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Mt Watkins Epic

By John L Butler

We left a couple of days early to beat the Memorial Day crowd and decided to go for the South Face of Watkins rather than the Prow which figured to be parade. Arriving Thursday afternoon we tried to knock off the approach. It wasn't enough time and we didn't cross Tenaya Creek above the water fall. The south side of the stream is a heinous talus slope and we bivied on a dry sand bar on the south side of the stream. During the night a small stream came down from snowfields north of Half Dome that only get sun in the late afternoon. We had to get up and build dams and reroute the stream to keep from floating away. Friday we found the fixed lines up the approach buttress. That afternoon we fixed the first 4 pitches of the route with two lines. There is a new belay station about 40 ft above some old fixed pins. Without a 200 ft rope you can't reach the anchors of pitch two from the new anchors (great improvement someone). I simul-rapped while my partner tensioned to the anchors praying the two 40 yr old bolts and one fixed pin in between us were good in case of a mishap. We spent Friday night on the brush ledges at the base of the climb watching the party ahead of us trying to finish the route. At about 4 AM I woke to rockfall. There were still headlamps above us. I wonder what kind of batteries those guys had. I could hear them yelling back and forth. "Haul the bag. What? Haul the bag. What? Haul the #%$@ing bag!" I went back to sleep wondering what we were in for. Saturday morning we hauled the third class approach buttress with our 6 mm zip line and were on our way. My partner couldn't find the anchors for pitch 7 and belayed off some flakes after tremendous rope drag. The pitch traverses right to a bolt and wanders back left. After a couple of 5.9 mantles which I could protect with small stoppers I ran it out to the top of pitch 8 and the Sheraton Watkins. As usual we were going slow and we decided to bivy there. Next morning my partner fell trying to free some hard moves and landed on ledge spraining his ankle. After some time to gain his composure he aided the rest of the pitch. When we reached the top of pitch 11 my partner mega-dosed the pain pills which made him extremely thirsty but killed the pain. We then fixed pitch 12 and 13. At the top of 12 I had the choice of a single old bolt or a good stopper and cam behind a block for belay anchors. I chose the stopper and cam and decided to place a pin for good measure. After a couple of thuds it was obvious that another whack or two would send it crashing down on my partner. Shaken I anchored to the good stopper and yelled down "line fixed". Steve lead pitch 13 (wild pendulum even with two good ankles) and we rapped back to the bivy ledge (note the 135 ft rap is from two fixed pins in the middle of 13 not the top. When I rapped to the end of the rope, I placed two pins as anchors I got back to the bivy ledge with a short rap on the haul line. Clearing the debris from the rockfall of the night before we settled in for a short night worrying about our dwindling water supply and what lay ahead ("Haul the #%$@ing bag!"). A 4:30 wake up got us going before sunlight hit the wall. Pitch 14 ended with strenous offwidth with heinous rope drag onto a sloping ledge. The anchors were two stoppers at the corner of the ledge and I had to haul on my hands and knees doing pushups. By then I was starting to get really dehydrated in the blazing sun and a puffy cloud to the south looked like an innocent relief to the heat. My partner was able to make the long reaches on the bolt ladder and 15 was in the bag, but by the time I cleaned the pitch I was dizzy and approaching heat prostration. Steve took over and lead the next two and it looked like we would get off by dark. The cool breeze revived me and I headed up pitch 18. Halfway through this hand and fist crack a bolt of lightning and hail forced us to make a decision. Go for the top or retreat. Without fixed anchors at the belays retreat looked risky and with lightning all over the place the top didn't look inviting. We decided to retreat under an overhang on 17 to wait it out. We lowered down and set up a hanging bivy. We collected rain water by holding our bottles out in the rain but as it rained harder we became wetter and wetter. Shivering uncontrolably we counted the hours until dawn. If it had rained hard all night we probably wouldn't have made it. Synthetics may keep you warm if wet but a constant supply of cold water dripping down your daisy chains and into your crotch is serious. During the night we manage to drop the rest of the power bars so for breakfast we split our last bagel and headed for the top only a pitch and a half a way. A sheet of water made a 5.7 lieback A1 but we topped out before noon. We were without food or water but everything was wet. The #%$@ing pig weighed more than when we started. As we reached the valley floor our pace quickened. A Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the best carrot I know.

Legend has it that the spirit of Chief Teneya does not take kindly to intrusions in his valley. I believe it.

Oh yes, take lots of big gear for p 18, 4 #2, 3 or 4 # 3 and at least1 # 4 camalot. Back clean the #4 and use at the anchor. Beware of angry spirits.

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