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Life, Liberty Cap, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Southwest Face of Liberty Cap (VI, 5.10, A3) October, 1997

by David Hill

A lot had happened since my last foray up a big wall. June's ascent of the Muir Wall on El Cap had carried with a great deal of significance; both for the accomplishment itself and for the fact that it came at a crossroads of sorts in my life. Since that time, I had proposed (successfully) to Kendra on top of Mt. Russell, secured a lectureship for the fall at Cal and a postdoc for the spring at Purdue, and gotten a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. All in all, things had taken wonderful turns for the better and had left me feeling pretty smug.

I did have one outstanding debt to pay, though. You see, my climb up El Cap had not been wholly satisfying,due to the last minute departure of friend and partner Eric from the team. While Scott and I had nonetheless spent four wonderful days communing with the Captain, it hadn't seemed quite complete. It is Eric who bears a lot of the responsibility for getting me into climbing and I was bound and determined that he and I should have a crack at another wall before I packed my bags for the midwest.

Liberty Cap intrigued us for a variety of reasons. From a logistical point of view, a four day weekend was the most we could manage, so a shorter wall such as this would have to suffice. Furthermore, it was a wall that seemed off the beaten path, literally and figuratively, adding a bit of adventure to the mix. At A3, with some 5.9 slab climbing and some nailing, it possessed all the ingredients required for a fine weekend on the vertical. The clincher of course was the approach. Who can pass up the opportunity to schlepp up the Mist Trail with full loads?!

We began the trek up the Half Dome trail on Friday morning, with the modest day's goal of fixing two or three pitches. We quickly began to regret the decision to leave the shorts back in the truck as the sweat quickly began to pour down our bodies. We were passing day-hikers left and right and I began to fantasize about penalizing them all for slowness by making them carry pieces of our gear for us. I mean, if you can't outhike fellas with big-wall loads, get OFFA the trail! We reached the toe of Liberty Cap in under an hour and a half, much to my astonishment, and began skirting it to the left, looking for the start of the traverse ledge. Along the way, we passed a sizable pile of trash, clearly marking the plumb line down from the bivi ledge.

As we whacked our way through the manzanita on the approach ledge, we passed two sets of bleached out fixed lines. I first saw these fixed lines three years ago, en route to Snake Dike, and by the looks of them, they had been in place for many years more than that. This, combined with the observation that neither of us had EVER seen anybody climbing this wall did little to inspire confidence! After negotiating the manzanita maze successfully, we set about fixing. I drew the odd pitches, so it fell to me to knock off the first, sixty foot pitch. A chouinard hook was my second placement, which perked me up, to say the least. I was grumbling about the definition of A1, but after some funkiness, gained the belay ledge. Eric started up pitch 2, which has one of the sexiest hand cracks I have ever seen, dragging both lines, in hopes of fixing to the ground from the second belay with one rope. Ten feet from the belay he ran out of haul line, resolving our dilemma of whether to fix two or three pitches, so he dropped it back to me, finished the pitch, and cleaned on rappel.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and the early evening down at the river, filling up water bottles, swimming, and hiking from one pool to the next. It was awesome to be able to hike all the way to the base of the falls and contemplate what it must be like when the falls are raging with spring run-off. We discussed what a rough life it is big-wall climbing....fix a few pitches, eat, swim, sit in the sun, etc...Eventually, we settled into our bivi spots on the traverse ledge, just a few yards down from the base of the climb. If you have ever wondered what it is like to be in a coffin, try these ledges out. I was tempted to wear my helmet so that I wouldn't sustain a concussion should I sit up too suddenly.

First light found us up at the start of pitch three. The next three pitches followed the arching dihedral which is obvious from the ground. The aid was interesting at times, but nothing too spooky. On pitch five, I encountered another out-of-this-world handcrack. It this baby was on the ground, it would have three stars and scores of people lined up to do it! Being in big-wall mode, I racked up some weenie points and speedily aided my way up it via #2 camalots. The sixth pitch was an incredibly airy traversing bolt and rivet ladder up the headwall. We had brought a cheat-stick expressly for this pitch, but were allowed safe passage up the rusty mank and did not need it. Pitches seven and eight followed a right facing corner system, capped off by a short squeeze chimney at the top. On my way up seven, I was contemplating how many ascents per year the route saw. I repeatedly found myself digging mud out of the cracks in search of placements. It was also on this pitch that I managed to drop one of our #0 TCU's. It hit Eric smack on his head on its way to the ground, doing little, unfortunately, to slow it's fall. I HATE dropping gear, and could only hope that we would not find ourselves in dire need of the piece later in the climb.

Pitch nine was the first A3 pitch and would deposit us upon the bivi ledge. It is a rather ungraceful pitch, which wanders quite a bit, resulting in heinous rope drag. I eased up the dicey thin section, placing cam hooks where LA's were obviously the norm. A long reach to a fixed head led me to easier ground and the spacious ledge. My first thought was, "wow, what a GREAT bivi!" My second thought, as I peered up the chimney of the next pitch was, "wow, I'm glad that isn't MY lead!" I hauled and napped as Eric patiently dug out a fixed #1 camalot from the previous belay. That, combined with the two slider nuts we bootied off of the bivi ledge more than compensated for the dropped TCU.

After a late lunch and more napping, Eric grovelled his way up the chimney. Yosemite chimneys rarely seem to be rated harder than 5.8, but have a sneaky quality to them, which Eric found to be the case as he frenched his way past the thin crux section. After cleaning on rappel, he and I set about the most enjoyable aspect of wall climbing, the feast by sunset. Reclining on a spacious ledge with dinner in hand, feeling the heat of the day slowly evaporating, is magic pure and simple. The night was so warm that I fell asleep in my polypro on top of my sleeping bag. In the middle of the night, I awoke to a rustling sound that I thought was a rodent getting into our food, but a cursory glance revealed nothing out of the ordinary, so I chalked it up to my imagination.

Summit Day...a quick jug in the morning deposited us at the base of my second A3 lead. A few old bolts brought me to a long succession of LA placements, which I again bypassed via my beloved cam hooks. In a few spots I was able to get some real gear, but the abundance of hooking (three in a row in one spot) made the pitch a most memorable one. Upon completing the pitch, I realized that the hammers and pins that we had humped up the wall would be going unused. We had brought the iron as per some recent beta on the route, and as psyched as I was that we were going to manage a clean ascent, I was a little annoyed at having brought up so much heavy, extraneous gear!

The last three pitches were pretty uneventful, save for the sporty 5.9 slab on the final pitch. It was certainly an exciting end to a terrific route and we found ourselves on the summit a little before noon. The views to be had were terrific; the south face of half dome to one side, Mt. Clark to the other. We marvelled at the quality of the route we had just completed and wondered aloud why it wasn't a more popoular route. No crowds, good rock, a backcountry feel...

On the way down, we dropped our packs and searched the base of the rock for the dropped gear. I forgot to mention above that, in addition to the #0 TCU, the belay seat and cheat stick parted ways with the haulbag during the haul off the bivi ledge. To our delight, we found both the seat and stick, but our luck ran out when it came to the cam. Ah well...

Before tackling the rest of the descent, we went for another swim in the pools below the falls. As we were drying ourselves on a flat rock, Eric pointed out a couple of rangers peering down at us from the top. We wondered aloud whether or not it was technically illegal to skinny-dip in a National Park, when lo and behold another ranger called out hello to us from a rock 30 feet away! It turned out to be pure coincidence and he quickly pointed out that it was totally legal to be nude, so long as we were away from crowds. He then informed us that he was actually looking for the body of an individual who had been swept over the falls back in July. Apparently, bodies can get trapped under rocks and not surface until late in the fall when the water level is lower....URK! uhhh...pass the iodine tabs, I think I'm going to put two in this liter!

Unpacking back at the car, we discovered that there had indeed been some rodent activity the previous night on the bivi ledge. Instead of our food however, the little bastard had entertained himself by gnawing a 1 inch incision into my newly resoled climbing shoes! This put me in a rather foul mood, but looking at the big picture, the Southwest Face of Liberty Cap was indeed a gem. Perfect conditions, and a superb chance to spend a weekend trading leads with a terrific friend.

p.s. If anyone has any info on how often this route gets climbed and/or on how often it goes clean, please email me. Thanks!

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