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Backcountry climbing in Yosemite

By George Bell

Those who complain of the crowds in the Valley have not consulted their guidebook at length. Here is a description of three long free climbs we did in September 1994, with nary another soul in sight! These routes emphasize route finding over technical difficulty, and some sections would be best described as "dirty". But they are still fun, if you like long moderate routes.

The East Buttress of Lower Cathedral Rock (IV, 5.10, 12 pitches)

This climb seems doomed to obscurity due to confusion with it's much more popular namesake on Middle Cathedral. In fact I had never even heard of this climb until I bought the new Yosemite Guide and noticed the two star rating. Lower Cathedral Rock was one formation neither of us had done a single climb on, which made our decision to do this route even easier.

After an early breakfast at the cafeteria, my partner Haroon and I left the car at 7:30 and approached Gunsight Gully. The start of the climb is a bit hard to locate. The photo in the new guide is useful but still puts the start a bit right of where it should go. Haroon is normally a better crack man than myself, and I experienced my first aid climb in Yosemite under his guidance. This summer Haroon had been concentrating on marathon bike rides so he was not in top climbing shape. He agreed to lead the first pitch (a 5.8 chimney) as the second was listed ominously as "5.10a fist".

The 5.8 chimney pitch is typical for Yosemite: steep, smooth, lacking in pro, and maybe only 5.8 once you've led a lot of `em. An experienced (if out of shape) Yosemite climber, Haroon had little difficulty with this pitch. The 5.10a pitch turned out to me more of a finger than fist crack, and I wondered where the wide section was. Finally things got desperate and the best hold around was a flared pocket that was hard to grasp. Aha! This was the fist jam! One hard move and it was done - things were looking good.

Although this climb faces east, it gets no morning sun (in September) due to the massive bulk of Middle Cathedral which eclipses it. While climbers on El Cap was probably already roasting across the way, here it was arctic. This climb would probably be a good choice for the middle of the summer. The forecast called for afternoon thundershowers, and puffy cumulus clouds were already appearing out of the clear morning sky. The next lead is the "Fissure Beck", and it looked terrifying. Here the route enters a left leaning, left facing dihedral. The Fissure Beck appears to be an overhanging offwidth crack, yet supposedly it is only rated 5.9. Haroon declined the lead, so off I went. By moving diagonally up and left and then horizontally back I snuck past the grungy bottom of the crack. Soon I was deep in the maw of the Fissure Beck. After clipping a pin, I faced the crux moves with no hope of pro for the next 10'. The crack here is about 7", far too big for our largest piece of pro. This would indeed be a fearsome offwidth were it not for the face holds to the left. Using a combination of stemming and face holds, with my right foot bridging the crack I passed the wide section. Supposedly you can also lieback this section, although it didn't occur to me to try this committing technique.

The topo here tells you to belay at the next tree. Big mistake! There is absolutely no ledge and one is forced to balance precariously on tree branches hanging off slings. As I began to belay Haroon up, ants poured out of the tree and all over me. Shit! This was the beginning of a miserable belaying experience.

Haroon blasted quickly up the next short pitch, leaving me swatting ants and hanging to avoid touching the tree with any part of my body. The pitch after that was the crux of the route, but looked deceptively easy. It is a flared shallow chimney, but when you get in it you realize it is too flared to chimney. Desperate 5.10 finger jamming and stemming soon ensued, and I finally flamed out to rest on the rope. Fortunately, it was possible to sew the thing up with wires and small friends. While resting I realized there were hidden face holds on the right wall, and one more marginal stemming move would put me to where the difficulties eased. The top of this pitch surmounts a spectacular but easy roof and ends at a large ledge. I was in the sun at last!

At this point the character of the climb changes considerably. The angle eases and the rock becomes more broken. The buttress also becomes wider and less distinct. As a result the climbing is easier but route finding skills are essential to stay on moderate terrain. A long 5.7 pitch ends at a huge ledge below a headwall. The route through the headwall is not obvious. After eating some lunch and puzzling over the topo I decided on a crack just left of the buttress crest. It was a good choice and I was soon at the base of a trough (shown in the topo) diagonaling back to the left.

Here the weather began to turn sour. Those puffy clouds had quickly grown to ugly black monsters and it was not a question of whether or not it would rain but how soon. As Haroon began to lead the next pitch up the 5.5 ramp we felt the first drops. Then the rope became stuck in a crack. Trying to maximize our speed, Haroon went off belay and began to belay me up on the haul line. There were still three more pitches to go and the next one was 5.9. I judged that if we could do this next pitch before the rock got wet we could probably make it; otherwise we would have to rap off.

I grabbed the rack and raced on. The topo now made no sense. Try as I might I could not find anything resembling it ahead. The rain was light but showed no sign of stopping. In fact, it seemed certain to get worse. Two huge stacked flakes each about 20' high seemed to offer the easiest route. Moving up the right side of the lower flake, I was dismayed to discover the crack behind it was a good 6" wide. My easiest alternative was a daring lieback up the sucker with minimal pro. There was no time to think about it, off I went. Grabbing the top of the flake, I anticipated a bomber edge. Instead I grabbed a loose block which proceeded to fall down behind the flake with a crash, narrowly missing my right foot. Adrenaline pumping, I groped blindly for another hold as more sand and gravel slid down behind the flake. Finally, I was standing on top of it.

I easily ascended to the top of the second flake, where I was confronted by a 10' blank wall. A dead end?! The rain continued to fall and things were starting to get slippery. Above the other end of the flake there appeared to be a shallow thin crack and some face holds, and below them just above the flake was a fresh set of parallel vertical scratches. I couldn't fathom these scratches until I realized that the flake must have slipped down some 6" recently. Yeow! This monsters about to peel! I looked around desperately but there was no other alternative. I would have to "walk the plank" to the opposite end of the flake. If the flake fell, it would slice the belay rope for my last piece of pro was underneath it. At least it wouldn't hit Haroon as he was off to one side. Once again, I didn't have much alternative. After giving the flake an experimental kick, I edged gingerly across it. I slammed a #1 Friend into the crack and breathed a sigh of relief. Soon I was up to a tree and the last hard pitch was behind us.

The rain stopped as Haroon followed the pitch, but then began again even harder as Haroon started up the next. I was glad not to have to lead this pitch, being blown psychologically from the last one. Fortunately the rock didn't seem to be getting really slippery, I guess because there weren't a whole lot of lichens. Haroon moved quickly but cautiously, placing pro often. The worst accident I was ever involved in occurred when my partner ran it out on easy terrain and then slipped on wet rock (miraculously, he received only minor injuries despite a fall of 80'). I was glad to see Haroon placing a lot of pro.

Finally I raced up the final pitch in a worsening downpour. I found a slight overhang to belay under and stay dry. We had made it! A half hour later start and we would have been rapping off now. Haroon pointed to a snake inches from one of my feet. My laughter froze as the snake dove into a crack and I saw a rattle on it's tail! A rattlesnake way up here? At least in the cold rain it was in no mood for a fight.

We expected a routine descent down Gunsight Gully. The weather had other ideas. As we neared the top of the gully the rain intensified. Lightning glanced off Middle Cathedral and the Leaning Tower, and thunder boomed across the valley. Water raced off slabs on Middle and Lower Cathedral and formed into torrents. These were fascinating to watch until we realized they were funneling right into our descent route. As we got down into Gunsight gully it turned into a raging creek. We uncovered rap anchors on trees and began a miserable series of raps past and sometimes through waterfalls. Surely the rain would end soon? But it continued. We were now soaked to the bone despite our rain gear. We spent a lot of time searching for rap anchors, some of which were probably covered by the racing water. After a third single rope rap, we finally reached easier terrain and eventually the cars. We immediately headed for the showers and dryers. Ah! Life in The Valley! All the comforts of home plus 10+ pitch routes!

Yosemite Point Buttress (IV, 5.9, 14 pitches)

This climb defines the term "anti-sport climb". The approach is long and brushy, the rock often poor quality, and the route finding complex and frustrating. Naturally the crux is a poorly protected 5.9 offwidth, and there is not a single bolt on it. I knew that it was not to be taken lightly because one of my strongest climbing partners had been benighted on it.

This route was serious from the start. First we had to begin so early we couldn't eat breakfast in the cafeteria. This day also happened to be my birthday which made me paranoid enough to bring my helmet. We shouldered our loads just after sunrise (6:15) and plodded up the Yosemite Falls trail. This is not the suggested start, but I figured that while considerably longer than the bushwhack it gained most of the altitude on a trail and we wouldn't have to do any route finding early in the morning. The only problem with this approach is that you have to cross under Upper Yosemite Falls which is only possible when it is dry.

Leaving the trail we experienced the usual epic battle through manzanita. The approach trough is listed as 3rd class, which is a joke. We ended up belaying part of it. By the time we were at the base of the route and starting the first pitch it was 9:00.

It is a good idea to check out Yosemite Point Buttress with a pair of binoculars while having an ice cream in Yosemite Village as we had done the day before. Getting an overall picture of the climb and it's landmarks is critical because the typical convoluted pitch first climbs down some 30', then traverses over on a ledge and climbs up a chimney. Often the next belay is only 50' higher than the last!

The first pitch follows nice cracks which deteriorate in quality near the top. After scrambling right along sandy ledges some 150' and down 50', you are ready to start the second pitch, a typical scary 5.8 chimney. Haroon dispatched with this placing our #3 Big Bro and soon we were sweating in the sun at the top of the second pitch. The next pitch is the crux. I had heard about the horrors of this 5.9 offwidth from Bill Wright (hence the Big Bro). From the belay (as usual) you move down 40' and hand traverse right around a corner into the as yet unseen evil fissure. I didn't realize until I got to the fat crack what the geometry of this lead dictates. You can't put any pro in for at least the first 30' of the offwidth to avoid rope drag. The sheer absurdity of the lead frustrated and terrified me. Why should one descend 40' only to re-climb it in the scariest and worst way imaginable? It was possible to move the belay down but only 20' and this would take time. Maybe I wasn't ready for this route - after all it was my birthday! Does anyone want to lead a 5.9 offwidth on such a day?

I went back up to the belay, for I had spotted a thin crack that led up and right towards the upper part of the offwidth crack. Why didn't the route go this way? It is much more direct. I climbed up a tree, which led into this thin crack. After a short distance, it became obvious why the route didn't go this way. Rather than link up to the top of the offwidth crack, the thin crack ended in a blank wall some 10' to it's left. I was stymied. Now I would have to go back down and climb the offwidth, or else pendulum over on aid.

As I considered the pendulum, I noticed a line of sloping footholds that led across the blank wall into the fat crack. The wall was nearly vertical here, but this might go free. I placed two friends high up in the thin crack and moved down and right to investigate. A fall here wouldn't be so bad, I reasoned. But the traverse was desperate! The footholds sloped severely and there was only one tiny handhold. Finally I shouted to Haroon that I was going for it and launched around the corner. I made it! I had climbed around the 5.9 offwidth by doing a hard 5.10 face traverse! Though technically harder, this variation is very well protected, so I had clearly lost hard man points by this maneuver. Cie la vie! I was now only 20' below the belay and the evil fat crack was here a benign hand/fist size.

This crack is in good rock but is very dirty. Several trees higher up drop their foliage down into it. One has to excavate through dirt and leaves for friend placements. By the time I reached the belay my chalk bag was completely full of leaves! I should have left it in the car.

Above this point the bizarre route wanders all over the place, seemingly in search of every chimney within a quarter mile radius! The rock gets worse and worse as you reach the top of "The Pedestal", though there is nothing harder than about 5.7. The final lead to the top of The Pedestal ascends a flared rotten chimney with virtually no pro. I made the mistake leading this by chimneying between my back and knees. Half way up, I found I couldn't move either knee. The crumbly rock and lack of pro had me freaked, and it was a scary minute before I could get a foot rather than knee on the opposite wall (which is what I should have been doing in the first place).

It was time for lunch before launching into the final 4 pitches. The Pedestal is quite a remarkable spot. It's amazing how such a sandy crumbly ledge can exist in the middle of a steep buttress. Timewise we were doing OK - it was 2:30.

The next two leads are both solid 5.9, although they were originally rated 5.8. The rock on these two pitches is much better, and were it not for the 2 hour scramble plus 10 pitch approach, they would be popular. The first involves face climbing below a thin flared diagonal crack. There are at least 8 fixed pins on this pitch and a lot of 5.9 moves, but I was able to make steady if slow progress. After a full rope length I found a ledge and some funky flakes to belay from. Above me rose a beautiful hand crack; it looked straightforward but steep and long.

I hoped Haroon was up to leading this next pitch, as we didn't have many big pieces, and the leader would have to run it out. It was perfect for a crack master like himself. With all the climbing we'd been doing, Haroon was rapidly getting back into shape, and grabbed the rack. The move off the belay was very difficult and he had a choice between downclimbing and then ascending a short rotten chimney (of course) or making a long step left into the top of the chimney. Haroon chose the latter using some tension from the rope and was shortly in the hand crack. He had to meter out pro carefully on this long lead. Nearing the top of this exposed buttress, the wind buffeted us in sharp gusts, which freaked out the leader and chilled the belayer. We had been in the sun all day until this point.

Haroon spent some time searching for belay anchors, and for good reason as the rock had deteriorated once again. Finally I got the signal and made the scary step left and began jamming the crack. At the top Haroon had been forced to make a run out of over 30' as he had only one 3" piece left at that point.

The next pitch was technically easy but one of the more serious leads of the climb. Once again the rock turns to cookie crumbs and the pro sucks. Led out over 50', I contemplated a 5.4 traverse back left. In good rock this would be a breeze, but every foothold looked ready to dissolve. Finally I reached a flake with a good crack behind it and threw in a friend. One then has to make an easy lieback up this flake, which was no problem as long as it doesn't blow.

Near the top of the flake was a funky home brew piton pounded straight into the wall. It was an aluminum tent stake? The sight was so absurd I burst out laughing and I didn't even bother trying to clip it in.

One more loose, sandy, but much easier pitch and were on the rim. It was 5:30 as we drank the last of our water at the Yosemite Point railing while packing up for the long hike out. Far from a trudge, I enjoyed the descent immensely. The trail was empty and the low angle light picked out all the high points, primarily Half Dome. We descended into the dark and a well deserved steak at the Mt. Room Broiler. This climb had been an excellent birthday present after all!

The Northeast Face of Lower Cathedral Spire (III, 5.9, 8 pitches)

In his 1971 guide, Steve Roper calls this climb "one of the finest short routes in Yosemite". How times change! These days, it would be hard to find a climber (even in Yosemite) who would consider an 8 pitch route with a 1 hour approach "short", plus half the pitches are pure garbage which definitely cuts down on the traffic. In it's favor, all of the garbage pitches are easy, and in my opinion this is the best route on Lower Cathedral Spire at the 5.9 level. Still, anyone who thought the approach was too long for the reward on Braille Book (which doesn't include me) is advised to stand in line for the Nutcracker.

Today we had a leisurely start although we had a hope of climbing both Spires in one day. After the usual cafeteria scene we packed up and headed up the left Spire Gully. It had been getting hotter every day and today even the shady side was too hot. We cached our lunch and began scrambling up to the notch between Lower Cathedral Spire and Church Tower. Getting to this notch proved non-trivial and we quickly broke out the rope. Easy but exposed climbing followed up loose sandy ledges peppered with trees. The most difficult part was trying to keep the ropes from knocking rocks onto the second.

After dispensing with these four "gumby filter" pitches we were at the base of an impressive vertical wall forming the actual NE face. We were roasting and had not brought along any water so I was glad to see the sun pass behind the Spire. Haroon led the first hard pitch, which follows a crack through a difficult bulge and then a bizarre roof that was passed by stemming up and then squeezing through the slot at it's apex. There is no clear belay at the end of this pitch, and Haroon ended up on a tiny ledge for one off to the left.

The next pitch is reportedly a long fist crack, and some friends of Haroon's had turned back here because they didn't have enough large pieces. Somehow I thought that a #3 and #4 Camalot plus a #5 Tri-Cam would be sufficient. I was wrong. The Tri-Cam was soon far below me and the wide crack continued endlessly. A variation (actually the original route) exists up a thin crack to the left, but this looked to be full of dirt. The fist crack was very clean, but maddeningly consistent in width. I continued up by shuffling the two Camalots up. There was a decent rest every 15' or so, which made the task of reaching down and moving pieces up easier. With my fat hands I discovered that I could hand jam the whole crack, although for Haroon it was mostly fist.

The best alternative for the next pitch is to hand traverse right to a thin vertical crack. This proved very strenuous, and Haroon was rapidly pumping out until he established himself in the vertical crack. At the top of the crack a scary ramp leads back left, which contains a terrifying loose flake halfway up that you can't avoid. I was glad to have a toprope on this pitch, which I think was the hardest of the climb.

From here it's an easy 4th class pitch to the top. There was a summit register full of rubbish, including an empty pack of Camel cigarettes (left by Jim Bridwell, perhaps?). This was Haroon's first ascent of Lower Cathedral Spire, and my second. We thought about doing the East Corner of the Upper Spire, an excellent route we had both done before, but it was clearly too late and we would end up descending in the dark. We tried a more direct route down by rapping the new 5.11 route on the SW corner. This worked well although the second rap is very scary and mostly free. This new route appeared very clean and difficult. I would like to return to climb it some day.

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