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Hints for first time rock-climbers in Yosemite
By Q.-Tuan Luong for The Yosemite
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.
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.
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
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 !
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:
- Manure Pile Buttress,
practice at the base, maybe climb After Six for a warm up,
then Nutcracker (5 pitches) which is very good and not too
disconcerting. This climb is often crowded, in which case a fine
alternative is CS concerto.
- Glacier Point Apron (to get a taste of exposed slab climbing) with climbs
like Grack Center, Grack Marginal, Goodrich Pinnacle.
- Royal Arches. A full day, routefinding not obvious. That's the
only moderate route which
leads you to the rim of the Valley.
rap down (prefered, rap line distinct from climbing line) or hike down North Dome Gully.
- Braille Book (only 4 pitches, but the approach is 2 hours). rap down.
- Snake Dike. A very full day with 1500m of elevation gain.
Long approach and descent. A classy way to traverse Half-Dome, it's the
only easy climbing
route. The climb is only 5.7 but exposed, although with the exception
of the first two pitches it is very easy. According to the topo, you
need only quickdraws and a few medium nuts, however a few cams up
to #2 camalot could help at the beginning.
- Central Pilar of Frenzy (5 sustained pitches of steep and clean
crags, has finger to ow size, rap down).
- East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock (aid the bolt
ladder instead of freeing at 10c).
- Lambert Dome, a 5.6 route on the right, and Cry in the Sky.
relatively well protected face climbing (almost no gear needed if you exit at the
- Fairview Dome, regular route. Climbs the highest dome in the Meadows.