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Hints for first time rock-climbers in Yosemite

By Q.-Tuan Luong for The Yosemite Rock Page

This article gives some free-climbing hints for intermediate climbers who travel to Yosemite for the first time. See also general practical information and tips on big wall climbing.

Not a beginner area

The walls in Yosemite are generally either steep, smooth, or both. Generally speaking, there are not a whole lot of easy climbs. If you are trying to locate them, buy the complete version of the guidebook. The "select" version won't list enought easy stuff to keep you busy. None of these climbs are bolted, so you most have a rack and know how to use it. There are bolted climbs, but they are quite hard or exposed.

"Traditional" climbing

The most important thing to know for those who come from countries where the climbing style is different (eg. France) is that Yosemite is essentially a "traditional" climbing area. This means in particular that all the routes which can be protected by gear are *not* equiped (neither with bolts or pitons). In particular, in a pitch which is mostly crack climbing, you won't find any fixed bolt. The pitches which are mostly slabs (and therefore cannot be protected by gear) are usually bolted, but the exposure can be *very* severe with large distances between bolts, and often these bolts are somewhat old, rusty, and generally speaking weak. These routes are designated with the letter "R" (runout). In a runout pitch you can expect to find three bolts or less on the whole pitch. You might even find some of the pitches which are not rated "R" quite exposed. Read the description in the guidebook carefully. You should probably avoid those designated with the letter "X" (death potential !). The guidebook gives you the width of the largest cracks. You should have camming devices which are able to fit in that size.

The belays might or might not be fixed, depending on the routes, and for some routes I have climbed I don't even remember. However, if the route involves a rappel descent, then you can safely expect to find fixed belays. It is definitively useful to have two ropes to be able to rappel. Many locals lead with a single rope (ie a 10/11mm) and have the second drag another rope, but I cannot see anything wrong with using double ropes (ie two 8/9mm) for leading. It is useful to have a 50m rope. A 40m rope is too short.

Local style

As you have understood by now, consider Yosemite to be "adventure terrain". In addition, the type of climbing that you will encounter is very different from the limestone found in many sport climbing areas. There are almost no pockets, but you will follow mostly crags and smooth slabs of pure friction. Even if you are used to granite, be aware that Yosemite's rock is glacier-polished granite which produces very smooth cracks and slabs significantly sleaker than what I have climbed for instance in the Mont-Blanc range. Because of that, you'll have to use proper techniques. While it is relatively easy to get used to the thin cracks (finger sized), the larger ones require specific techniques. To ease the pain of hand and fist jamming, consider taping your hands (tape is sold at the Mountain Store). Beware of offwidths (marked "ow" on the topos): these are cracks too wide to jam your fist, but too narrow to get inside, and they will invariably seem *considerably* harder than their rating would suggest, and besides require heavy and expensive gear (sort of "oversized friends") to protect. If you think you are a 5.10 climber but are not used to this terrain, trying to lead a 5.10 ow will probably get you in trouble. Chimneys can also be humbling and difficult to protect. Knee pads will help considerably here.

If you are used to doing 10 sport pitches in a half day of climbing, or climbing twice this number in an alpine days, be prepared to slow down. The logistics (except at some areas like the cookie cliff) doesn't allow efficient days, since you have to find each route. In addition, the local climbers adopt a quite relaxed style where they take all their time since there is no urge in most cases to climb fast. You'll see for instance that they don't simul-belay their seconds when climbing in parties of three, and they try to avoid overlapping parties. It is often considered to be bad behavior to clip to a belay which is already used by another party, not to mention passing. In doubt, please ask. If you remain polite, people will be friendly to you !

Final recommendations

A good source of information in French is the book by the late Romain Vogler "Les Etats-Unis", in the collection "Les 100 plus belles courses, Denoel". It might be out of print. If you live in Paris, look at the CAF library. Vogler, in addition to a good selection of routes, gives you a nice introduction to the specifics of Yosemite climbing.

For those who are used to sport-climbing areas, I recommend that (i) you practice placing gear, and come with the adequate rack (slings, nuts, friends. friends are necessary on many climbs) (ii) that you lead conservatively, since the style of climbing might be unusual, (iii) that you look at your stay like a way to learn a new style of climbing, at each climb like a small route in the mountains, rather than focussing on difficulty or efficiency.

While there are excellent one-pitch climbs in the Valley (one of the best areas is the Cookie Clif, with mostly difficult stuff), I find that longer climbs are more enjoyable, and give you a better taste of what the Valley has to offer.

A week plan for 10a (= french 6a) climbers in the Valley

Each of the outings is a day: In the summer it is too hot in the Valley. Go to Tuolumne Meadows. A few suggestions:

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