a winter ascent of Skull Queen(V, A3-(A2), 5.10) on Washington's Column in the Yosemite between February 16-18.
By Eric D. Coomer
The sheets of rain were gaining intensity. I stared somewhat blankly out the windshield of the cave(Brutus' truck). I knew Bruce was thinking the same thing. We had no business heading up a wall in weather like this. I could hear the bloated pigs squealing in agreement in the back of the truck. The forcast for the next few days didn't look any better. Scattered rain continuing until the main storm system moved in within a day or two. From there, it would be wednesday until it all stopped; it was thursday evening and we were speeding along 140 to the valley ahead. There were two simple running jokes passed back and forth the whole way. "Who's friggin' idea was this anyway?" and "Your lead!" Nervous laughter and finger pointing would immediately follow either statement. But it had already been decided. Brutus would be the wizard of odds, and I would have the even pitches. I still think it was Bruce's idea...
We pulled into the campsite just before the valley entrance and pulled out the gear so we could get some sleep. It was wet and cold. I flat out asked Bruce what the hell we were doing. He wasn't quite sure either.
At 6:30 we were shoving the pigs back into the pen and getting ready to head out. Swilling back the last coffee we would have til monday, we loaded up and set off for the valley. It was grey and cloudy but by the time we were inside the gate, the fog was lifting and a few rays of sun started to poke through- blue sky!
We putzed around at Degnan's deli scarfing some more grey poupon packets and contemplating registering for the climb with the rangers. It was still early and the visitor's center didn't open for another 45 minutes or so. We decided to bag registering, convinced they would probably cite us in advance for creating a hazardous condition heading up with the forcast such as it was. Back to the truck, we finished the drive to the awhanee.
I recently lost my leather mountaineering boots courtesy of Delta airlines, and didn't relish doing the climb in my five tennies. Instead, I had decided to use my plastic double boots. Hey, the big boys use them up in baffin... So, there were were, full expedition outfits on, and the sun starting to broil, we shouldered the 115 pound pigs. We had enough to last about a week nailed to the wall by the inevitable storm- we hoped we had enough. I told my wife not to call for any rescue until the following thursday.
We grunted along the trail to the base sucking on the one beer between us. At one of the many rests we took, two wall junkies passed us with light packs, "fixing on the prow." Shortly behind them, another local was heading up his fixed lines on the south face. As I stared at the sun, I wondered whether we had fallen asleep for three months. It looked like prime wall season. I was sweating profusely. Once at the base of the fourth class to the start of the route, there was yet another party bailing off the prow, rain drenched gear was strewn all about drying in the sun.
"You guys certainly don't need all *that* for skull queen." I comtemplated a rather terse reply.
"Well, we're not coming down til it's done, and a storm is on the way."
This was enough to convince the one guy to pull his ropes off the south face. He offered a free jug to us if we wanted it. We took pretending to be hardmen all the way, and declined his generous offer.
"You guys sure do have a lot of stuff for that route." Hey kenny, what gives?
"Yeah, well, we're prepared to stay up til it's done," was all I could reply.
Bruce racked up and headed off on the first pitch styling his way in clunky leather boots. Soon I was off jugging my way to the belay quickly realizing that plastic doubles are not made for smearing. However, they do a fantastic job of protecting the toes from the jug bash that usually leads to lost toenails.
I was soon at the spacious belay ledge working hog-en-dasz and piglet to the start of the next lead. It was at this point that I received the worst injury of the trip. Bending over at just the proper moment, I slammed my forehead straight into a large broken branch. The wallnut sized lump appeared immediately. It would fester there for the next several days under my sweat soaked balaclava. Since I had no chance in hell of free climbing the 10a variation I lead off on the 5.11/A1 crack for the second pitch merrily cam-hooking my way along between bomber pro. The plastics still sucked, but standing in aiders wasn't the usual blissful pain I'm used to. At the top of the pitch, I hooked my way to the belay bypassing any attempt at free climbing the last few feet.
We had been forced to do double hauls for the first day due to the gross obesity of our two companions. One bag down, one to go. My insides were slowly oozing out. Mr. 44 magnum rope-gun soon blasted off on the next pitch. It looked as though we would make dinner ledge by dark. No small feat considering we didn't start up the first pitch until 1:00 and doing double hauls with the short days.
Dinner Ledge, the creme de la creme of bivy ledges was upon us. We should have brought the hibachi, or at least some fire wood and chicken. With daylight quickly departing, I decided to fix the first half of the Kor roof. I cautiosly worked my way up the 5.6 free pitch, plastic boots skating wildly over the rock. This was not working well. I quickly brouht out my trusty cam hooks to aid the rest of the pitch to the bolted roof. Backing up several of the bolts I rapped back to the ground amid a slight drizzle. The good weather was gone, but the storm had not fully arrived yet. Bruce had fired up the stove and we munched hot boil-in-the-bag indian food. This was truly turning decadent as bruce handed me my ration of one beer for the evening. He had smuggled the familiar green bottle of god-juice into the pig. With warm food and cold beer consumed, we bedded down for the evening.
"Whadda we do if it starts to rain hard?"
"I guess we set up the porta ledge and fly." I hoped it wouldn't start raining in the middle of the night.
Tossing throughtout the night, morning quickly dawned. We slimmed the pigs of a portion of their fat and repacked for the day. We would try to go with single hauls from now on to save time. I jugged to my high point and finished the Kor roof lead. I made sure not to back clean a single piece on this lead- a common occurance that means a hellish time for the second on this slanting crack above the infamous roof. We had enough gear to pull it off, and soon I was at the belay.
Bruce then headed off on the next pitch. A tiny rp crack lead to one of the many rivet ladders on route. We were planning on rappeling the route instead of fighting our way down the North Dome gulley. But this pitch traversed quite a ways out from the roof. I voiced my obvious concern to Bruce about rapping back to this belay. "We'll deal with at the appropriate time," was all he had to say.
Jug, jug, jug, the racks were huge. We had a lot of stuff. I launched up the rivets of the next pitch eventually landing myself at a nice thin crack. Weeping day old water, and sporting a healthy coat of moss, I gardened my way along the slimy crack which soon ended at a 5.8 free traverse. I sat there in a familiar position, balancing on my hook, contemplating my boots on the sloping ledges above. The ants hiding behind the mud I had removed for the hook slot were not pleased about my presence. I mantled my way on to the ledge and stuffed a cam behind a large block. I still had to work my way right. Sloping footholds, nothing for the hands except palmed smears, I waddled my way right. Salvation was at hand as a launched up to the belay above the tree of hell. I weaved my way through the rack snagging branches. This was going to be fun getting the pigs through.
Once at the belay, I stared above to the wide gaping offwidth crack. It wasn't long, but damn was it ugly! Brutus would earn his nickname on this crack or pay dearly for it. The rain had started again. Only spits, but the clouds above were menacing. All of the thin pro dangled next to me as I sat in the belay seat. I could hear Bruce's boots scraping the inside of the crack. Too big for any of our pro, Bruce floated his way to the top of the wide crack. We were styling once again.
Jug, jug, jug, the next belay was over and down from the last pro. Bruce looked at me puzzled. "I didn't know how to protect you on this."
I straddled my way across the small pillar to the belay. The next lead was mine. The little beta we had on the route was a vage recollection of strining pitches eight and nine together. But it wasn't definite. The day was closing down fast and I raced my way up the next crack, a beautiful slice through the clean granite. Cam hooks, #1 and #2 rp's, life was good. At one point I even slotted a #0 rp- my first, before replacing it with a #1. The occaisional rivet didn't relieve the thin pro much. I guess the FA party slammed the rivets in to take a beer break. There was reportedly way too much drinking on the first ascent.
Half way up pitch eight, I hammered in a #4 Lost arrow piton into a tiny slot. The route would not go all clean for us this trip. More thin nutting landed me at the first belay around a roof. I looked above unsure of where the next belay sat. I looke down at Bruce, and then westward down the valley at the impending tempest. A thick cloud bank had been gathering and was moving in fast.
"I'm gonna go for the next belay! I hope I haven't screwed myself with rope drag!"
The only time a leader says this is when you know you have. Half way through the next pitch I was muddling in the depths of friction. Heaving slack through the pro below with two hands I slugged onward. The crack was more of the same fun and technical nutting as before with occaisional rivets. As for a fair amount of the climb, the aid could have been pushed to cutting edge hooking but was dealt with by the hammer and drill instead. It's hard aid potential had been castrated, brining the route down to the mere mortal level that allowed wanna-be's such as myself passage up the wall. A final hook move landed me at the next belay, and our bivy for the night.
The belay was three widely spaced out rusty button heads. We had a bolt kit and decided to slam in a 5/16" bolt for back-up. As I hammered, the Wyde one set up the new double ledge. Spits of rain were upon us as the first bolt twisted off in my hand after only a few turns. Bad news. I had to redrill another hole somewhat worried about the integrity of the bolts we had. Another forearm swelling drill fest passed and the bolt was in. We clipped in the ledge and started to settle in for the night. As the spitting turned to more occaisional rain, we cooked with the fly wrapped around us like a poncho to reduce condensation. Dinner finally hot, we battened down the fly. Sliding in the tent pole greatly increased the room on my side of the ledge. Bags out, bodies warm, hot food in hand, Brutus passed me the water jug, "Here drink some of this."
I looked at the slightly off-colour liquid. Remember our little adventure on zodiac a few months back, I sniffed the contents. My God, it was wine. Bruce had stashed a liter and a half of pink wine into the bags. As I started to sip my way to oblivion, the rain gained full force. The good news was that all of the cloud cover greatly enhanced our radio reception. No longer were we forced to listen to jeezus-freaks spouting about the plight of a world plagued by homosexuals. We had music, wine, hot food, and a warm spot to sleep.
As the contents of the bottle dissappeared, I caught Bruce hand dancing to the music. His only response was that the ledge was too small to disco in. It was the best he could do. I drifted off to sleep not caring about the raging storm outside.
The rain finally ended around 3 a.m. but I started to worry about the summit, or the retreat, whichever we would be forced to contend with. At dawn, I poked my head out of the port-hole to parting clouds and blue sky. Our luck had not turned yet. The decision was made to leave camp set up, in case the weather cut loose and we were forced to retreat. It was a small bit of insurance. We took only a small day pack filled with warm clothes, a few cliff bars and two quarts of water.
We were moving painfully slow as Bruce lead off on the first pitch of the day at 8:30. He gingerly moved his way up the fixed blobs of copper, small nuts and rivets to the pendulum point. Swinging his way to another asthetic crack, he worked his way to the belay below the crux pitch. I felt good to jug the pitch. Up to this point, Bruce had gotten stuck with the less than ideal pitches. He did seem to enjoy the off-width though... It was nice not having to deal with hog-&-dasz and piglet for this part of the trip. It was much colder this day as I jugged with my full expedition weight unders and storm shells on. I must get a sportier looking balaclava for these trips. In all of the pictures I look like a tortured oompa-loompa escaped from the chocolate factory.
I re-racked an amazing amount of gear at the next belay. Funky appears on the topo for this pitch. I was still unsure of what this meant. Several cracks appear over head, some more appealing than others, but the correct way was a bit unclear. I could not see the next belay from where I was. Two rivets and more glorious 5.8 free moves deposited me at a head smashed into the next crack. Nuts resting behind flaking rock gained the vertical for me. I desperately wanted to cam hook my way upwards, but knew that the friable flakes would not stand the force. I was moving at brake-neck turtle like speeds as I oozed up the now off-balance corner- Funky! It was quite a ways until I finally sank a "feel good" cam. I continued to scrape potato chips out from the crack and watched as they headed downward pinging off camp below. The day was slipping by, the crack was now a flaring pod. No gear would go, I underdrove a tied-off #1 arrow. Two cams of a #0 alien, rp's, a cam hook or two on the more solid rock, I swithed my way over to the next crack. Relieved to be away from the akward corner, I again, underdrove a tied off #1 arrow into the crack where I couldn't get anything else to fit. This must have been the turning point for the FA team. Either they ran out of beer, rivets, or both. Two rivets lead over to an arching crack a full arm span away. From there I could finally see the belay around the corner of blank rock. Hmmm, I searched for the next rivet as I was sure there was one- nothing. Very odd. I scanned again with the same result. At least the last move would be exciting; I placed the sky hook on small nubbin and moved my way across top stepping to the belay. As I looked down, the second line sat tapping the top of our ledge below. We had one more pitch to go, and we would be able to combine the previous two pitches as one rappel.
Bruce hurridly jugged his way to the belay. I had taken more than two hours on the pitch. I felt bad, but it was almost over. The final crack is a splendid specimen of valley essence, thin, stark, beautiful. In rock shoes and warm weather a perfect 5.10 crack. Bruce mastered his way along half free climbing half crack jumaring his way on the smallest aliens. At one point, his pro was lifted out by his aiders below. The piece slid 30 feet to the only other piece on the pitch. Quickly he placed another piece to prevent the wild ride if he popped off. Out of sight around the bulge, I once again felt the familiar rain drops begin to fall.
"Off belay!" The top was near. I left most of the gear at the belay and headed towards Brutus with water and a snickers bar in my pocket. Soon we were both sitting on the belay tree at the end of the pitch, just 20 feet right of the top of the south face route. As the wind started to blow and the splatering of rain continued, we declared our tree as summit, snapped the last remaining photos, munched the snickers and prepared to bail. Now the real crux was upon us. Even with combining as many pitches as possible, we still had at least 9 rappels to go. The clouds were starting to thicken again at the western end of the valley. Back at the next belay, we realized that we would have to leave a fair amount of sling material behind. For the first rappel, it consisted of one sling and several bands of tie-off daisied together. I did not like the looks of it as I headed down to camp below. I once again reminded Bruce that I really dislike rappeling, he only nodded in agreement. At least the pigs were not on us yet.
Back at camp, we hastily repacked the beasts of burden. Bruce had generously declared that he would sacrifice his 7 mil tag line to the descent as he started to cut a large portion off the end. It was near it's end of life anyway. I felt better on the next rap as he tied every bolt together with the cord. Our luck continued as we combined the next three pitches as one massive 190' rappel back to the tree of death. Once there, I relished guiding the pigs dandling between our legs through the tangled branches. I confindently exclaimed that Bruce could head down first. As he struggled his way through the tree, I realized this would now leave me with the rappel back to the Kor roof. What had I done? How could I have not strategized better!
I prepared my rappel device and started heading down the rivet ladder. The weather was turning quickly as the wind was now howling. Bruce shouted down for me to back clip the occaisional bolt to help keep me in line. I did not want to be blown around the corner. Plastic boots once again scraping their way along, I stretched my body towards the safety of the next belay. A reverse mantle finally landed me at the belay. I could now breathe easy. One more rappel would land us on dinner ledge.
As Brutus neared, I hauled him into the belay. "We pull on the haul line!" The knot connecting our two lines was soon at the belay, wind screaming across us, rain beginning to gain strength. Suddenly, the rope stopped. A look of pure terror crossed our faces; not a word was spoken. Bruce clipped a jumar onto the rope and we both started to heave simultaneously. The rope would not budge. The wind was increasing. We slackened the rope, and tried again without luck. Our thin edge of nothing was collapsing before us. "I may have to relead the pitch..." I couldnt' bare the thought of this, darkness was looming ahead. One more heavy pull and the rope sprung loose. We screamed in pure elation, hugging eachother in relief. The fixed cord at the previous belay had a small bight in the rope where the rappel was threaded. The tape at the end of the rope had been too fat to fit through smoothly. By shear luck, it had finally worked it's way through.
We quickly set the next rappel and I was on my way to dinner ledge. The wind was now strong enough to be blowing me completely sideways. I was stretching my way towards a fixed pin that I wanted to clip before heading over the roof but could not manage to get to it. No I was getting frantic. I finally dropped below the roof at a healthy angle and skidded quickly along the edge. A yell of terror and excitement escaped at I slowly began to twirl 20 feet from the nearest wall. Soon I was standing on dinner ledge, repacking all of the stashed gear salivating at the thouhts of level ground.
The rain had begun in ernest now, night was only a short few minutes away. Three rappels to go. By the time I fixed myself at the next belay, the day had ended. Headlamp feebily lighting my personal space, I waited as Bruce headed down to the next healthy ledge. One rappel to go. I sat on the top of the ledge, eyes closed, near useless headlamp turned off, swimming in the rain. I could hear Bruce below trying to free the ropes from all of the trees. Hopefully the ropes would reach below the fourth class ledges. Water slowly trickled inside my jacket. One rappel to go.
"Off rappel!" faintly floated up from below. My cramped cold hands rapidly threaded the rappel and I was off. I stumbled my way down on slick, drenched rock. Darkness, my headlamp rapidly losing life, batteried buried deep in one of the pigs. Mud was flowing, the grit passing long through the rappel device. I stopped at the end of the ropes just ten feet of 4th class to go. I unclipped as the bag hurtled off it's perch. I clutched at wet rock trying not to lose balance, testicles crammed by the pig leash.
Finally, I was at the base. Soaked to the bone. Bruce talking about bivying, me wanting only to continue down. But I relented easily and left the decision to him. As he pulled the ropes, I started to transfer the bags to the bivy spot.
"Let's head down!" he shouted from above. I did not hesitate; quickly I returned the bags back down from the bivy. We packed the heavy, mud soaked ropes on to the pigs. We still had the slick bouldery descent to deal with. Guiding along with only one headlamp, I skated my way down the descent. At one point executing a perfect endo as my body a bag parted ways. A final slog through the brush and we hit the asphalt tourist trail. Huge smiles crossed our faces. The climb was finally done.
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