The lack of cars was essential for me to weave back and forth to lessen the angle. The road doesn’t switchback much so that the acuteness of the grade is difficult to perceive with your eyes, but painfully obvious to your legs and lungs.

The actual hardest climb in the world is apparently Mauna Kea from Hilo, on the east side of the island. I didn’t ride it from there for one reason: We were staying on the west side. I didn’t want to drive to the other side of the island and then bike back towards the middle. It might be something I’d consider if there ever is a next time. The Hilo side is shorter (just under 30 miles versus the 46 miles I rode) and therefore a bit steeper, but it doesn’t have the descents that the west side has, so it has less total climbing. The real drawback, though, seems to be that the east side seems to be shrouded in a nearly perpetual cloud. Riding up in that mist and the wind could be chilly.

Speaking of temperature, it wasn’t really an issue on this climb. Hawaii is tropical, of course, but it is paradise because it isn’t that hot nor that humid. At the coast the temperature in Hawaii seems to be nearly a constant 80 degrees - every day of the year. The temperature goes down as you climb and there is always the wind to cool you (and to fight against). If the weather is good, you can do the entire 14,000-foot climb in the same set of clothes, though I was prepared with warmer gloves, a hat, leggings, and a shell.

While Hawaii has a great variety of flora, depending up on the microclimate, this ride didn’t showcase much of it. The west side of the islands are the dry side and hence most of the tourist locations are there - to ensure perfect sunshine every day, all day. This lack of water meant that I climbed up through mostly grassland and short shrubs with hardly any trees encountered on the entire ride. Further up, on the hike, life gets harder to find. The top two thousand feet of Mauna Kea has no visible life. Nothing. No moss, no lichen, no grass, no insects, no birds. I assume this is because of the lack of water or the lack of moisture retention. This is in great contrast to every other non-ice-encrusted peak I’ve climbed. Volcanic rock breaks down into very fertile soil but apparently is takes thousands of years.

At the Visitor Center, I got off the bike and after some gyrations, we got the bike stuffed into the back seat of the rental car. I switched to trail running shoes and Sheri and I both carried small packs with forty ounces of Gatorade each, some food, hat, gloves, and our shells. A couple hundred meters up the road, we turned off onto the trail and it immediately became very steep and very loose. The first hour or so of this hike is quite challenging. This loose terrain would make for nice descending, but it was quite a chore to ascend.

I had hoped to knock out this 13-mile, 4600-foot hike in three hours up, two hours down. Early on I could see that wasn’t going to happen. We were on a four-hour ascent pace and would stick to it. It was all I could do to hike 1150 vertical feet (one quarter of the ascent) before taking a sit-down break. Sheri’s Achilles problem had her limping pretty severely and I worried that she was doing additional damage, but she soldiered on. My fatigue matched her injury and we moved at the same pace.

We saw a few people descending, but the trail was pretty deserted. We took another break at the halfway point and then again when the trail joins the paved road for the final mile to the summit. The road up from the Visitor Center has an extensive, loose, gravel section, but we only saw it from afar. The top part of the road returns to very nice pavement and this is what we walked up. The road leads directly to a domed observatory (there are many up there) on the very top of one of Mauna Kea’s summit peaklets. The true summit was maybe 100 meters away and probably less than ten meters higher, but a sign asked that hikers not go any further because of cultural significance to the native Hawaiians. I question how many of the natives really feel this way (like the Navahos with Ship Rock), but we respected the wishes of the sign and took our summit photos at the top of the road.

It was cold and windy up there and we didn’t linger that long, preferring to descend a bit before taking a break to eat and drink a bit more. The way down was long, but it was so much nicer to be working with gravity than against it. The hike took us seven hours for the roundtrip and biking back to the hotel was out of the question at this point. It was going to get dark and I had no lights for my bike. With the climbing on the way down, I figured it would take another 2.5 to 3 hours to reverse the 52 miles back to the hotel. I was a bit disappointed in not being able to finish back at the hotel, but I was pretty wasted as well. I’d been going for 13 hours and 20 minutes. Still, I had completed my main goal of going from the ocean to the summit of Mauna Loa - the second most prominent peak in the United States, after Denali.

Mauna Loa Photos
Mauna Loa Relive

Mauna Kea from the slopes of Mauna Loa
Hawaii has some other cool challenges. There is a 50-mile trail that goes up Mauna Loa, the sister peak to Mauna Kea and only a tiny bit lower. Mauna Loa is an absolutely humungous mountain. I read once that the total volume of this peak, if taken from the base in the ocean, is greater than the entire Sierra Nevada range! There is a road that heads up Mauna Loa from the saddle. This road is incredible. It’s a one-lane road with perfect tarmac winding its way through black, fantastical lava rock. The surrounding terrain varies from such rough, sharp lava as to look nearly impassable on foot, to smooth, hard flows up higher. The elevation is printed on the road every 500 vertical feet. This road continues to over 11,000 feet, climbing 4000 feet above the saddle in 18 miles.

From the end of the road it is a 6.8-mile (not the posted six miles) hike to the summit. Some of this is over such smooth lava rock that is seems like you should step right through it, like it was still molten. At 3000 degrees, it’s nice that the rock is not molten… This mountain must have hundreds of square miles of pure lava rock, with, again, almost nothing growing in most of it. The top 5000 vertical feet of Mauna Loa has no visible life. This is the most unique geography I’ve ever seen. Is there another place on earth like this? Four billion years ago the entire surface of the earth was like this.

Mauna Loa is pretty young for such a huge mountain. It began erupting 700,000 years ago and got above sea level just 400,000 years ago. As previously mentioned, these peaks Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, are about 33,000 feet tall from their base in the ocean. But the sign at the trailhead for Mauna Loa talks about how the crust has been crushed by the weight of the mountain and hence the real base of the mountain, as far as the lava produced from the vent, is 56,000 feet below the summit. Suffice to say this mountain is huge. It used to be considered the biggest volcano on earth, but now there is thought that the Tamu Massif might be a single volcano covers 100,000 square miles (Mauna Loa is 2000 square miles) - nearly the size of Olympus Mons on Mars - but it doesn't break the surface of the ocean.

Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843 (as far back as eruptions are accurately dated) and the flows from these cover over 800 square kilometers. The most recent was in 1984 and covered 220 square kilometers. These flows are what you hike up. Some of these flows look like slick rock, though the friction is great for hiking. This must be the lava that cooled while slowly flowing down the slopes and is known as the “pahoehoe” lava. There are plenty of lava tubes that you hike over and around as well. None are huge, but some are many feet in diameter. The toughest lava to hike over is the extremely rough and sharp talus that appears to the lava that cooled while flying through the air. This is known as the “aa” lava. These formations are so twisted and identifying cairns is tougher since so much of the rock looks like cairns.

Sheri and I hiked Mauna Loa three days after doing Mauna Kea. Once we left the saddle, we didn’t see a single person until we got back to our car and there we just saw two other people who had just driven the road up and weren’t hiking. I’m confident we were the only two on this hiking trail all day. This hiked proved longer and more tiring than expected. Perhaps were were losing our acclimatization or maybe it is extended time above 13,000 feet.

We hiked pretty easily to 13,000 feet and then had 2.75 more miles of tedious lava talus to hike through to gain the very summit. We’d had enough by then. Curiously, the only life we saw on the mountain was only at the very summit. Here I saw a ladybug and many flies. Sheri’s yellow pack in particular was covered in about twenty of them. There was a summit register here and the last recorded ascent was five days earlier.

Another great challenge for ultra-runners would be the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, which goes for 175 miles along the western coast of the Big Island. Of course there are countless resorts along this coast, but the entire coastline in Hawaii is public land so access is never barred to anyone hiking this trail. At our resort, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, part of this trail is on the golf course cart path and therefore must be open to the public.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Mt. Watkins: Summit and Approach Recon

The “Big Three” in Yosemite are El Capitan, Half Dome, and Watkins. One of the New Yorkers sharing Greg’s campsites with us asked me why Watkins is one of the “Big Three.” That’s a good question. I first answer that it was because it was a Grade VI climb — the longest grade in Yosemite. But then I glanced at a guidebook and found other routes that were Grade VI on other structures, even Higher Cathedral Rock. So, maybe it is the Big Three just because Dean Potter and Timmy O’Neill linked all three in one day. They definitely are the biggest, cleanest faces in Yosemite.

I’d done El Capitan many times and Half Dome’s Northwest Face twice (and now Snake Dike five times), but I’d never done Mt. Watkins. The South Face Route (13a free climb, 5.9 C2+ F as an aid climb) was the main objective for this trip, but we decided we weren’t ready for it this year. We’d train more and come back next year for the South Face. But we still wanted Watkins and could learn the descent route. And if we hiked up the descent route, that would give us the Big Three on three consecutive days: El Cap, Half Dome and then Mt. Watkins. We decided that was just too neat to pass up.
The relentlessly steep Snow Creek Trail.
We followed our usual routine and were hiking at 7 a.m., first up the road to Mirror Lake and then on the Snow Creek Trail. This Trail climbs from the Valley, clear up to Tenaya Lake in Tuolumne Meadows, more than 5000 feet higher. It also is the way to hike clear to the summit of North Dome. We followed it for more than 3000 feet before breaking off of it and going cross-country, using dead-reckoning as our guide, directly to the summit of Mt. Watkins. This was trickier than you might think since we didn’t have a map, a GPS, and were in a deep forest. But we nailed it.

Fifteen or twenty minutes from where we left the trail we came across the Snow Creek Cabin. This was a shock as there are no trails that lead to this rather substantial structure that was even restored in 2006. We rested briefly just to look it over before continuing up steeper and steeper terrain over slippery and loose ground.
Snow Creek Cabin

The summit isn’t impressive, though it is only 500 feet lower than Half Dome. The sheer South Face ends 500 feet down steep terrain from the summit and the other three sides are more gentle, with the north side, our route of ascent, completely forested nearly to the summit. The trees stop just at the edge of the summit and and whole summit area is nearly devoid of any trees. It’s most granite slabs and decomposing granite slabs. The views are incredible, though, especially of Half Dome.
Great view of Half Dome from the Snow Creek Trail.
We rested, ate, had a long phone conversation with my Mom (It’s traditional for our family to call Nana from the summit), and explored. Just as I was about to expound to Derek about how completely alone we were on Watkins and what a contrast it was to Half Dome, we see an older couple (even older than me!) walking toward us from the ridge leading out to the South Face. I don’t think you’d normal see another soul out here on Watkins. It just isn’t that popular, especially when compared to the other two of the Big Three.
Exploring the summit of Watkins above the South Face.
The next day we set off to reconnoiter the approach to the South Face. We’d only gone as far as the log crossing on our first day here and decided it would help with a later attempt on the South Face, hopefully next year. We traced the familiar route to the log crossing of Snow Creek and then proceeded to screw up the approach in a major fashion. We followed faint sections of trodden ground and one-stone cairns until we were high on the slopes of whatever is the blob west of Watkins. Tired, hot, and a bit dejected, we sat down and took a break. A good cell connection led to a longer break and then some water, some listening to our Audible books, and a touch of napping prolonged things so much that I thought it was highly likely that we’d turn around.
That's an accurate GPS watch -- just 17 feet off. The software is the worst on the planet, but the hardware is nice.
But we were still game and after some additional procrastination, we got up. Our Internet searching revealed that we should have stayed closer to Tenaya Creak and so we reversed our path, somewhat, and then headed down to be alongside the creek. You’d think we would have had the information before starting in towards the climb. Hubris again. Twenty-five years ago, or so, I hiked in to nearly the same spot when I climbed the North Face of Quarter Dome, just across the Valley. Alas, experience didn’t pay off here.
Crossing Snow Creek once again.
We gained the creek and thrashed upwards and eastwards. It was a bit easier going, but it certainly wasn’t easy going. I tried too hard to stay on the banks of the creek and when I over did it, Derek went higher and found the “trail.” We followed this for a long ways, but it took constant vigilance to stay on it and frequently we’d explore different paths until evidence was found that we were on the trail. At one point, after I passed a rock, Derek noticed something small moving on that rock. Closer inspection revealed a small scorpion! I didn’t know Yosemite had any scorpions. Cool.
Scorpion in Yosemite!
Our description said to start fifth class climbing when the trail comes very close to Tenaya Creek, but that isn’t exactly right. First, the main wall is well north of the creek. It looks at least a quarter mile away and even the lower “approach” wall is a hundred yards north. The trees are so tall and so dense here that, while we could see the upper wall through tops of the trees, the approach wall was completely obscured. We didn’t find any cairns or path leading up to the wall, so we just chose the least dense foliage and bushwhacked north.
Trying to figure out where the route is, while taking an extended break/nap.
We couldn’t get right up against the wall due to manzanita guarding the base. Derek suggested moving to the right and we retreated a bit south and then east before coming back north and finding a discarded bivy bag or old sleeping bag, a few cairns, and then a pair of fixed lines hanging from the top of the first approach pitch.
This is what the typical cairn looks like on this faint approach.
On my back I carried our mini-haulbag stuffed with a 70-meter lead line, our 8mm 60-meter half rope, a full rack, both our harness and belay devices and GriGri’s and gloves and shoes and helmets. It was a rather heavy load. Derek carried all our food and water in our small Camelback pack. It was with great relief that I shucked off this weight at the base of the fixed lines. We sat down to eat something. We’d been going for six hours. Well, two hours were spent doing nothing, but still, it was time to eat.
This is NOT Mt. Watkins.
Despite carrying all this gear, we decided to just recon the lines as far as we could without harnesses or ropes or gear. It had taken us too long to get in here and we figured it was three hours to get out and our plan was to drive to Fresno that night. The guidebook says it is 1-3 more hours to ascend to the “start” of the route, though it sure felt like it started here. The range in time is due, presumably, to how much of that ground one is roped up and how much weight you’re carrying and if you are hauling or not.
This is Mt. Watkins!
Derek scampered a hundred feet up the 5.4 face using the fixed line for the top section before I called it off. It was too risky to be hand-over-hand climbing up these thin climbing ropes with no protection in case of a fall. And falling from here was likely fatal. It wasn’t worth the risk and we turned around. Back at the base, we shouldered our loads and started out.
Gigantic pine cones! The US Army probably did some nuclear testing back here in the 50's...
Surprisingly, it took only 70 minutes to get back to the log crossing. We were both shocked, expecting at least two hours for that section. And Derek built numerous cairns on the way back. It graphically showed us the advantage of finding and staying on the right path. Granted we were going downhill here, but this was greatly encouraging for when we return.
I hope this isn't poison ivy...I'll know in a day or two.
The rest of the hike went easily, as we were soon on an established trails and then paved roads. Bumper-to-bumper, weekend, Valley traffic greeted us and it took us an hour to get out of the Valley, though that included a short stop at the store for ice cream.

It had been a great trip. Not as productive as I had hoped, but that isn’t uncommon for me. It’s easy to be ambitious when sitting at home and looking at guidebooks. The giant walls of Yosemite look a lot different when you are standing at the base of them… But we’ll be back.

Derek descending the first set of fixed lines.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Snake Dike on Half Dome

Taking some liberties with the camera angle on Snake Dike.

While we didn’t complete the link-up of El Cap to Half Dome yesterday, we decided to finish it off today, with a lap on the ultra-classic Snake Dike. Our routine each morning is the one we’ve adopted ever since we started adventuring together. I get up at least thirty minutes before Derek and handle getting everything ready. Then I tell Derek to get up. Derek does the bulk of the work the night before. He fills all the water bottles, stows all the food, etc. So, it’s a nice division of labor and works to our strengths: I’m better in the morning and he’s better at night.

The alarm went off at 5 a.m. and I snoozed it once before getting up. We had to pack up the site, as we were moving camping sites again. We were hiking at 6 a.m. Derek carried the pack with our light harnesses, four cams, seven slings, food, and four 20-ounce bottles of water. I carried our 60-meter 7.8mm rope. Our other small pack’s zipper failed completely on our El Cap descent, so we only had the one light pack.
The impressive Nevada Falls
We hiked at a steady pace and passed by many hikers headed for Half Dome. Fifteen minutes below Nevada Falls, we caught and passed four guys, all about my age, and moving along pretty well, especially their leader. They were headed for Half Dome, of course, and we’d pass them again, on our way down in Little Yosemite Valley. When we pulled up next to them, I asked them if they were the same guys we’d passed earlier. One guy looked us over for a bit and then said, “Yup. I remember telling my buddies, ‘I bet they are from Colorado.’” I just looked at him for a beat, thinking if we had even talked to these guys, when he asked, “Where are you from?” Cool. Colorado has a rep because of people like Jason Wells and Stefan Griebel and Layton Kor, who come out to the Valley and crush things. But these guys didn’t know climbing at all. When we told them we did a rock climb on the opposite side as Half Dome, one guy asked, “So, do you rappel up it?” I wish. He pegged us as Coloradans only because we seemed to be handling the 6000-foot altitude well. 6000 feet! It’s true that people from Colorado don’t even consider that an altitude. There isn’t a lot of Colorado below 6000 feet.

Derek ascending the first pitch, above the roof.
Fours years ago, when Derek was 16, we did the Dean Potter approach to Snake Dike and it was so horrible and so stressful for Derek that he didn’t even want to do the climb. I insisted, we did it, and he had a great time on the climb. This time we didn’t take that approach, but the standard one that branches off the Half Dome Trail in Little Yosemite Valley, above Nevada Falls. I’d done it a couple of times but not for at least 25 years. I was just about to double back, when we spotted a climber’s trail branching off and some cairns.
Derek arriving at the second belay.
We followed the climbing trail clear to the base of the route. Before the ledge traverse to the left, just below the South Face of Half Dome, we encountered massive, fresh rockfall. Manzanita branches were cleaved off cleanly and anyone that has dealt with that plant knows this takes the equivalent force of ten-kiloton nuclear device. Derek had been pounding out the trail to that point, but he didn’t like that terrain and slowed, picking his way carefully over the unstable terrain.

Once we got on the climber’s trail we saw only two people — a couple with overnight gear coming out. The next two people we saw were when I was, literally, thirty seconds from the base of the route. They were coming in from the north, having probably hiked by the start of the route, which is apparently common. If it wasn’t for that mistake, we’d have been second in line. I’m sure they would have let us pass, though. They were a nice couple. The guy was from the Bay Area and the woman was from New York. He told her, “I guess we have a little time to hang out.” I assured them that we’d be fast.
Traversing to the correct dike on our variation fourth pitch.
The approach had taken us 2h45m and we geared in less than two minutes. We were doing the entire day in our approach shoes, we just needed to pull on our harness and flake the rope. I led up to the roof, put in a piece, downclimbed twenty-five feet to easier ground and then friction-climbed across the face to the left side of the roof and then ran up the easy crack/ramp thing to the first belay. I did the pitch in just a few minutes and we were out of their way before they had shoes or a harness on. We were on the fourth pitch by the time they had both left the ground.

When Derek arrived at the belay I assured him that we had no need to rush and I did that pitch fast just to clear the route for them. Derek agreed that there wasn’t a reason to go fast, except that it was fun to climb fast and efficiently. Where do kids get ideas like that…?
Incredibly fun climbing on the Snake Dike
I zipped up the second pitch but on the third pitch I followed a bolt up and slightly right before finding another one back left and high up there. I think I normally do this traverse to the dike on the left lower. Anyway, I traverse over to the dike on exciting friction, then easily up the dike for a bit and then back right to the two-bolt anchor at the base of the dike on the right. This is a strange place for the belay, since the proper dike to climb is the one on the left. But that’s so unintuitive, despite thinking that was the right dike, that I headed up the dike directly above the belay. I got up about eighty feet and put in a very marginal .75 Camalot. I then did spot a bolt, way below me on the other dike. Not wanting to reverse the eighty feet, I climbed twenty feet higher to where the dikes were closer together, hoping to make the traverse there, but I found the extra slick golden granite there and couldn’t get in any protection in the seam above my last placement. So, I climbed back down to my 0.75 and then another fifteen feet lower and made a delicate traverse over to the other flake and the 2-bolt anchor. When Derek cleaned my only piece, he did not approve, thinking it wouldn’t have held body weight, let alone a fall. When he arrived at the belay he asked me, “Now, what have we learned?” Hey, who’s the father here? I answered, “Go with your gut instinct?” He said, “No! Down climb!” I can’t be retreating at the first sign of adversity. Plus, that would admit that I had made a wrong route-finding decision. Isn’t it better to risk a 150-foot skin-grating slide?
What a gorgeous place to climb.
On the fifth pitch I headed up the dike for one hundred feet, finding no bolts enroute to the two-bolt anchor, and stopped to belay. On the sixth pitch I led out 250+ feet on our 200-foot lead line (you do the math) and belayed. We did one more long, easy pitch to make sure it was safe to unrope. Then we did the long, calf-burning slab walk to the summit, arriving there at 11:30 a.m.
Calf-burning slab walking to the summit.
We hung out on the summit for forty minutes, eating all the food we brought, which is rare for us. We downed two of our four bottles, too. We still had an 8-mile, 5000-foot, knee-jarring descent, but it went smoothly and we arrived back at the car in just under nine hours.

On the summit.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

East Buttress of El Cap

Many years ago, apparently back when I was fitter and a better climber, with my buddy John Black, we climbed the East Buttress of El Capitan (13 pitches, 10b) and then went and climbed Snake Dike (7 pitches, 5.7) on Half Dome. When I told my friend Hans about this, he said it was the first time both El Cap and Half Dome had been freed in a day. At least to his knowledge. So, it might have been done countless times. It certainly could have been done by countless climbers. When people say someone “free climbed El Cap and Half Dome in a day”, what they really mean is someone “free climbed Free Rider (30+ pitches, 12d) and the Regular Northwest Face (24 pitches, 12c). So, John and I dubbed our outing the Poor-Man’s Link-up (PMLU).

It used to be that Nose-in-a-Day (NIAD) was the absolute mark of a hardman climber. At least until I did it and then the Climbing Council got together and decreed that to be a real hardman you have to link El Cap to Half Dome in a day, though not free mind you. We’ll get back to free in a second. The first people to do this link-up were Valley legends John Bachar and Peter Croft, and they set speed records on both routes, not surprisingly. It’s now been done many times. Though it has retained its status, the ultimate link-up in the Valley is the Triple of Half Dome, Mt. Watkins, and El Cap. This has only been done three times. First by Dean Potter and Timmy O’Neill. Then the ante was raised monstrously when Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell free climbed all three, climbing Free Rider instead of the Nose (14a). Then then it was raised yet again when Alex Honnold soloed all three, via the Nose, since he didn’t climb them entirely free.

So, back to Half Dome and El Cap all free. Obviously Honnold and Caldwell did it. Dean Potter was first to do it. And I think that’s it. Except, of course, for me. So, to sum up: Potter, Caldwell, Honnold, Wright. That’s a nice grouping. Known to many climbers throughout my entire household.

So, back to me. And Derek. We were thinking of repeating the PMLU. Turns out, and I should have realized this, but just thinking about it isn’t enough. We set the alarm for 5, but then snoozed it a couple of times. We weren’t packed and ready and did that at El Cap Meadow. We saw Caldwell’s van there. I walked back to it to see if they were still there (they weren’t) and just caught a base jumper going off El Cap. Actually, I didn’t see him until the chute opened. His friends were cheering and then jumped in a car to go pick him up. He did not land in El Cap Meadow, but further east, on a beach alongside the Merced River.

We hiked into El Cap and paused to watch Caldwell and Honnold, who were moving up the Stovelegs, having already passed two parties. Just two days ago they climbed the Nose in 2:01:50. Today? 1:58:07. That’ll do.I predict it will stand for ten years. Unless they break it themselves. It’s so significant that I think it will discourage others. This is probably a good thing, since it is significantly dangerous.
Approaching the East Buttress along the base of El Capitan
 It was a lonely walk up along the base of El Cap. We saw a party of three still waking up at the base of the New Dawn and that was it. Until we got to the base of our route and met Nathaniel (Ph.d candidate in BioEngineering at MIT) and Kyle (also MIT grad, I think, now assistant professor at some small college near Boston…Harvard? Just kidding). Before we left the ground another twosome showed up — two people of Indian descent I think (rare in the climbing world, at least in my limited experience). The woman, Neha, seemed to be the leader. Go Girl Power! Oops, that’s not PC. Go Woman Warrior! It was her first time climbing in Yosemite, but she’s probably an international crusher. Speaking of ethnicity, and it probably comes as no shock given they are from MIT, but Nathanial and Kyle were both Asian. I don’t think whites are allowed in any more. My son Danny didn’t get in and he’s probably smarter than half the faculty. Definitely smarter than anyone working in admissions at MIT. My brother, an MIT grad, pointed out that it’s highly unlikely that anyone in admissions actually went to MIT themselves.

Well, that intro probably cut down significantly on my readership… Where was I? Oh yes, waiting in line. Nathaniel led the first pitch and that team would swing leads the entire way. I gave Kyle some space before starting up the first pitch after him. This pitch is just classic Yosemite climbing. It starts with a 5.6 tight chimney section and then some easy climbing leads into the crux chimney. This is pretty neat climbing. It looks intimidating as the chimney is pretty tight, but holds appear just as you need them. Further up it gets wider and some stemming helps matters, but you’re deep in this maw for about a hundred feet. The crux is at the very top and is awkward hand jamming that gets tighter and tighter and it’s over a bulge, so very difficult to use your feet. I did this section with both Nathanial and Kyle giving me encouragement and pointing out the finishing jug at the back of the pizza-pan-sized ledge.
Derek nearing the top of the first pitch
It was crowded on the ledge, but these guys were cool about it. I tried to plan my arrival after Kyle had left on the next pitch, but I was close below him and he was afraid he’d fall on me, so he waited for me to get on the ledge. Kyle then led off and I put Derek on belay. Derek did great on this pitch, at least until he got to the crux. While Kyle and Nathanial were both wearing packs, only Derek carried a pack for us. They were carrying a second rope for the rappels. Derek was carrying the Escaper and some food and 60 ounces of water. The pack wasn’t that heavy, but it was too bulky for the chimney and Derek clipped it into his harness on such a short sling that it interfered with his lower legs, making the climbing doubly awkward. I offered to take him on the rope and haul up the pack, but he wouldn’t have it. He struggled for quite awhile. I was impressed with this preservation, but was a bit concerned he wasn’t have any fun.

Derek had to wait down in the chimney for Kyle to finish leading the next pitch. This team had already held us up over an hour and I was concerned about our link-up chances if this continued. Talking with Nathanial, I mentioned that we were hoping to link Snake Dike to this climb. He said he knew there were some variation above and we could take one of those and pass them if we wanted. He then asked, “Are you guys local?” I responded that we were from Colorado and he said, “That was my second guess.” We’d share belays with these guys on the way up, but they didn’t slow us down any further. They were quite good climbers; at least my equal.

Derek got on the ledge and we re-racked. Having watched both Kyle and Nathanial style the crux moves at the start of the second pitch, I was hoping to follow suit. I stepped out onto tiny edges on the the small, slick face. I reached right and got my fingers in a pin scar. I grabbed the left edge of the face, an arete with my left hand and stepped up higher to an even more precarious edge. I was stuck, though. I couldn’t let go with either hand. I retreated back to the ledge. I tried once again without success before I changed tactics. I put both hands on the right, into different pin scars and backstepped by left foot. I could then reach up with my left hand and grasped the rounded top of the face. I matched and stood up on tiny edges. I reached my left hand up into a pin scar in a higher crack on the left. It was a bad hold though and I started cruxing a bit. I tried to step high onto the rounded hold my right hand was still on, but feared I’d fall off. I put my foot back down and reconsidered. I was getting pumped and needed to do something. I matched hands again on the rounded hold and reached to my right, around a blind corner. I found a good hold there and was able to step up and place some bomber gear. I had Derek a bit concerned here. Me too. The rest of the pitch is rated 5.9 and is quite awkward. A flaring, pin-scarred crack lies in the back of a slot that is about a foot wide. The saving grace is that the angle is more gentle here and I could smear my feet and barely get marginal jams and fingers in the pin scars.
Climbing the airy and runout third pitch
I bypassed the infamous “ant tree”, which was once again (perpetually?) crawling with ants. It made me question the longevity of an ant colony. I first climbed this route more than 25 years ago and it hasn’t changed. Do the ants just eat the leaves of this one tree? I wonder why they haven’t branched out and colonized some of the trees on the ledge thirty feet higher, where I ended up belaying Derek.

Derek rushed the opening moves, thinking that the rounded hold that I had used for so long was a good hold. It’s not. He dyno-ed for it and found out, taking a fall back down level to the ledge. He got the moves on his second try, but hated the upper 5.9 section, finding it frustratingly awkward. I was disappointed that Derek wasn’t enjoying the climbing, but confident that it would get better, as the climbing above was less awkward and had much better position with huge exposure.

I led up the photogenic 5.6 face pitch, finding it more runout than I remembered, but the climbing is solid and wasn’t stressful. I then did a long 5.7 pitch up to a couple of bolts, linking a low-angle 4th-class pitch into the start of the two-pitch buttress. The fifth pitch is 5.8 and is mostly easier but has a neat roof/bulge at the top that had my attention. Derek followed all of these easily and quickly and we caught Kyle and Nathanial again. We took a break on the small ledge there to eat, drink, and watch Kyle follow the crux of the upper half of the route.
Heading up the fifth pitch
The East Buttress breaks down into two halves at this ledge. The two hard pitches in the first half are the first two pitches. The same is true of the second half. There are two 5.9 pitches here. One is a burly 5.9 crack pitch that traverse nearly as much as it goes up. The jams vary from solid hands to off-fingers with some flares as well. It’s tricky, but pretty short at 65 feet. Nathanial had linked this pitch with the next one, also 5.9. The second 5.9 pitch has two options: offwidth straight up or tricky face climbing out to the left and then back to the right. With nothing bigger than a #3 Camalot, I opted for the face climbing out to the left.

Where exactly to traverse to the left is not obvious. I found some tiny crimps and some smeary footholds, placed a #3 Camelot in the crack and committed to the moves out left. I moved around a tiny corner and blindly felt around for good holds. Finding them, I stepped up and, with delicate balance, was just able to reach all the way back to the right and place my second #3 Camalot. I then continued upwards to two fixed pins and above that, back into the crack above the offwidth section. The offwidth section looks burly, awkward (because it leans left a bit) and slick. I’ve never climbed it despite four trips up this route. I probably need to return with a couple of bigger cams and give it a try. Derek loved this pitch and styled it. He climbed directly to my second #3 Camelot, jamming the wider crack, until a face hold allowed him to move left.
The traversing, pumpy sixth pitch
Kyle had gotten off route above us, so we didn’t share any more belays. He missed the traverse to the classic white pillar where Timmy O’Neill is climbing on the cover of the Yosemite Free Climbs guidebook. I messed up a bit with my belay here, and climbed a bit too far towards the pillar. The topo had shown an alternate belay along this route, but, if so, it is a build-your-own belay, without a ledge and massive exposure. I built my own belay a bit early at a terrible stance, enough for only one person. I put in four cams to secure the belay. They were solid, but it was an exposed, scary belay. Or at least I thought until Derek got there. He wasn’t stressed at all. He inspected the anchor, thought all pieces were bomber and put it out of his mind.

The next pitch is considered the psychological crux of the route, as the route finding is a bit difficult and the climbing is very runout, 5.8 climbing, albeit not very sustained. Every ten or twenty feet I’d find very good footholds so that I could stand there indefinitely. I needed the mental rest and to plot my route up the wall, which isn’t obvious and probably has many viable options. But it might have had dead ends as well. And I did not want to get into a situation where I was down climbing tricky 5.8 thirty or more feet out from gear with Derek out of sight at a hanging, gear belay.
Leading up the eighth pitch
The pitched started by climbing the left side of this white pillar and then I had to down climb the other side in order to make a traverse across a feature-less section of the wall. I was very attentive to the rope when Derek followed this pitch, waiting for the rope to come tight while he downclimbed this section and checking every couple of seconds whether I needed to let out more rope or start pulling it in again.

I found my way up to a huge ledge after 150 feet. There was supposed to be two pins here, but extensive search didn’t reveal them. The only piece I had was a fixed #4 cam in a wide crack fifteen feet above my ledge, but I wasn’t worried. My feet started to hurt me at the last belay and I immediately took off my climbing shoes before putting Derek on belay. He did the same when he arrived. Derek followed fine, but remarked it was “thoughtful” climbing.
Looking down from the belay at the top of the eight pitch.
I ran the next two pitches (5.7 and 5.6) together and stretched out all 70 meters of our rope before belaying on the low-angled slab at the top of the route. Kyle and Nathaniel were up there coiling ropes and snacking. Derek soon joined us and we packed up quickly. Nathaniel took a photo of us and we led them down the familiar East Ledges descent to the top of the fixed lines.

I tried to rappel on the first fixed line, but it was so fat I couldn’t get it into my Petzl Reverso. We didn’t bring our GriGri’s on this route to save weight, so we used our rope on this first rappel, which was less than 35 meters (the furtherest we could go and retrieve our rope without using the Escaper). The next rappel looked really long so Derek went down on a single line. He ended up stopping at a hidden (from above) anchor. With the guys above us, at Derek’s suggestion to avoid the use of the Escaper, I asked them to drop our rope for us. So, I went down the full length bypassing Derek’s station. From Derek’s station was another fixed rope and I confirmed there were no knots in it, so Derek rappelled down that fixed line and joined me. Derek did another 70-meter rappel on our rope and confirmed one of the fixed lines was free of knots, so I could rappel down that line and bring down our rope again. We did one more rappel on a fat fixed line where I got to show Derek how to rappel with biners, since our devices didn’t work on the rope.
Heading up the runout, ninth pitch.
We then hiked out on the trail, past the Manure Pile Buttress, and down to the parking lot. We just missed the shuttle, so walked the mile back to El Cap Meadows. Derek had now climbed El Cap twice. Once on the far west side and now on the far east side. I know he wants to go up that middle route… It’s probably in our near future.

At the top of the East Buttress with Half Dome in the background.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Galactic Hitchhiker Attempt

I’ve done a lot of climbing in Yosemite. Sure, nothing like the true masters and at an average level, but I’ve done most of the major structures: El Cap, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Leaning Tower, Sentinel Rock, Yosemite Point Buttress, Lost Arrow Spire, all three Cathedral Rocks, both Cathedral Spires, Royal Arches, Washington Column, Arrowhead Arete, etc. While I haven’t done a real route on Mt. Broderick or Liberty Cap, I’ve been to both summits. The biggest walls I haven’t done are Mt. Watkins and Glacier Point. Hence, these were the main focus for this trip with Derek.

I love climbing with Derek. Every father I know is jealous that my main climbing partner is my son. I know it is a rare situation and, possibly, but not definitely, a fleeting one. So, I try to maximize it. Derek has become a very strong gym climbing — he sent his first 5.13 this past gym season (gym season for us is November through April, when it is difficult to climb outside before work). But trad climbing is different. There are so many decisions to make. You are constantly doing risk analysis of the likelihood of falling, the quality of the gear, the obstacles to hit if you fall, etc. Route-finding is a non-trivial aspect of the longer routes, as is setting a bomber belay from trad gear. Derek knows all this and knows his inexperience here limits his safety and thus his opportunities to take the sharp end. This has never been a problem for me, to do all the leading, but, now, as our objectives get longer and tougher, it seems to be a burden that is tougher for me to carry.

Last year, the day we arrived in the Valley was the day Alex Honnold free soloed Free Rider (12d) on El Cap. A feat of such proportions that it might not be equaled in my lifetime (and I plan to live for a long time). We viewed it as a good omen for a great trip and we did have a very successful visit. This year, three days before we arrived in the Valley, Honnold and Tommy Caldwell broke the speed record on the Nose (2:10:15). The day we attempted this climb, they lowered it to 2:01:50. What might have been another good omen for us was massively blotted out by the horrific and tragic death of our friend Jason Wells. He, along with two other partners, were doing a quick ascent of the Salathe Wall — the longest route on El Cap — something Jason and partner Tim had done many times before. Their third climber, Kevin, was jugging the Half Dollar (pitch 8) on a short-fixed rope, while Jason and Tim were simul-climbing pitches 9 and 10 on a second rope. Something caused one of them to fall and, if there was any gear between them, it ripped out of the rock. The line Tim was trailing, the one short-fixed to the anchor atop pitch 8, was just clipped to a gear loop, which is a common practice when dragging up a line that you are not climbing on. The gear loop failed, as it is not designed to catch a fall, and both Jason and Tim went 1000 feet to the ground. Kevin heard and saw them fall by, knowing in an instant that they were both dead and possibly himself as well. A moment later he knew he wouldn’t be falling to the ground. He was able to join with a following party and, with their help, eventually get safely back down.

I love rock climbing and part of that appeal, somewhat, is the risk involved. It isn’t that I want to risk my life, though. It’s that climbing requires a lot of skills and judgement so that you aren’t risking your life, though you appear to be doing so to non-climbers. Climbing gets me to outrageous, unnatural places. When you are a thousand-feet up El Cap, you know deep in your gut that humans are not meant to be there. That I am not meant to be there. Many of the top El Cap climbers seem to be completely comfortable up there, as their skills are so great that they can extract themselves from that wall relatively quickly and easily. It’s different for the rest of us. We can’t extract ourselves quickly. We are very committed, very exposed, and it’s stressful. It isn’t like you can easily retreat at any time. Many of the routes have traverses in them, making it difficult to reverse your route. Rappelling means untying from the rope, an act that never seems to have zero stress, at least until you are standing on the ground. So, why climb? Why seek such stress and difficulty and danger? To see if you can conquer the stress and difficulty and have the skills to minimize the danger? “Conquer” is the wrong word, at least for me. I’m seeing if I can “handle” the stress and difficulty. When you succeed, the feeling is great. One can get a smaller dose of this feeling by staying comfortably below your limits. Of course, then you won’t know exactly what your limits are…

But free soloing El Cap and speed climbing up it are significant jumps in danger. Free soloing El Cap is so ridiculously dangerous that its only been done once. It’s a risk-reward equation that just doesn’t make sense to every single person on the planet Earth, except Alex Honnold. And more so now that it’s been done. The reward to be first at this is substantial. Honnold will likely be able to live the rest of his life on the basis of that achievement. He’s now the most famous climber in the world, by a large margin. Most elite climbing is too esoteric for the non-climber to appreciate. Watching elite climbers working a 5.15 on a rope would grab a non-climber’s interest for only a moment or two. But seeing something in the middle of a 3000-foot vertical wall is so beyond anyone’s (including all climbers) frame of reference that it captivates you. How can this be? I don’t know how he got there, but he will surely die now, we all think. Climbing Free Rider without falling or weighting a rope in any way is rare, even for the best climbers in the world. In fact, besides Honnold, I don’t know if it’s been done. This is because many of the pitches on this route don’t end at ledges where one can drop both hands. Even Yuji Hirayama who was the first (and still only?) person to climb the Salathe Wall (nearly identical to Free Rider, but with a crux 230-foot overhanging 5.13b headwall pitch) “ledge-to-ledge”, almost certainly weighted the rope at some of the slab belays on the lower portion of the route. It’s pretty much impossible not to weight the rope when climbing this route because the rope isn’t long enough to reach between hands-off ledges. So, Alex is the first ever to climb El Cap and not weight any gear. Even now, with a year to process what he’s done, it makes me sick to my stomach to even think about it. It makes everyone’s stomach turn. Except Alex.

So, we can dismiss free soloing, but what of speed climbing? I’m a practitioner of speed climbing myself. By that I mean, I have used some of the techniques of speed climbing, not that I’m threatening any records. The two main techniques of speed climbing are simul-climbing and short-fixing and Jason’s team was doing both simultaneously because they had three climbers. While Jason had blazed up the Salathe with three climbers before, doing a speed ascent with three is pretty rare, despite the first-ever speed-ascent of the Nose being a team of three. A third climber jugging a fixed line doesn’t slow down an aid-climbing team because jugging is faster than aid climbing. It’s faster than difficult free climbing too, but slower than easy free climbing. The Salathe has very little easy free climbing, so it was a reasonable strategy.

Simul-climbing is dangerous. But so is climbing. Just that simul-climbing is more dangerous. If either climber falls, both climbers will fall. If the bottom climber falls without a progress-capture device between the climbers, it could easily kill the top climber. The reason for this is that the top climber would be pulled down directly to the last piece of protection and hit it. There would be no stretch of the rope to lessen this impact. Either the sudden stop would kill the climber, if the fall was greater than thirty feet or more, or the force would cause the piece of protection to fail, thereby causing both climbers to fall the additional distance down to the next piece, if there is one…

Most of the time when simul-climbing the general rule is to have three pieces of gear between the climbers, but it is broken occasionally. When broken the risks go up proportionally. Why simul-climb if a fall by the second will kill the lead climber? How is this safer than soloing? If the second climber is a better climber than the first climber, then it is safer than soloing. Because you can switch, quickly, to conventional climbing, it is safer than soloing. If the second climber never falls, simul-climbing is very close to regular climbing for the leader, only that he is climbing on a virtual 500-foot rope without the 500 feet of rope drag, which would prevent any upward movement at all. In fact, many speed ascents specifically use a short rope to minimize this drag. This is only relevant to specific attempts at speed, as it would not be used on a more conventional climb where simul-climbing was just during one easier section of the route.

One of the key innovations to making simul-climbing safer is the PCD or progress-capture device. This is clipped to a bomber piece of gear, frequently a fixed belay station, by the leader and it allows the rope to go up, but not down. This way if the second falls their weight comes onto the PCD and not onto the leader.

One of the key aspects making simul-climbing less safe is the distance between gear placements. Why is this different from regular climbing? It need not be if only doing a little simul-climbing or a couple of pitches of simul-climbing on easier ground, but if you are trying to link many pitches runouts are necessary or you’ll have to climb with a much larger rack. A much larger rack is heavy, which slows down the climber and somewhat defeats the purpose of simul-climbing, at least for speed. Big runouts are dangerous whether simul-climbing or traditionally leading. A fall fifty feet out from your last placement is deathly serious unless the entire climb is overhanging. If not, you’re going to hit something. Hard. I have personal experience with this.

Years ago I was simul-climbing with my good friend Tom Karpeichik. We were trying to get in 100 pitches of Eldo climbing in a single day and to do that we were simul-climbing every route as a single pitch. Tom was leading up the 7-pitch Redguard Route (5.8) and fifty feet above his last piece when a hold broke and he fell. Simul-climbing below him, I heard him scream and looked up to see him plummeting towards me. I had time to notice the two pieces of gear between us, the closest one to me twenty feet above me. I thought, “We’re dead.” But the system worked. The top piece caught and held us both. I was pulled upwards and stopped just short of the piece above me. Tom was unconscious and had a serious head injury, but after months, made a full recovery. We had to be rescued, one of us was not functional and we only had a 100-foot rope. If I had fallen, it would have been much worse for Tom and me too, as we didn’t have a PCD between us.

Back to Jason and his 3-person speed ascent. They weren’t using speed techniques to try for any record or even any personal best. They were using them because they are required to climb  El Cap in a single day. It’s a rather large cliff. Climbing El Cap in a day is a very different experience than climbing it over several days. In one day, it is just climbing. In several days it is camping and hauling and some climbing as well. They just wanted to climb, so speed techniques were the only way to go. But they missed a chance to add additional security by virtue of the third climber and the extra rope. If Tim had tied his trailing rope into his tie-in loop instead of the gear loop, they’d have had the advantage of always being clipping into a fixed anchor while still simul-climbing. This comes at almost no cost (it is a bit less convenient to have the rope tied in front versus in back). It might not have saved their lives because they still would have fallen a long way and likely bounced off the wall a number of times, but they wouldn't have gone all the way to the ground. I think this technique should always be used when speed climbing as a team of three.

Not surprisingly, I thought a lot about Jason and this accident while in Yosemite. It made me more adverse to risk. This isn’t a bad thing. I didn’t become paralyzed with fear and stop climbing altogether, but it made me hyper aware of risk. But, as you’ll see, it didn’t make me less lazy or smarter.

Galactic Hitchhiker is a 39-pitch route and ascends from the Valley floor to Glacier Point, 3000 feet above. It is at a much gentler angle than El Cap, with plenty of low-angle slab climbing. The appeal of this route was the length and the rating. At 5.11b all free of 5.10a with aid, it seemed right in range to be able to move quickly. Despite it’s length, we read that most parties ascend it in 8-12 hours. We knew it would be a long, hard, hot day and brought 100 ounces of liquid each. In order to save some weight we decided to do this route with a single 60-meter, 8mm line. With only one line retreat would be difficult, but we were confident. Over confident, as it would turn out.

We had scoped out the first three pitches on our first day in the Valley, to find the start and to stretch our legs after a long day of traveling. So, Derek led off at 5:56 a.m. and linked the first two pitches (5.5 climbing). I led the familiar third pitch and Derek followed. On the topo the fourth pitch is marked as the “psychological crux” for the runout 5.8 slab climbing. Crux of what? I wondered. Certainly not of GH. The first eight pitches of GH is an older route called the Goodrich Pinnacle and it has some scarier, more runout climbing further up. Nevertheless, I moved up this rather long pitch pretty well, trying not to pause too long on the holdless slab for fear that I’d freeze up. Our confidence was high at this point, though it would immediately change.

The next pitch is 5.9 and started with a traverse nearly straight right for more than thirty feet and gained probably fifteen feet with no protection at all. After this stretch there are two bolts right next to each other and the route then goes straight up for fifteen or twenty more feet without any gear to a two-bolt belay. So the entire pitch has one piece of protection. I started across thinking it would be pretty easy to get to the first bolts, but went too low and stalled out on a polished, very slick, holdless slab. With nothing to grasp and no confidence that my feet would stay put, my stress level started a slow, steady rise. I climbed myself into a dead end and didn’t even think I could down climb out of it. I told Derek that I was coming off and he readied himself to try and pull in some rope. I was at least twenty feet out from the belay and looking at a sliding fall across the slab to end up well below the belay. I tried to step down and had it for a second and then my foot slipped and I fell. But stopped, miraculously, two feet down. How that happened I don’t really know. I guess I hit some rock that was less polished and I was still in my climbing stance with my soles against the slab. Yikes.

I climbed back a bit and then climbed up higher, trying for a different path across the face. A difficult, tenuous move got me to the next tier and now, further out, I tried the traverse from higher up. Here there were no holds as well, but I was able to scoot along a lower angle ramp until it ran out and I had to step across a wide slick section. I made it and clipped the bolt with great relief. The topo called the section above 5.9, but I was now right next to a bolt and didn’t fear a short fall. I found some micro edges to pull on, things just a couple of millimeters wide, smeared my feet and gained the belay. Derek followed across to the bolts with the same stress, as the hard move was way sideways from the two bolts. He slipped off the crux slab moves above the bolt, but soon arrived at the belay.

The next pitch, our sixth, was rated 5.9 as well. The 5.9 climbing is protected by three closely-spaced bolts and then absolutely nothing for seventy feet as it traverses back to the left and up. The climbing on this runout is pretty easy (5.7 is the rating, but probably easier) except for the start, which is still 5.9. I clipped the first bolt and tried to climb to the second bolt. Just as I got there, only three feet away, I slipped and slid down the slab. The climbing here is pure friction and I couldn’t get my feet to stick on the glacier polish. We had so many pitches to do and I decided to just grab and bolts and move on. They were close enough together where I could do this. From the third bolt I had to traverse left and a bit down. I did this, though I think some tension on the rope from Derek aided in my progress. Once seven feet left, the climbing eased and I moved quickly up the rest of the pitch to a bolted belay.

Derek didn’t even try to free the section protected by the bolts and grabbed the draws. But now he faced a more stressful situation than I did. He had to do these moves while looking at a rather large pendulum to the left. The fact that I wasn’t able to clip anything at all from there to belay, made the rope run upwards more than sideways, so the speed of the potential-pendulum fall wouldn’t be great, but he would probably go thirty feet sideways. He went back and forth on this numerous times, trying to find a solid way to make this move and thinking all the time about the fall potential. He eventually said, “I’m going to swing over.” He didn’t mean he was going to voluntarily come off, but knew it was highly likely and he wanted me to be ready (I was watching him like a father) and, I think, to ready his mind for what was about to happen. Then he made the move, didn’t slip and proceeded to finish it off without falling.

By tacit agreement I knew I’d be doing the rest of the leading and I linked the next two pitches (5.7 and 5.6) to the top of the Goodrich Pinnacle, which is sort of a spire plastered onto this slab of Glacier Point Apron. We didn’t pause long here. We had a long way to go. Eight pitches down, 31 to go.

I linked the next two pitches, a 5.9 and a 5.10a. These seemed a bit easier and less scary and I moved up there at a reasonable pace. Derek had to unclip from the belay and step off the pillar to give me enough rope to clip in, but he didn’t have to really simul-climb at all. Derek followed cleanly and here the climbing got more confusing.

The next pitch was supposed to be a thin 5.8 crack right above the belay. Indeed a seam stretched up and across to the right above us. I made some desperate move to get up high enough to try and get in a micro-cam, but it wouldn’t hold. I fell/slid back down to the ledge with Derek pushing me into the wall to control my fall. That wasn’t it. Instead I traversed about ten feet right to a crack in a small left-facing dihedral. It wasn’t particularly thin, but seemed around 5.8. Then I did a short easy pitch up to another good ledge and another bolted belay.

Next was supposed to be 10a pitch spanning “the gap.” Instead I went a bit left and climbed up a long left-facing, clean, dihedral ramp thing (probably 5.6 or 5.7) for nearly a rope-length before pulling out of it to the right at a 3-bolt belay. I think our topo was describing climbing to my right. Top of the 13th pitch. Next was a 5.10b thin crack, but I avoided it by climbing corners to the left. I ran out most of the rope and didn’t find a fixed belay. I set up a gear belay and brought Derek up. Another moderate pitch and I arrived at a pretty flat, sandy ledge below the Olympic Headwall, where things got a lot steeper. This ledge was just left of the Oasis, a bivy/water source.

The wall above looked dismal. It was soaked and very steep. It wasn’t clear where the route went and it all looked scary. The start of pitch 17 was obvious, though - three bolts leading straight up on 5.9 edges. The belay was supposed to be straight above them, but it wasn’t. I climbed a bit higher and trended to the left on easy ground before spotting the belay below me and twenty feet left from the bolts. I downclimbed a bit and then scooted over to the belay. The pitch was short and so I kept climbing, intending to link in the next 5.10 pitch. Nothing really matched our topo, which was really bad, but I followed the line of least resistance.

I climbed up a corner, supposed 5.9 but seemed easier and continued up to a bolt below a small roof. I clipped the bolt and bypassed the roof via moderate but exposed climbing. I moved up a bit to a small steep corner with minimal edges and was stymied. I placed the 0.3 cam, the one we found rapping off El Capitan, in a marginal placement with three solid cams and tried to move upwards without any luck. I backed down and put in a large stopper right next to the cam and it seemed solid. I tried again, but couldn’t quite reach what I hoped was a good hold. I backed down again. Way out on my 8mm lead line, on the 17th pitch, I was concerned. My hopes of completing the route had started to dim when I couldn’t do the 5.9 friction on pitch 6. I knew runout 5.10 climbing was above and was hoping it was more face climbing than friction climbing. I thought about retreating, leaving both the cam and the stopper and lowering off. I didn’t want to let Derek down, but I knew I wouldn’t be. He knew we were a team and no one person let the other person down. We would succeed or fail together. Yet, I wanted to give my best effort to complete the climb. I clipped a sling into the stopper and stepped in it. I still couldn’t reach the good hold but I had plenty of time to grab the tiny edges I needed and place my right foot, the one not in the sling, on a small edge. Then I committed, cranked up on my arms, and hit the hold. It was good and I moved upwards on easy, but steep, unprotected ground for fifteen feet. Here I placed a .5 cam and struggled to find the belay. There were suppose to be three pitons. I didn’t seen anything. I moved up another ten feet of easy climbing and placed a bomber #2 Camalot, but there was no other protection to be had.

I scanned for the belay without any luck. I thought I could belay from the single #2 Camalot, but wasn’t thrilled with the idea. It wasn’t a hanging belay, but it was a tiny stance. The climbing above is what made up my mind. I saw no gear for thirty feet and the climbing, while not continuous was steep friction above a low angle ramp, which was just above me.That had to be the 10a climbing. Doing that climbing and risking a 50+ foot fall onto a single Camalot belay anchor was too much for me to risk. Even if Derek was at a bomber belay and my last piece of protection was a bolt above that belay, I wouldn’t have taken the risk on 10a friction. It was over the line for me and my abilities. I wrestled with the decision for quite awhile, trying to see some easier way past the ground above. Scanning the near vertical walls in either direction without luck. I tried to talk to Derek about it, but the wind was blowing so strong that we couldn’t communicate very well. I basically wanted him to agree with me and tell me to come down. I wanted confirmation that it was the wise choice and I wasn’t just a chicken. It’s funny, but some of my self worth is tied to being brave and leading the scary pitches and keeping calm in dire situations. Because of that I wrestled more with this decision than was necessary. It would be stupid for a climber of my age and ability to take such a risk against his gut this high up on a wall that is already going to be exceedingly difficult to descend. Actually, the difficulty of the descent also had me trying to push things as far as I could. I rued not taking a second rope. Our commitment had been complete.

In making my decision Jason’s accident weighed heavy on my mind. I was definitely thinking about not taking too much risk. We wanted to have a grand adventure and push ourselves, but not to the point of recklessness.

I made my decision and got it communicated to Derek, who said OK without hesitation and in full support. Now how was I to get back down? I was 60-meters out from from his belay with no second rope, over a thousand feet up this wall. I pulled the #2 Camalot and descended back to my 0.5 cam, thinking I could maybe find another placement or at least a less expensive piece to leave. Once back at the 0.5 cam, I noticed one old pin driven to the hilt almost next to my cam. Derek suggested that he untie from the rope, have me pull it up and rappel down to the belay at the top of the 5.9 pitch. I didn’t like that idea. I didn’t want us to be unbound. If my anchor pulled I’d go to the ground and Derek would be stranded without a rope. I wanted him to lower me, but in order to do that we needed more rope. He’d need to climb the 5.9 pitch.

Derek climbed up to the belay at the top of the 5.9 pitch and put me back on belay. I pulled the 0.5 cam and left a biner on the pin and lowered from that. The pin was placed so that it would be nearly impossible to pull out and the metal wasn’t rusted and I didn’t think there was any chance it would break. So I came down off that. I cleaned my gear on the way down, but there still wasn’t enough rope to get me back to the belay at the top of the 17th pitch. I stopped at a stance, put in a piece, clipped to it, untied from the rope, pulled it down from above, and re-tied into it. I then downclimbed the rest of the pitch, while placing and pulling gear to protect myself with Derek belaying me, of course.

I arrived back at the belay and Derek and I rappelled down to the top of the 16th pitch, where he had left his pack. Here we planned our descent. We didn’t find a fixed belay on the pitch below this one, so we were sure we’d have to place a gear anchor and leave it. Also we knew there were a few rappels longer than half our rope length. Normally you’d have to set up gear belays and leave them. And some of these were on blank slabs so we’d have to clip into a single bolt and pull the rope and rappel from it. Doable, but scary and expensive with the gear left behind. But we had one trick with us…

A month or two ago I was in Neptune Mountaineering looking for a small haulbag for this trip. The salesman knew I was into going fast and light and he showed me a new tool called the Escape. This device is clever. And scary. The salesman said that people have one of two reactions to it:
1. Wow! That’s cool.
2. That’s insane.
I ended up in the first group.

This is a friction device that grabs itself (thus independent of rope diameter), and like a Chinese Finger Trap, doesn’t let go when weighted. You can tie your rappel rope to it and you can descend the entire length of the rope. Then to retrieve your rope you jerk down and release on the rope 8-10 times. The brilliance of the Escape is this bungie cord mechanism that gradually pulls your rope out of the prussik-like embrace it has on its tail, which is extra long.

I lowered Derek down so that he could keep hold of the other end of the rope to see if a single rope rappel would work, and I could avoid using the Escape for the first time ever. If it didn’t he could unclip from other end and I could continue to lower him the full length of the rope. He was also looking for the belay anchor we had missed on the way up. I lowered and he searched. This took awhile and eventually he gave up and I lowered him down about 160 feet where he was at a stance and he built an anchor (he was carrying a full selection of gear for just this purpose). He clipped in and I was about to set up the Escape when he called up that he found the fixed belay anchor. He cleaned his gear and climbed a bit up and over to it. I still had to use the Escape, but we wouldn’t have to leave a cam or two.

I set up the device and Derek called up from below, “Check it FIVE times!” I did. Still, easing onto it was freaky. It worked as designed though and down I went, trying to be smooth and keep my weight on it. This would be trivial on a steep rappel, but this was down a slab. It wasn’t hard and I arrived at the semi-hanging belay, where Derek immediately clipped me to a prepared sling. We repeated the procedure from here and Derek made it down to the anchor atop the 12th pitch. This rappel went sideways a considerable distance. On steep ground this would have been impossible, but it was slab and we could friction sideways. Doing this on the Escape made it just a bit more exciting. Once again Derek called up, “Check it FIVE times.”

We repeated the procedure on the next rappel, which went more or less straight down. This one almost made it with the doubled rope, but didn’t. I Escaped again. From the top of the 10th pitch I thought we could rappel on our doubled rope to the top of the ninth and again back to the top of the Goodrich Pinnacle. I lowered Derek here, though, because it traversed hard and he had to clip a draw to a bolt in order to get over that far. Once he was at the belay, he could pull me over. I measured the rope a bit carelessly and mistakenly thought I had enough to reach Derek. Two thirds of the way down it was clear I wouldn’t make it. I had to stop at one of the protection bolts. I clipped into the single bolt, pulled my rope and rappelled again off this bolt to join Derek, leaving the last of the four biners we donated to the route’s fixed protection.

The rest of the way down was more of the same. Three more Escape rappels, from the top of the eighth pitch to the top of the sixth pitch and then from there to top of the fourth pitch and then down the fourth pitch. From the top of the third pitch we made the familiar three doubled-rope rappels to the ground, reaching it 12 hours after we left it. What a relief to be back on the ground safely.