by: Paul A. Brunner (email@example.com)
I figured that to climb big walls, you had to have an abusive past. Eric, whom survived the Gulf War and lived on fishing boats in Alaska was an excellent choice. I, however, only had extensive education with Nuns and Brothers of Mary (Whack! "Thank you Sister Crabtree" Whack! "Thank you Brother Spankhappy"). But, after waltzing up the South Face of Washington Column (V,5.10A,A2) in a day and half, we thought we were the Grand Poohbahs of Stone and the Regular Route on Half Dome and The Nose would be cake.
But, a week later we were prancing around like a mangy mutt trying to pass sea urchins - too nervous about the impending doom and gloom of our first Grade VI. Things got so bad that we were booted off a kayak trip for being "extensively cranky." Then, things got worse when Eric got out of his kayak, slipped on a rock and broke his toe. We were supposed to do the approach the next day for the Regular Route. Eric went south for R&R, I went north to the oasis of Camp 4.
Every climber knows that Camp 4 is Mecca. Now, I'm not implying that it is the promise land, it's just where everyone's urban assault vehicle breaks down. And, it's also a great place to find a wall partner. I didn't have to look very far. Tim, whom we met while climbing Washington Column, had soloed The Prow because he had two partners bail on him. The fact that he soloed a wall and had Nun's in grade school (Whack! More, mooorre...) made him an excellent candidate. I promised to save the Regular Route when Eric got better, and Tim was considering soloing The Direct Route. We decided to do the direct approach and have a direct look.
If you look at an Ansel Adams photo or drink a beer in Church Bowl meadow, it's easy to see the white line shooting up the NW Face of Half Dome. The Direct Route was first climbed by Royal Robbins and Dick McCracken in 1963, but few ascents have been made since then. "Hai! Too offwidth, too many chimneys, so-des-ne" grunted a Japanese guy while we were jugging one of the five fixed ropes on the direct approach. That 's true. While I was biking coast-to-coast I stayed with Todd Skinner in Lander and saw the video of Steve Bechtl grunting up the Crescent Crack when they did it free. "Zowie, that thing goes back 8' and is 4' wide," was all I could say with my jaw flapped open. "Yup, now son, if you want to climb a real route, forget the Regular and stick to the Direct. You'll love the 5.13's." Hmmmm.
Back at Camp 4 we had time to kill because we had to wait for the big sale at the mountain shop on Friday. The pig was packed so we spent the rest of the day jump-starting our friends car, lasooing wandering coyotes, and scraping our fingers on Midnight Lighting. Then, at 4 PM, it dawned on us that we had never done a climb together so we did the Nutcracker in under an hour and passed two teams. Floating in the Merced with a couple of beers, we deemed ourselves fit for abuse.
After the mountain shop sale, we boarded the bus in Curry village (9:30 AM, Friday) with Ma & Pa Tourist, looking like we were heading to the gallows. I felt like puking, and had a twinge of passing sea urchins again. The bus spit us out at the Mirror Lake turn-off and left us to die. We thought we were suave by cutting a couple miles and doing the direct approach, which didn't seem that bad the other day, but with the pig et all, it was a moaner. Then, we had to fill up water (8 gallons) 500' below the wall since the spring was not running at the base of the Regular Route. After whacking through the manzanita at the base, we collapsed at the start (2 PM), hoping to slip in a 3 month comma. Fortunately, the base had an excellent bivy spot, prepared by the Wyoming boys which could sleep five.
There was still plenty of daylight left, so Tim racked-up and examined the first pitch. The topo said, "5.10" which every wall climber knows could mean "5.10d to 5.19x." Tim decided to avoid the OW on the right and free/aid up the left flake. In no time, he was belching at the first belay. I launched on the second pitch, aiding the 5.10 initial part and squirmed in the Crescent Crack. The Crescent Crack is HUGE. It's like the stemming you see on Devils Tower. And, luckily, there's a crack in the back for plenty of pro. It starts off at 5.10a and then eases back to about 5.6 over two pitches and is great to free. We also had good beta, and instead of stopping at the ancient anchors inside the chimney, I kept going 40' to a thin flake that took me outside the chimney (145' total). This is where the Skinner Clan set up an anchor for their free version. It would allow us to haul outside the chimney and make two pitches out of three. Man, are we smooth or what? But, my smooth feeling disappeared as I rapped in the fading light through the chimney and bats whistled by. Mommy!
The next morning while we were packing the pig, we heard this huge whistling sound and then a loud thud - those Regular Route pecker-heads were chucking poop bags off the Big Sandy Ledge. "Damnit! I'm gonna to kick yer ass." Tim was waving his hammer and screaming - it was 6 AM. "You and me, buddy, you and me." We had decided long ago that the base of most walls looked like the worst diarrhea dream come true and had constructed a porto-dookey-vault via Tupperware container, duct tape, and slings. We were taking everything with us, even other slacker's garbage.
Hauling waste is easy, but the thought of doing your first A3 makes you create more waste. Tim squirmed back in the chimney and was going from pitch 2 1/2 to 4 (165' total). The YOSAR guys told us not to put any pro in the upper chimney to avoid rope drag so we could run the pitches and Tim easily slithered to the top of the Crescent Crack and clipped the bolt leading out from the chimney. After a quick bolt ladder, Tim was on the A3 crack. He was barely in view, and I could see him waving his hammer, yelling. I thought he was still trying to pick a fight with the poop-tossers 15 pitches up on Big Sandy, but when I jugged up to him he was ecstatic with his lead. He placed two small angles and two short, thick LA's. I also cleaned a regular KB - ye haw, wall booty. The best booty, however, was the 2 gallons of water left by a previous party that bailed. This was good since Tim was a water chug-a-lugger. But, the sun did not hit the wall until 2 PM, so we were only consuming 3 quarts a day. Better to be safe than sorry.
Pitch 5 started off with a worthless pendulum which would have been better to tension traverse to the bolts placed by the free version. The free version (5.13) continues left while I headed up and enjoyed a couple of hook moves (Chouinard & Fish), some RP's and a mantle up to the dished bivy on 5. It was 2PM, so after snacking, we decided to fix a pitch or two. Tim didn't like the looks of pitch 6 which started by a heinous looking chimney and led into a blocky section. Since I was still feeling big and bad with the hook moves, I grabbed the rack and stemmed, laybacked up the initial part. Hell, the topo only said it was 5.10a and I was whistling up this thing in my Five Tenies. A seam on the left looked good so up I went, slapping in pro. But things started to get real steep and glassy and the seam turned to an anorexic butt sprouting tuffs of grass. I turned to gardening to try and get a piece in but that hide wouldn't even take an RP and was too shallow for a blade.
Meanwhile, Tim had his hide flopped on the ledge, feeding out rope and thinking of the Beenie Weenies he would have for dinner (mmmm,mmmm, ball park dogs swimming in mystery sauce, mmmmm). Little did I know, I had passed the anchors and was off route on the next pitch in A2 territory. I looked 15' down and could see the green Alien shimmering in the sun. Looking up, I thought that if...I....can....just....get.....to.........ahhhhhh! I greased off, and was flying with the greatest of ease. Tim felt a lull in the line, then a jerk so strong that he had visions of "Dr. Johnson's Jewel repair shop." I came to a nice bungee bounce 35' later. The green Alien held. "Dammit," was all I said and swung over to the other crack. I quickly aided the upper part, flopped on the end of pitch 7 (running 6 and 7 together - 160') and tied off. Then, my fall finally registered in my head. I had this strong urge to rap off, sell my gear, get married, and have rug-rats. It was over-whelming. I also knew that I accumulated enough frequent flier miles on that whipper to get a free trip to.... East St.Louis.
Back at the bivy spot on pitch 5 (good for two), we had time to relax and enjoy our dinner. Mmmm, Ravioli and Beenie Weenies - mmmmm, mystery road kill in scarier mystery sauce - mmmm. Tim also broke out his tin of "Mustard Sardines" and immediately dumped half it on himself and my bivy sack. That night I could hear wall rats trying to get in the pig and had dreams of cats following us up the wall trying to get Tim's mustard sardines.
Day 2 on the wall: the morning spent with Tim waving his hammer at another team on Big Sandy chucking dookie-bags and me thinking how cool it will be eating Twinkees in front of the TV when this climb is over. Pitch 8 and 9 were no problem using an array of stemming, OW, and crack climbing mixed with A2 aid. The fun began when Tim led pitch 10 which was an expanding flake. I sucked on a jolly rancher and said, "Yer da man, the main man!" Tim reached for his hammer, but kept it in the holster. His two attempts gritted out of place and he took 5' falls. It was supposed to be A1, but I think we were further left on the blocky section. The new Skinner bolts at the anchor could not be found, only a few manky angles existed at this belay. Tim finally got the #1 Camalot to stick and rounded the corner with more rope drag and was on top of the First Terrace. The First Terrace is not big enough to sleep on, but it is a comfy belay.
Pitch 11 (A3+) heads up right and looks terribly blank in the beginning. Tim did his best Bevis & Butthead laugh as I clipped the first of two manky 1/4" spinners and then broke the hooks out for a 4 hook move along a descent gutter. A fall here would not be good since I would definitely wallop the ledge and have to endure the horrid grinding sound of (my) bones - that's why I was smilin' when I sank a beefy #3 Camalot in the left facing crack. The journey ahead looked like a museum: old ripped out heads and broken-off RURP's. I placed new webbing on a RURP, sank in a medium head, and placed another RURP before the venture blanked out. In my tippy-toes, teetering in the wind on the last 1/2 step of my aiders, I was able to sling a 1/4" spinner that some wacko had hammered flat - all this time with, "heee- heaa - hee" coming from the belay. After a couple more museum bolts, I reached the belay, but it looked like I had enough rope left so I continued up the 5.6 to the Grand Terrace. I knew that combining both these pitches was 180' since that was the length of the haul line and I was dragging the pig behind me in the end. These pitches took us about 70' to the right of Tim's belay and hauling was a major grind.
Big deal, we were on the Grand Terrace at 6 PM and decided to take the rest of the day off (sunset at 8PM). Out of 6 walls that I have done before and after The Direct, the Grand Terrace is the best bivy ledge I have ever been on. This thing is big (can sleep four), flat, sandy, and has a rock wall around it to keep sleep walkers from taking the midnight plunge. Hell, we even unroped and let our hides air out. The sunset was magnificent - "pink light" as Candra would say. It was extra special since Tim had a can of "smoked oysters" and did not spill any.
The first thing a leader always does when they get to the belay is stare up at the next pitch and say, "Man, I'm glad I'm not leading that pitch." This time, however, I could see two pitches up and this gaping "slot" which looked like it had teeth and would munch on it's next visitor. I didn't have to take my gloves off to count and figure that it would be my lead. I should have let Tim lead that puny 5.6 instead of dragging the pig behind me - "Dammit." "Whaf did yummm srayy?" was Tim's reply as he was trying to gag down our breakfast of flour tortilla's with honey. Tim was concentrating on trying to swallow a wad of bread without me giving him the Hymlick, and did not have the chance to look at the impending doom. "Waddya say, Tim buddy, that I rack up and lead the next pitch, since you're still eating?" "Urf, umm, wow, thas mighty neighborly of you." Our third day on the wall was already looking good.
The big wall topo was a joke, regarding the rating of the slot. Hell, I could tell that it wasn't an innocent "5.8" which was mentioned in the book, and I knew that we had nothing larger than a #4 Camalot. So, as I headed up the pitch 13 ramp to pendulum back over to the main blocky section (traversing left 60') I successfully distracted Tim into telling me about his favorite Beevis & Butthead episode - "....and then Beevis goes, 'heeee - heeee -heeee.'" The Nuns in school always told us never to play in dirty chimneys, but Tim definitely got the good Spanky award for taking on the (Skinner rated) 5.11+ slot. The scene was ugly. The first part of the pitch 14 was A1 which he sailed through. In the beginning of the slot, he clipped a museum pin and stuffed the #4 Camalot, then the fun began: 15' of no pro with potential of becoming a permanent chock stone. With his back against the wall, feet on the outside slot, legs shaking like a Chihuahua, and me howling to "send it," - Tim slapped a #3 Camalot at the top of the slot and cranked over the top to the belay. I thought it was raining, but it was only Tim sweating like "Bubba" whom we met on our bus to Mirror Lake.
The rest of the day was climbing through "blocky" areas. Pitch 16 & 17 were combined together with our 60 meter rope. Tim's hammer-waving curses in the morning towards the stink-bomb-chuckers was justified as he led the 5.7 chimney section to Big Sandy Ledges and had to endure the stench of 30 years of people pissing and pooping in the chimney. When will people learn that this stuff does not get any exposure in dark, cold, and damp places? It was 6:30 P.M. when we reached Big Sandy and decided to take the rest of the day off. Big Sandy should actually be called "Big Blocky" since it consists of a blocky terrace with one long 3' wide ledge at the base. The long ledge can sleep three, head to toe, but it's only for the thick skinned since it drops off (sheer). It would not take much to roll of this baby in the middle of the night. With the thought of having to get up in the middle of the night (due to too many slimy sardines), Tim opted for the blocky upper terrace. Meanwhile, I rigged a tension line to keep me from rolling into the abyss. That night, with the stars twinkling above and the summit brim in clear view, I looked down to all that we had covered and wondered how Royal Robbins felt over 30 years ago on this climb.
4th day on the wall. Summit day. Yippee-skippee. It was almost a shame that it had to end, but the food was running out. Last night I was rationed to one tub of Spagetti-O's and Tim only had a can of Pork & Beans. It was getting nauseous every morning just to gag down the flour tortilla's and honey - the Pop Tarts had long run out and we were rationing the Jolly Ranchers. We both looked up at the Zig-Zags and wondered how to split the three pitches into two like the YOSAR guys had told us. "Hmmm, how about just 'go' until the rope runs out?" was my suggestion since it was his lead. "Uh, well, I guess so" Tim said nervously. Ever since the slot episode, Tim was a little more cautious regarding my suggestions. Up he went, on the left crack for about 80', then traversed right on a ledge doing some free moves, and up around a huge flake before securing at the intermittent belay - 165' total. My lead, up to Thank God Ledge, followed an easy A1 crack which, even though had multiple choices and was blocky, was easy to follow with some fixed gear in place. It was strange being on the well-trodden Regular Route. The cracks were extra clean, unlike the gritty Direct. At this point, some tourist on top shouted down and asked what time we started today. After I told them that we had started 4 days ago, they asked "What's taking you so long." Since Tim had put away his hammer, he waved a mighty middle finger at them. "Now, now, Tim, that's no way to treat your fans."
I thought that I had a long way to go, and ended up back cleaning practically all my pieces, so I was surprised that after 160' I reached the belay point below Thank God Ledge. Thank God Ledge got its name from when as the Royal Robbins crew edged closer to the overhanging brim and wondered how they would get off their climb. The impending overhanging visor looked like a miserable nailing fest until they came to the point where I was belaying and noticed a narrow ledge going 50' to the left. This ledge allowed them to continue their climb via more accessible cracks and avoid the visor - wewww! thank God! "Arrrr, walk the plank, Tim matey." Tim had boasted during the past week that he would do the stroll without groping and when he first started across, he said, "Piece-o-cake." But, the foot wide ledge gets skinnier, begins to slope down, and the wall pushes the leader out. I got out my camera to capture that special moment. Tim slapped in a #2 Camalot, but a swing here would end up on the ledges below - not good. Tim tried to make himself small, but too many 24 oz. Schlitz Malt Liquor's impeded his progress, and it didn't help having those non-climbing yuks up on top give lame advise, " Why don't ya just get out the Cliffhanger bolt gun and 'blowy' put in a bolt. Yup, s'all ya gotta do." Ok, Zeke, anything you say. Finally, Tim got down and groveled like every one else does on Thank God, and in no time made it over to moan up the 5.9 chimney/slot. I was careful lowering the bag out, and could see zillions of bleached ropes in the lower ledges from previous failed attempts. Yes, I also groveled across Thank God and had full appreciation of its tempting lure to walk across.
Pitch 23 was a classic A2 with long reaches on precarious pieces. Luckily, I had a KB along to hand place in a thin horizontal crack, otherwise nothing else would work. It was obvious that whatever was there before had broken off, and I wondered how the Regular guys handled this section without any pins. By this time, we had about 15 people cheering us on from the top. After being on the wall for the past 4 days by ourselves (excluding the poop throwers), it was strange to have an audience for our exit finale. Tim had never been to the top of Half Dome, therefore pitch 24 was his. Unfortunately, Tim did not have his 'foo-foo' shoes and was forced to do the slab traverse in his clunky wall boots, trying to slap his 1970 style slider nuts in the horizontal crack. After whimpering over the impending frequent flier possibility, he rounded the corner and in no time, was doing the Chris Cross dance on the summit. It was only 2 PM.
We were instant celebrities. Folks from Arkansas asked for our autograph, Japanese took our pictures, and everyone asked us the standard questions: "How do you get the rope up there?" "How do you accomplish the 'ol #1 & #2?" But, for a bunch of characters smelling like moldy sardines and looking like cavemen, it was A-OK. I was already thinking about dragging all this stuff 9 miles down to Curry Village and was tempted to light my hair on fire and jump off the visor clutching the haul bag. Instead, we hung over the diving board and peered down to our route. We could see all our bivy spots, the heinous slot, and some more turd-chuckers heading up to Big Sandy. It was our first Grade VI and the sense of accomplishment as overwhelming. No epics, and in style. We spent the rest of the afternoon dancing on the top, taking pictures, trying to understand the folks from Arkansas, dumping 2 gallons of water (we left 2 gallons on Big Sandy and took some empty containers up), re-packed the gear, and soaked up the moment to be remembered forever.
It was 5:30 PM and time to head down. We were whipped, so we kept our harnesses on and used runners to clip to the cables for our descent in case we slipped. Back on the dusty trail we took frequent stops, probably too frequent, because we reached Upper Yosemite at 8 PM and decided to bivy for the night. We hunkered down to our remaining food: one can of refried beans and two Jolly Ranchers (watermelon!) for dessert. Then, a Ranger came by and booted our shaggy hides off the trail and in a camp spot at Upper Yosemite.
The next day, with stomachs grumbling, we ambled down the trail talking to the tourists about the waterfalls and, "Yes, it is a mighty fine day." The big surprise was when we got back to my car in Curry Village and found a note from Candra indicating 'surprises' left for us: a 2 lb. bag of chips and a cold sixer of Pale Ale. In no time we were slouched by the wheels: the sixer gone, cheeks full of chips, and pine cones bouncing off our heads. It was 10 AM.
The overall analysis? I lost 12 lb. which would make it a great diet plan. Oh, ahhh yea, the climb...I liked it because (1) no one was on it and hardly anyone climbs it, (2) there are enough descent bivy spots, therefore eliminating dragging along a portaledge, (3) there is a variety of climbing ranging from chimneys to face, (4) the aid sections are not that difficult and you may be able to do it clean, and (5) when you top out on the Dome, you are at the top!
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