by: Paul A. Brunner (firstname.lastname@example.org)
If I would have known beforehand that I was going to get involved with big walls, I would have chucked the Electrical Engineering and MBA degrees and opted for a more suitable education: Psychology! The reason? Camp 4 big wall residents make for interesting study and I have found the following traits to be dangerously true:
Eric and I were the newest members of Camp 4. Eric had just finished school and was eager to climb for a couple months before plunging in the "real world." I had just finished biking coast-to-coast and had thunder thighs from cranking 4,000 miles. We were brought together via my feisty girl friend, Candra "The Tricks" Canning. While Eric and I knew each other, we had never climbed together, but I would soon find out that Eric had the analytical ability to smoke a pitch and instantly set-up a perfectly equalized belay. His belays were so organized and perfect that even the biners were polished, which I suspected were from his Gulf War days. Regardless, doing a multi-pitch route with Eric would go by so fast that it was like an "E-ticket ride." Therefore, Eric got the name, "E-Man."
We moved into Camp 4 for the duration. Eric brought along his huge, two bedroom, bright orange Polish tent with mysterious origins. He claimed it came from someone that owed him, but all I knew was that the instructions were in Polish and it took us awhile to figure it out. However, it was so big that we could easily fit our cots and both eskies of beer and I even thought about parking my '67 Bronco in it. Our other camp site backpacker residents from L.A. were not amused since the Polish monstrosity pushed them out on the path. "Hey, you guys claim you're climbers, how come you're not sleeping in the dirt?" "Look, you pud-whackers, when we have to sleep in a snow hole, we will" retorted The E-Man while he flipped the top off a Pete's Whicked Ale and broke out a tin of smoked oysters. The 2 cases of beer were a bonus since the Trader Joes cashier forgot to ring them up when we did our pre-valley stock-up. Regardless, the L.A.ers should have gone to "The Center of the Universe" which is the parking lot by the Yosemite Lodge to see how the real valley residents were living. "Alabama Pat" slept in the bed of his truck with a big wooden slab to secure down and keep out those pesky Rangers. Jack "The Bear" had a custom truck, full-on with plush carpeting which brought ooohs and ahhhs from everyone. Most slept in a variety of beater vans with curtains, flat tires, an inch thick sap coating, and a family of Blue Jays nesting on top. Every Center of the Universe resident had the ability to sleep quietly while the Rangers tried to bust them by rocking their urban assault vehicles at 2 AM.
While Eric and I wanted to climb a lot of trad routes, it's the big walls that were on our mind. We would bump into pine trees and get stiff necks staring up Sentinel, Half Dome, Washington Column, Watkins, and the big stonage of them all: El Cap. It was our goal to knock off the tri-fecta of valley big walls: Washington Column, Half Dome, and El Cap by the end of our trip. We knew trad climbing, but all this wall stuff was still a mystery. After a day of climbing we would stroll by the "hardmen" campsite which looked like a bunch of cavemen hunkered over empty beer cans, a stock-pile of Beenie-Weenies, patched haul bags, tons of gear, and a huge bone sticking out of a smoldering fire. Between several grunts and snot rockets, we could hear phrases like "Gotta have more sawed-offs" and "Man, I went through a lot of heads on that last one." We thought with phrases like that they could be bank robbers but we got a better understanding of this wall stuff when one morning we came upon a guy slumped against his haul bag with lots of empty beer cans laying by. He was shaking and looked like someone told him he had to work again. All he could say was, "Whooaa, dude, spent the past 3 days hanging from crack-n-ups and heads, whooaa." Something about a route called Roulette.....
The first wall on our tri-fecta list was the South Face Route on Washington Column, picked because it's probably the easiest wall route in the valley and has a huge bivy ledge. Eric and I consistently heard grizzly stories of YOSAR guys picking up body parts from folks that made a "mistake" while coming down the North Dome Gully descent from the column and wanted to check it out before doing the South Face, therefore we journeyed up the Royal Arches Route to have a look. Smart move, since it's easy to see how someone could make a mistake and descend too early, therefore depositing them on the death slabs - ouch! Next, after reading up on the subject, we decided to practice on the first four pitches of The Nose because (1) if we had to bail, it would be easy (2) it is all A2 - great practice (3) it was great motivation to be on the big stone and (4) we could hang out on Sickle Ledge before going down - fantastic views. With my shiny new pig containing some water, food, ropes, and E-man's sardines we wandered up the so-called 4th class to the start of The Nose. While I teetered back and forth from the weight of the rack, Eric got some last minute instructions from some guys ahead of us fixing to Sickle. I was impressed that a couple veterans took the time to give us wanna-be's some pointers on aid technique, jugging, hauling, pooping, etc. It made a difference since we made it to Sickle in good time and improved form. While we were setting up the rap to go down, a Japanese team doing the Nose jugged up and offered us water! Hell, it was 100 degrees and they were the ones that were going to be on the stone for days - we gave them our water. At one of the hanging rap stations, as we yanked the ropes down it was obvious that we were in direct flight path. We both tucked our heads but the rope slithered off my helmet, missing Eric. "Hey, what's that burning smell?" "Ahhhh, it's the back of my neck, ahhhh!"
That weekend we went back to E-man's Grandfather's grape ranch outside Fresno for a pre-wall feeding frenzy. The Tricks was going to join us as the "Official Zamboni" to scrape us up if we had problems on the wall and also assist in our food ravaging. The meal consisted of (Vegans, please close your eyes) a 3 1/2 lb. Tri-tip, California's finest wines, salad, taters, bread, etc. The Tricks was late, probably stuck in San Francisco traffic, so Eric and I began to dig in, swilling wine and watching the beautiful sunset. We couldn't stop munching and in no time went through the Tri-tip and a couple bottles of vino. Candra's hair stood on end when she found out that the only thing left was an olive, some crackers, and a piece of corn.
Fat, happy, and sternly lashed from The Tricks, E-man and I returned to the valley. My sturdy Bronco beached itself in the Ahwahnee parking lot at 11 PM. E-man and I shouldered two bags (only hauling one on the climb) containing gear, 4 gallons of water, beer, espresso maker, sardines, salami, and plastic tubs of ravioli. We swayed back and forth and marched up the dark bike path to the cut-off for the column. It was late but both of us were pie-eyed with the thought of bears and our first wall. I didn't sleep at all and Eric got a good laugh when I jumped up yelling "bear! bear!" It was only a pesky Blue Jay bouncing around the manzaneta.
We were still awake when dawn arrived, so we ate some pop tarts and wandered up the climbers trail, marked by a couple of cairns where the horse and bike trail pinched close together. At the lower base of the column, we knew we were below Dinner Ledge since there was lots of empty bean cans and dookie bags. Further up we teetered across the 4th class mossy section to the base of the climb, nestled in some trees and boulders. In Curry village, we kept hearing this dog, "woof, woof, woof," the damn thing wouldn't stop. I remember one of the Camp 4 regulars told me that when he climbed The Prow, he heard (for two days straight) a pile-driver putting in a new bridge. The pooch was our version of the pile driver. It was 8:30 AM and the moment of truth. I led the first pitch which started by a 5.8 corner crack for 40' and then stayed left across a face to a ledge higher up. Climbing the pitch was easy, but it was a major moaner hauling that bobo up the low angle slab. E-man jugged behind and gave the oinker a good shove to keep it moving. We dragged the beast over to the start of pitch 2. Eric decided the 5.10a looked a little too brisk, and instead aided up a different line: the A1 awkward corner crack, making the belay in a little over an hour. Pitch 3 was another 5.8er, so I was back in my foo-foo shoes weaving through the upper blocks. Lo and behold, we were the first and only ones on Dinner Ledge. I've heard stories of parties on Dinner Ledge, full-on with 15 folks, a kegger, and tunes. Sounds like fun to me, and I can see why: the lower ledge can comfortably sleep 4 and then there's the "Honeymoon Suite" which is 20' higher and can sleep two with a killer view of the valley. We opted for the lower section, and since it was noon, we broke out some salami and crackers.
Eric had been drooling all week thinking about the Kor Roof and was choking down the salami in anticipation. The Camp 4 Cavemen told us that the three pitches above Dinner were the longest on the climb (160'ers) and that it was a "must" to fix the two pitches above Dinner Ledge. Little did I know, this was the beginning of a trend where the E-Man would become the "Roof Master" and I would become the "Pendulum King." The E-man was hanging below the lip of the roof, twirling in the wind, yelling "Look at me, look at me, weeeee!" Ah, yes, the wind. The wind was picking up and carried the haul line out of the stuff sack and was arching around the corner. I was trying to hang on the haul line and felt like I was flying the E-man like a kite. He passed an intermittent belay and went for the real one in the corner: a small sloping belay that, if tied in correctly, was like lounging on a couch. Jugging the pitch was a dog since Eric had back-cleaned some of his pieces, and I was consistently being thrust over the roof edge. Eric was practically asleep in the coffin-corner and he wanted me to rack up and get on with the program so he could return to relaxing.
Pitch 5 goes straight up via a couple of bolts past an overhang and then traverses left. This was supposed to be A2 territory, but I couldn't tell the difference. 30' later, I was pleasantly surprised to be at a pendulum. The E-man lowered me down 15' and I began the "clang, clang, clang, reeeeaaach, oooof, clang, clang, clang" process. I was successful on my second try and quickly moved up to the continuation of the left traversing crack. I was glad to reach the rap anchors half-way through the pitch to tie off the haul line since the wind was still blowing and had a nasty tendency to pull me backwards. Up further as I was methodically placing piece after piece and thinking about the oil can size of Fosters Lager that awaited below, two scruffy characters with a patched-up haul bag rapped past. They had just finished Skull Queen and were rapping our route. "Oooohhh, look at all the shiny new equipment these guys have" replied one of the stinkers. They both looked like they were condemned by the health department and I was more worried about them stealing the brewski's than the rest of gear on Dinner. They only sniffed the air and luckily Eric peed on the edge of the ledge, marking our spot. The vagrants continued their rap. In the meantime, Eric jugged and cleaned, and we both rapped back to the comfy bivy ledge for the night. It was only 5 PM.
Evening time on a wall is always my favorite time. With the slaving over, it's great to kick back, take those stinky shoes and slimy duds off, and check out the view with a frosty. We broke out the salami, Frito's, ravioli, and E-man produced a mysterious tin... I don't understand the E-man's love affair with sardines. He was a connoisseur if there ever was one, going on about how the slimy critters had reached their full "essence" and discussed the "quintessential" sauce to pack them in. "C'mon, they wreak, bring out wall rats, make you have rank farts, and everything in contact gets slimed." Eric wouldn't have any of my comments. All I wanted to do was lick the can. "Er, ok Brune-dog, just don't cut your tongue." Hey, the grazing didn't end there. We also had chocolate pudding for dessert. With the stars twinkling above, we would flash our headlamps on the folks in Curry Village, and vice-versa. Bored with that project, we gazed at the dramatic NW Face of Half Dome, which was number two on our tri-fecta. I was much more relaxed than last night, when I felt like I was headed for tons of doom and gloom. The climb was going according to plan, but there was still a lot of unknown up ahead. I had dreamed about being on a wall and was now living my dream. Climbing walls, for me, is a great insight to yourself, since with all the mental and physical stress, it's like peeling away at an onion until all that is left is your soul which you come face-to-face. Like staring in a mirror at a ghost, I was now face-to-face. These were the thoughts in my head right before I slipped off to the sand-man zone. These thoughts and woof, woof, woof.....
E-man and I slept like logs. Particularly me, since Eric said I snored so loud that Half Dome split off and became a Quarter Dome. Both of us had bags under our eyes and our hands were swollen to twice their size. That mangy mutt in Curry Village was still barking. We weren't about to return to the project unless we had our Peet's Coffee, so E-man flamed up the MSR and created the perfect Americana's. We munched on some Fig Newtons, apple sauce, and Cliff Bars and watched the valley take on an early morning glow. We continued our conversation from last night about how cool it was to be on a wall, but we already had summit fever and were thinking abut how great is will be eating Twinkee's in front of a TV. At 8 AM we began the arduous jugging process, both of us moaning and stiff as pole cats. In no time we were back at the high point, so E-man grabbed the stashed rack and began the long sixth pitch which was a crack separated by a stint of 5.7 moves (about 15 feet). I had time at the belay to do the worst thing belayers on a wall do: think. The mind does strange things, especially when it has time to wander in unknown and uncharted directions. What if, what if, what if, how, why, who, when.... Eric could hear me mumbling. "Hey, Brune-dog, what gives?" "Errr, grrrrr, oh, hey, it's a beautiful morning, isn't it?" I was suddenly back to the present, listening to that God-damn dog barking in Curry Village.
Pitch 7 was short, only about 90', which involved some free and French free moves and deposited me below a chimney. Sure, I had plenty of rope left, but if I began the chimney journey, the hauling would be a dog (yes, woof-woof-woof was still in the background). I belayed below a precarious block attached by some bleached slings. Eric came up, looked at the block and said, "Ahh, yeah, I think I'll be leaving now." Smart move. While Eric was stemming and flopping around the chimney, I had time to inspect the big flaky block and noticed that the slings holding it were attached by an ancient home-made nut which would wobble when I touched it. With my curiosity satisfied (yikes!) I tried to move outside in case the block decided to come after me. Meanwhile, Eric continued his mumbling and noticed two bolts on the right outside which was the start of the 5.8 and A1 journey. He was unsure if he should belay there or go up, but since there was still plenty of rope left, he continued up to a tree with a couple slings (150' total). This was another smart move since the hauling was right of the chimney on the smooth slabs: no hang-up's here. I was happy to leave the wobbly block behind, even though I felt like yarding it off, but you never know who's below!
E-man was straddling a tree branch, trying to settle in for the belay. Pitch 9 started by a steep 5.10a crack that rounded the corner and eased to 5.8. I was feeling lazy, so I aided the first part on small pieces, rounded the corner and put away the aiders for some exposed free moves. According to the topo, I was to do an immediate dog-leg left, across some exposed 5.6 (unprotected) slab to "move around a corner," then up to a pine tree for the belay. Still feeling lazy, I did the traverse, but instead of going up to the pine tree, I went up the scrabbly gully. The E-man said I had zillions of rope left so I continued up the 5.6 gravel pit, stemming both sides to avoid getting wedged like a chockstone. I thought it would be stellar-smokin-cool to get to the top of pitch 10 which was supposed to be the belay by some tree or bushes, but I never saw the damn thing. I continued my pilgrimage up the gully until I could see a tree with tons of slings. 30' to the tree, then 20', then 10', then "boooiiing" the haul line came tight, meaning I was at the full 180'. E-man was yelling at me to stop, since I was now dragging the pig. I was drooling like "Pavlov's Dog" at the slings which were 6' away. "Un-hook the whole fuckin' thing, I only need 6 feet!" E-man did a quick job casting away the oinker and I continued the slog, pulling ol bobo behind me. Little did I know, I ran three pitches together, and was at the top. We couldn't believe it, it was only 1:30 PM and our first wall was over - a complete success.
We then packed up the gear and went to the top for the official summit photo and little yodeling. On top, we found several abandoned belay seats and thought about making a bonfire to roast the pig rather than dragging it down. Instead, we picked out the best belay seat to use on our future projects and strapped it on with the rest of the junk. We knew the climb was not totally over, since we still had that sketchy North Dome gully descent. We debated about whether we should rap the route or do the slog. Neither of us had ever rapped with a fully packed oinker, and since we were pooped we decided to do the gully. We knew the way, but it was still dodgy crossing that one slab section where a slip would mean a journey down the death slabs. There's other "thrilling" sections as well, especially carrying all this junk and being weak-legged. But, after an eternity of whimpering, we entered the nice path in the woods full of mosquito's and manzaneta.
At 4:30 we hit the bike trail and gazed back up at our project. We could see Dinner Ledge, Kor Roof, and another party only on pitch two. Eric and I wanted to stone that yapping pooch which was still barking, but we were too thirsty and focused on finding water. In a nearby campground we guzzled water from a spigot while other campers kept their distance. We looked like cavemen ourselves, with hollowed eyes, a stench that could topple the mightiest sequoia, and a "Hey, just back from Hell" aura. Back at the Ahwahnee parking lot, we plunked our stuff in the mighty Bronco and got out before the Ahwahnee staff could call the Rangers. Forget the showers, we wanted pizza and beer! I ordered a (Vegans, again, please close your eyes) "Bubba" size, double pepperoni pizza. While the E-man was topping off my mug with a cold-one, the Trick's appeared out of the wood-work holding a mug out and saying, "I knew I would find you two here." Ahhhh, a big toast to the lovely Tricks, our big-wall Zamboni; a toast to the E-man, friend of all sardine fishermen; and a toast to our next project - Half Dome!
Approach: Get to the Ahwahnee parking lot and take the path from the back (dirt) parking lot that eventually merges with the bike path. Basically, you will be going west to east from the Royal Arches to Washington Column. As you walk down the bike path, you will see a dirt horse trail running parallel to the bike path (on your left). Cut over and take this path and at a point where the two paths split off in different directions (the bike path bearing off right and the trail left), you should see cairns which indicate the approach path - off to the left. Follow this up to the lower base of the column and continue up (right) past the rubbish from Dinner Ledge until you come to 4th class moss covered dirt ledges. Zig-zag up these dirt ledges towards the left, through the trees and to the base of the climb on top some boulders. The start is a well-worn 5.8 corner crack going up 40'.
Tactics: Day one - approach, climb with pig to Dinner Ledge and you "must" fix the next two pitches (4 & 5). Bivy on Dinner. Day two, two choices - (1) Climb remaining pitches leaving the bivy gear on Dinner and when you top out, rap back down and collect your stuff on the way. (2) Haul all your crap to the top and descend down the North Dome Gully trail.
Descent: Either rap the route or go down the North Dome gully trail. If you plan on using the North Dome Gully descent, I recommend that you (first) climb the Royal Arches Route and then descend the North Dome, since (1) it is good training, (2) you won't be pooped and carrying a heavy haul bag, and (3) you will be less stressed later. And, unless you have a hot & saucy date waiting in the valley, don't descend at night. The trail starts near the top of the column, then wanders east through some manzanita and across a short slab section (staying high). Continue heading east until you reach a forested gully then down a drainage system over slabs and rubble leading back towards the column. When you reach the gully next to the forest section (close to the column), look for cairns indicating a trail that will take you to the caves by the bike path. Most of the path is marked by cairns. Remember, do not descend to early, keep traversing until it is obvious to descend.
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