By Inez Drixelius.
Sentinel Rock, Kalahari and the Goose July 2 - 3, 1994 Allen Steck, Inez Drixelius, and Bruce Bindner Story by B. B. Bindner The Steck-Salathe' route ascends the north wall of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley. Fifteen pitches of unrelenting wide cracks lead through the depths of the vertical to a sandy, spacious summit, making this one of the 50 classic climbs in North America, and one of the most strenuous free climbs I have ever encountered. Our original plan was to make a first free ascent of the outside roof of the "Narrows," which had purportedly not been repeated since the first, aid ascent in July 1950. For a partner I chose the best chimney climber I know, Inez Drixelius. Soon 68-year-old Allen Steck, the man who pioneered the route, was involved in the project, providing useful information as well as outrageous and fascinating tales of adventures on these walls. Eventually Allen joined the team, and we three prepared for a two-day effort in the heat of the summer, on the 44th anniversary of the first ascent. ****** Tuolumne Meadows in early summer: Sparkling lakes, abrupt granite domes, sun-scorched days, and nights ablaze with stars. I woke Inez and Allen at Porcupine Flat in the early morning hours of the 4th of July weekend. Their first hint I have finally arrived: a soft voice through the tent fabric: "Its Offffwidth tiiime!" We warmed up on a climb they selected for me.... Oz on Drug Dome. Five pitches of incredibly beautiful thin face and crack climbing, none easier than 5.9, made this one of the most enjoyable, aesthetic journeys of its length, anywhere. The climbing was reachy, sustained, pumping, and terrifyingly exposed. Alternating leads, I was last to exit from this climb. Looking down the outrageous, incredible corner we had just ascended, I paused for just a moment, in awe of our position, of the distant tree tops and darting swallows, then carefully moved out the 5.10 traverse toward the sky. The sun was setting when we arrived at camp, enthusiastic, happy, and exhausted. In the late evening our voices echoed among nearby granite boulders, chattering of the adventurous day, the climb soon to come, even re-constructing half-remembered poetry. We relaxed with wine, cheese, and fine food as "The Cremation of Sam McGee" swirled up through the trees with the campfire smoke into the wind. Far below in Yosemite Valley, that same wind was the only sound in the dark silent passages of Sentinel Rock, where tomorrow our voices would mingle with the clatter of gear and the occasional rattle of stonefall. ***** Although a classic, because of continuous chimney systems the Steck-Salathe' is a hauling nightmare. The day pack (nicknamed the Goose) and the haul pack (Kalahari) would be our lazy, unwilling incompetent partners throughout the climb, pushing us off of belays and out of offwidths, hogging the best anchors, and jamming at least several times per chimney. Whereupon Allen, Inez, and I would push from below, pull from above, and curse from afar as one or the other of the beasts, invisible stubborn hooves braced against us, slowly gave in to our sweat and strain. Three Stooges and a couple of mules. Wilson Overhang: The last time Inez backed off a "mere 5.8" I almost died by leading up what turned out to be a 5.10 x-rated 6-inch horror show. More recently, a "5.7" she thought "hard" was in actuality the first two crux pitches of Book of Job (5.10b offwidth). This was not the Wilson Overhang I cruised two years ago while doing the route in a day. (Review of old photos after the climb showed a key foothold which no longer exists.) Our conservative consensus of this pitch was 5.10b (felt like stiff 5.11 to me). Inez danced up the next 5.9 squeeze chimney, trailing the Goose, then floated a sheer, smooth 4-inch wide desperate shown as "5.7 OW" on our topo. (Ri-i-i-ight.) Her hanging belay was a 2" stance in the middle of the vertical evening. When we finally reached a roomy, blocky ledge 165 feet later, an hour after dark, we had had enough fun for one day. At least, enough for me. "can't we do one more pitch?" Inez asked. Her only answer was the sound of my retching, and Allen, below, flashlight in his mouth a muffled mumble asking which way to climb the last 30 feet to our bivy. Eventually morning light sketched grey detail onto the black weave of our tangled bivouac. One pitch later, Allen led through a tight chimney, set up a dicey rappel down to the Free variation. I stemmed and fist-fought up a wide crack bypassing the famous headwall pitch to a secure belay. Above, Inez was coaxed off-route (to the base of a steep blank wall) by a series of fixed pieces leading nowhere. When we finally worked through this section, we realized that several fixed pins on the real route were missing, apparently broken off, as not even pin scars remained. The path was a traversing, grungy runout nightmare, but finally we arrived in the Great Chimney. Kalahari and the Goose loved the chimney, and showed delight by constantly burrowing into the wide cracks. They stubbornly refused to budge until we'd burned hours coaxing, cajoling, and yanking them through the abrasive tight throat of the deep cleft. The Narrows: We received word before departing for the climb that the outside of Narrows Roof had, indeed, been repeated free by some climbers too burly to fit through the inside slot. Relieved of the opportunity(/burden) of carving my niche in history by freeing this section, I decided that we were having quite enough of an adventure, thank you, so arm-barred, knee-locked, and scraped my way through the inside passage, opting for the quick and "easy" way up to the belay. Things were looking good. Over 4 liters of water left (enough for a bivy on the summit) and we could see the pine tree beckoning, at the end of the hard climbing, just a few pitches above. It would be a cruise. Suddenly a mishap shatters our confidence and optimism. Somehow our waterbag, (the "Dromedary") slithers out of an opened Kalahari. Last we see of the "Drom," it is making tracks for the base of the climb, at 32 feet-per-second-per-second. We take stock of our remaining liquid (two cups) and realize that the climb has just become very serious. I push on, dehydrated and hammered, run the rope out 165 feet to a wild belay, Inez and Allen below dismantling their anchors to give me the five feet of slack I need to secure us. Kalahari gets in a nasty mood, jams in a chimney, then kicks off a volley of huge stones, narrowly missing Allen and Inez. Allen arrives at the belay, moves above and perches, owl- like, on blocks over my head. The rope jams, the pack jams. Inez waits alone, below, as I struggle to get one more belay rigged between anchors, pack, coils of rope, racks, and tangle-minded fatigue. As Inez arrives, Goose in tow, she and Allen coax me to finish the last of the water. Solemnly we share our last orange. Feeling slightly better, another 165-foot pitch (stretching to the limits of my shoulder sockets) finds me at the pine tree at the end of the last 5.9. The sun has set. I haul Kalahari one last time, and call for Allen to come up. Allen solos onward into the night over class 4 rock, incredibly secure in his skill, as Inez fires up to my stance. She belays Allen over the last 5.6 grimness, then smoothly vanishes upward after him. Alone at the belay below the exit pitch, I have one more rope-length remaining to the summit. As the last twilight fades, I dig into Kalahari for the headlamp, scrape a parched cotton tongue over cracked lips, and peer upward into the starlit sky toward where Inez and Allen have disappeared. The wall is once again silent save for the occasional chirp of a bat, the feather-soft sigh of evening breeze, and the faint whisper of water from distant falls. The arousing perfumes of sage, pine, and wildflowers penetrate my fatigue, and I smile in the darkness. With torn hands I caress the weathered bark of the ancient ponderosa pine that is my anchor, then press my face against the dry, rough trunk. "Belay On" echoes in the night. It is time to leave this place. I look one last time at the sheer rock walls of the Sentinel, our home for what seems a lifetime; look at a silvery Merced River wandering lazily far below through green grassy meadows; at a horizon distant and framed by endless granite walls, where evening drapes her soft shroud across the roof of the world. Then look up at the summit, now so close, silhouetted by the night, and carefully, slowly, climb up to join my friends. END Notes: Topo says pro to 3", we took, and used, and were thankful for the 3.5 and #4 friends, We had two each. Add #6 friend & #4 Big Bro Careful on the pitch below the Wilson Overhang. Much loose blockiness could fall if unwary. Wilson Overhang: I could tell you tales..... Footholds gone, tilting chockstone belay is gone, and a double, thin crack above is now a wide offwidth: the pillar between the cracks has apparently disappeared. Much has apparently fallen out and fallen off here in 44 years. Once across an unprotected 5.7 face traverse (good friend placement at the start of the traverse, and you can get in an occasional piece of modern pro: Quad cam, TCU or LOWE-Ball) you head up "5.6-5.7" cracks for about 2-4 pitches to the ledge at the top of Flying Buttress. As Allen said, "Where's the 5.7??!!" We found steep, sustained 4" offwidths in the 5.8-5.9 range here, followed by far easier ground (5.5 - 5.6 ) above our bivy on the blocky ledge. The anchors at the top of the rappel, the belay at the bottom of the "free variation" pitch, and the 5.9 face pitch leading to the great chimney ALL are in need of some 3/8" bolts. I was talking to another climber at the Leap last Sunday, and he says that the belay on the Headwall variation is a single 1/4" bolt now. Another place where we need to solidify this route. The belay just below Narrows roof has one, old fixed pin. Only back-up we could find for this was a LOWE-ball and a #6 friend. This is also an excellent spot for a 3/8" anchor. In the Narrows, we found placements for a #4 friend, a #3.5 friend, and a #3 camalot. Of course, #3 and #4 Big Bros will work just about anywhere in here. TAKE KNEEPADS AND KNOW HOW TO USE THEM. I used elbow pads as well, throughout the climb. Very Burly Dudes (VBD's) should plan on doing the outside, and have a MINIMUM of two #4 Big Bro's along. Otherwise, its squeeze and scrape and hope you fit through the inside. Inez loved this section, but then, she's one perverted, skinny chimney puppy. From the top of the narrows pitch, you can just barely reach the pine tree in TWO pitches each about 167' long. The belay in between is about 35'-40' above the huge chockstone in the huge chimney, at a blocky ending to a lieback ramp. Just above is the 5.7 mantle (No hanger on the bolt at the mantle, but there is a good #2 friend placement) Although some think this route sucks, and vow never to return, with some TLC and just a bit of modern bolting, this climb can be made safe, fun, and preserved for future generations. Just as atrociously strenuous and physical as it was 44 years ago. Who knows, maybe I'll go up next spring and work on some maintenance myself. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Allen Steck sent me some comments he has on his route. IF YOU HAVE CLIMBED this route, your opinions regarding the rating and condition of the route would be appreciated. Allen thought the route in poor condition overall, felt the ratings were soft and also wondered why the descent route was so poorly described in the guide. Your responses would be appreciated--E-MAIL TO INEZ. as per Steck, July 17, 1994 "The climb was too hard for me and I can attribute this to poor training for the route. Normally, I would have climbed hard for, say, 3 days, the last day spent climbing in the chimneys and cracks at the base of El Cap. Then a rest day! It didn't happen like this, unfortunately. The ratings seemed a bit soft to me, that is, there is a lot of 5.8 on the route that is rated only 5.7. When you think about it and compare the 5.7 on Sentinel to textbook 7's in the Valley or the Meadows you realize the climbing on Sentinel is harder than that. Consider some individual pitches: Pitch 4. Wilson Overhang. Even in 1986 it seemed harder than 5.8; now that a hold has broken off, it's more like 5.10 (I have photos which show an important hold missing in 1994.) Pitch 10. Upper headwall pitch leading to base of great chimney system. The rating is OK at 5.9, but the pin protecting the move is gone, perhaps chopped? A bold should be placed here. Pitch 11. First pitch in the great chimney ending at Narrows. Bolt hangers have been chopped (who on earth would do this and why?) so the pitch is quite run-out with poor pro. Almost seems 5.9 to me, but I've always been rather poor in chimneys. These bolts should be replaced for sure. Pitch 15. The last cracks (there are 3 possible lines, I think) before the tree are unquestionably 5.8. Bloody hard climb. Thanks to you both, Inez and Bruce, for getting me to the top." Well, that isn't true, STECK CLIMBED IN GREAT STYLE and his chimney technique is superb! I'd like to see most people in their youth perform at that level. But, thanks Allen, and you are welcome too.View or add comments on this page
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