Vertical cracks. Blank slabs. Polished granite. Old-school grades. Huge walls.
Such are the many attractions of rock climbing in Yosemite.
I have long dreamed of climbing there. This year, during my kids' Spring Break, I finally got my chance. We planned a trip to Berkeley, CA, to visit my wife's sister, after which we would drive out to Yosemite for three days of family hiking. Then the wife and kids were to go back to Berkeley, and my climbing partner Adrian was to meet me for FOUR DAYS of rock climbing.
I was going to spend a whole week in Yosemite. A dream come true.
I'd say it went reasonably well. I loved the park, and I had a great time hiking around with my family. The weather was fabulous for most of our stay. Adrian and I were able to climb on three of our planned four days, getting on good routes at three different locations.
I was a little disappointed in my climbing, however. Last year in Squamish I felt instantly comfortable on the grippy, textured granite. But this year in Yosemite I found the granite to be so polished, the routes sustained and intimidating. I was not as comfortable this time around and it showed.
Still I got a great introduction to Yosemite climbing and I'd go back in a heartbeat.
Before the trip, I tried to prepare by working on my crack-climbing technique in the gym and by going outside to lead as much as possible. I made it to the Cliffs at LIC-- the new gym in town-- a couple of times to work on their crack climbs.
(Photo: My buddy Deepak working the jams at the Cliffs at LIC.)
Meanwhile I felt like my head was getting into decent shape outside. On my last day in the Gunks before my trip, I went at a hard 5.10 (Try Again), and though I didn't send it clean, I felt good going for it. And I led on-sight a somewhat sketchy 5.9 called Turdland, and felt fine doing it. Not bad for so early in the season. I hoped I could keep it together to try some similarly hard leads in Yosemite.
We flew out to California on Saturday, April 12. We had a nice few days in Berkeley with family before we drove out to Yosemite on Wednesday. The forecast for our time in Yosemite couldn't have been better, with sunny skies and highs in the upper sixties predicted for our whole visit.
On our first afternoon in the park we checked out the Mariposa Grove, home of the giant sequoia trees. I was itching to go straight to Yosemite Valley but seeing as it was an hour away from our hotel we decided it could wait until the next morning.
(Photo: Giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove.)
We enjoyed the huge sequoia trees, but I thought the experience in the Grove was a little bit of a letdown. We hiked all the way out to the Wawona Point Vista (about six miles round trip), stopping at many of the specially-marked landmark trees along the way. Even though this was a weekday in early season, there were lots and lots of people around, and signs of overuse were everywhere. The trails seemed aged and beaten. The most impressive trees were surrounded by ugly fencing to prevent trampling by the masses. The stone walls at the Wawona Point Vista were crumbling; the metal railings had twisted and fallen. The view out to Wawona Dome was okay, but not exactly breathtaking.
(Photo: View of Wawona Dome from the Wawona Point Vista.)
I was a little worried. I wanted so much to love Yosemite. I also wanted my wife Robin to love it, so she'd be interested in coming back. Robin knew little of what to expect here. I'd prepared her to expect crowds, but I had assured her that the spectacular surroundings would compensate for all the people.
Was I wrong? Were we doomed to spend three days fighting through throngs of people-- only to find compromised, decaying viewpoints?
Well, I needn't have worried. The next morning we drove up the Wawona road to Yosemite Valley and as we rounded a corner both El Capitan and Half Dome came suddenly into view. Robin and I were instantly blown away. I would remain so for the full remainder of my week in Yosemite. I spent days just walking around with my mouth open, gaping at the incredible scenery all around us.
(Photo: Good morning, El Cap!)
Once we arrived in the Valley we chose to do the Mist Trail hike up to the top of Vernal Falls and then (so long as our kids were cooperative) we planned to continue up the Muir Trail to the top of Nevada Falls. This is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite and it did not disappoint. It gave us about 7 miles of rugged hiking. The waterfalls were in peak early season form. We got a good soaking on the Mist Trail as we passed Vernal Falls.
(Photo: Vernal Falls, seen from low on the Mist Trail. If you click on the photo to enlarge it you can make out some tiny people on the trail, starting to get wet.)
Everywhere we looked we saw enormous granite walls. I knew the names of some of the formations, and I was familiar with some of the classic routes on some of the walls, but the sheer amount of stone all around was overwhelming. It was impossible to make sense of it all.
Vernal Falls is quite beautiful and the overlook at the top is a great spot for lunch. As we got higher up and approached Nevada Falls the hike got even better. Nevada Falls is just as impressive as Vernal Falls but there are fewer people crowding the trail. The landscape began to resemble the pictures I've seen of the Sierra high country, with alpine plant life and clean white domes of rock in all directions.
(Photo: The dome of Liberty Cap, seen from the Muir Trail.)
(Photo: Looking down the cascading Nevada Falls from the top.)
Though the kids grumbled a bit they were generally troopers and got through the hike without too much foot-dragging.
For our third day of hiking we chose another ambitious undertaking, the Yosemite Falls Trail. This trail is slightly longer than the combined Mist/Muir Trail and it gains significantly more altitude. But we ultimately felt like it wasn't that much more difficult, overall. The early part of the trail is the steepest, and once you are over that there is a flatter middle portion of the trail, which provides a good rest before you tackle the long climb to the top of upper Yosemite Falls. The kids made it up and down just fine, buoyed by the knowledge that this was to be their last big hike of the trip.
(Photo: Yosemite Falls, seen from the ground before the hike. The falls are 2600 feet high and you can only take in both the upper and lower portions from a distance. There is no view of the whole falls from the trail.)
Along the way I was just amazed at the views of Lost Arrow Spire, a detached pinnacle to the right of the falls. There are full-length climbs up the huge wall next to the spire, and I have seen photos of climbers doing a tyrolean traverse (i.e. dangling from a fixed line) back to the main cliff after climbing the 5.12 route to the tiny summit of the exposed spire. But the photos can't prepare you for the real thing. Once I could see it in real life, the notion of climbing on such a huge wall, so high off the ground, with the raging falls nearby, gave me the chills.
(Photo: Upper Yosemite Falls, with the detached pinnacle of Lost Arrow Spire visible to the right.)
From the trail we also got great views of Half Dome and some of the higher peaks in the southern part of the park. Later (with Adrian's help) I found out what peaks we were seeing. Maybe some day after the kids get a little older we'll get a wilderness permit and hike all the way out to these mountains. Yosemite Valley is such a small part of the park. As soon as you gain a little altitude you can see how much more the park has to offer.
(Photo: View to the South from the Yosemite Falls Trail, with Half Dome on the left and some snowy peaks in the distance, including Mt. Clark and Mt. Starr King.)
By the end of our third day of hiking I was starting to get a little tired and sore. But I had to buck up because the main event, from my perspective, was still to come. Adrian met up with us at our hotel on Friday night and in the morning we planned to say goodbye to my wife and kids and do four straight days of climbing. My wife and kids would head back to Berkeley and Adrian and I would take up residence in Curry Village, in the heart of the Valley, in a perma-tent built for two.
Apart from my fatigue, I had an anxiety about climbing in Yosemite that I couldn't quite put my finger on. The walls were so huge, the surroundings so overwhelming, the routes so legendary. It was intimidating to me. Adrian had lots of experience in Yosemite so I knew I could lean on him a bit but I also wanted to get the most out of my time and live up to my potential.
We started out on Saturday at the Five Open Books area. We figured that this would be a good place to get started because there are multi-pitch climbs here at several different difficulty levels. Adrian suggested we start with Commitment, a three-pitch 5.9. He'd been on it before but he hadn't led pitches one and three, which are the harder pitches. He was figuring I'd lead the 5.7 pitch two.
(Photo: Adrian leading pitch one of Commitment (5.9).)
I found Commitment to be a pretty rude introduction to Yosemite granite. The first move on pitch one is a doozy, getting over an awkward bulge with a wide crack. I felt like I was barely able to do it as the follower (with a little help from the tree at the base!) and then though the jamming afterwards was straightforward I felt unsure of my feet on the slick granite.
Pitch two was supposed to be my lead but it began with 15 to 20 feet of face climbing with no gear. The climbing looked easy but I didn't feel confident that my feet would stick. I felt really shaky on the granite and it was infecting everything. Plus a fast party was right on our heels, watching us. I imagined myself falling off the initial moves right onto the belay, and I decided to give up the lead to Adrian. I felt pretty dumb about it afterwards. I had no trouble with the pitch, though I was still a bit insecure on the 5.7 layback moves after the easy run-out face climbing.
(Photo: Adrian at the crux roof on pitch three of Commitment (5.9).)
Adrian led the crux roof escape on pitch three, getting through it quickly. Again I followed it cleanly. The crux moves definitely are committing, and rather Gunks-like, with good hands and smeary feet until a blind reach around the roof locates a great handhold. Again I was more concerned with the polished laybacking that came afterwards, though it worked out fine.
I liked Commitment but I was surprised at my reaction to it. There was little jamming but I felt pretty comfy on what little there was. It was the polished laybacking that I was unnerved by. It was a preview of things to come later.
We walked back around to the bottom, hoping to do Munginella (5.6), a climb with lots of easier pitches for me to lead. But Munginella had two parties stacked up waiting, so we moved over to The Surprise (5.10). This climb had three pitches I was pretty sure I could lead.
I worried my way through the initial 5.8 pitch, slowly negotiating the blocky, dirty corner. Then Adrian led a traverse pitch which was easy (5.5) but which had almost no gear at all. There was a bolt about halfway across, but it was an old quarter-incher, rusty, bent, and only partially driven, with a very rusty hanger to boot! It was the worst bolt I have ever seen.
(Photo: Adrian following the 5.8 third pitch of The Surprise.)
But with the third pitch came the prize, 100 feet of 5.8 splitter hand crack. I was feeling a little more confident after my first lead and I got through this just fine. Then I followed Adrian cleanly up the next pitch, another really good one which had two 5.10 bits, first a finger crack section and then a thin traverse (again, very Gunksy, with good hands and no feet). It was a great lead by Adrian, and I was very pleased to follow it well. Finally I led another short 5.7 pitch to the top.
I liked The Surprise, but I could have done without the first two pitches. I wouldn't call it a classic but the later pitches are great.
By this point we'd done eight pitches and we were both feeling hot and tired. I felt like I'd made some real progress. But we had a few hours of daylight left so I suggested we go down to a little cliff near the road called Swan Slab where we could squeeze in another pitch or two. Adrian pushed me to lead a 5.9 finger crack there called Grant's Crack, but I balked and made him lead it. He did it in about ten seconds, but told me it was very polished and slick. (This is a popular toprope area.) When it was my turn I fumbled a bit at the top of the crack and fell a couple of times. Not a great way to build confidence at the end of the first day. Still I hoped to start day two refreshed and with a healthy mojo.
On our second climbing day we went to Middle Cathedral Rock to hop on Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9), a classic five-pitch crack climb.
(Photo: Middle Cathedral Rock, with Higher Cathedral Rock peeking over its shoulder.)
When we got to Middle Cathedral we were pleased to find our climb wide open. Adrian headed up the 5.9 first pitch and didn't find the climbing quite as carefree as he had the day before. He struggled a bit in the wide vertical crack ascended by this pitch. In the early going you can choose to go deep into the crack or stay outside, using flakes and edges. Adrian mostly stayed inside where he found secure jams but I think it may be harder to move up in there. After he got through the lower bits he sent the upper crux, a flaring slot, cleanly. By contrast, I stayed outside down low and had no trouble, but at the flaring slot up top I slipped out. Then got over it once I found some footholds outside the slot that I'd missed.
(Photo: Adrian on the intimidating pitch one of Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9).)
Adrian later described this pitch as typical of Yosemite climbs. There's often some wide crack or awkward chimney at the bottom of great routes, acting as a gateway to the sinker jams above.
When I joined Adrian atop pitch one I had to confront the moment of truth. I had to lead pitch two, a 5.9 pitch of crack climbing. We'd taken a lot of time on pitch one. Adrian clearly wasn't feeling like carrying the whole team today. If I couldn't do my share we'd most likely end up bailing. I could see the way ahead, up the obvious vertical crack system. I took a big gulp and led onward.
The first 5.8 part was fine and soon enough I could tell I was beneath the crux 5.9 finger crack. I placed a great nut at my chin level and tried to shake out at my tiny stance. I felt so tense, I couldn't say why. I kept trying to contrive a real rest so I could just get my head together, and eventually I started to pump out as I stood there paralyzed, shaking out one hand, and then the other, back and forth, looking at the thin crack.
Eventually I called out "take" and rested on my bomber nut.
As I rested I tried not to let myself be defeated. I tried to summon the mindset of the great Yosemite climber Mark Hudon, who in times of stress will remind himself that "I am Mark Hudon and I am a badass. Suck it up!"
I certainly didn't call myself a badass, but I did try to remind myself of what I know I can do. "I lead nines and tens at the Gunks!" I told myself. "I have led 5.10 finger cracks at Squamish. I know I can do this! Just get on with it!"
I even threw in a little bit of Wide Boyz wisdom for good measure. "Focus on performance, not the goal!"
Then I did it. I climbed right through the 5.9 bit, several thin moves in succession, placing a bomber Alien right before getting to a good stance. The rest of the way was 5.8 hands and fingers with frequent rest stances. I shook out at every stance and told myself to breathe and enjoy it. This was a great pitch.
(Photo: Adrian following pitch two of Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9). You can just make out the pile of snow that was still there at the base when we did the climb.)
The rest of the way was all smiles for me. Adrian led the next pitch, which had a (supposedly) 5.7 roof and then some 5.8 off-width climbing.
(Photo: Approaching the 5.7+++ roof on pitch three of Central Pillar of Frenzy. Sorry about the butt shot.)
The roof was interesting, with jugs and then a diagonal jam crack through the roof. Being a Gunks guy I was hoping to gloat over any roof I found but I really thought this was much harder than 5.7. I found the jamming secure but awkward. The next, off-width portion of the pitch was more often fist-sized for me. Whenever the crack was larger than my fist I was able to move up using the sides of the crack. I enjoyed climbing it as the second with no worries, but if I'd led it I'm sure I would have been leap-frogging our biggest gear like crazy and freaking out.
I led pitch four, a glorious dream of 5.8 double vertical hand cracks. I loved this pitch. It was my favorite of the trip. Jamming and stemming all the way, great great fun.
(Photo: That's me leading pitch four of Central Pillar of Frenzy.)
Adrian led the final pitch, heading up a really fun 5.6 chimney, to another rooflet and a couple of 5.9 moves before straightforward jams finished the pitch. I followed cleanly but man, I was tired by the end of pitch five. These sustained jamming pitches took a lot more out of me than the usual Gunks pitch. I was used to brief moments of difficulty followed by stretches of easier climbing, not 100+ feet of similarly difficult movement all in a row.
(Photo: Adrian on pitch four of Central Pillar of Frenzy.)
I really loved Central Pillar of Frenzy. It had all that I'd ever hoped to see in a Yosemite climb. Great jamming and variety from fingers to hands to fists to off-widths and chimneys. And a beautiful location with views of El Cap across the road and nice vistas up the Valley. Once we got it done I felt like I'd started to really find my way in Yosemite. Or so I thought.
The next morning we found out the weather forecast had changed. We were looking at rain that evening and maybe into the next day. We decided to head over to the Manure Pile Buttress to do the Nutcracker, a classic 5-pitch 5.8. I was to take most of the harder pitches this time, including the infamous mantel move at the start of pitch five. And once we were done we figured we could see how the skies looked and decide then whether to do something else. Surely if the weather was cooperative we could climb more than five pitches of 5.8?
(Photo: Here I'm leading pitch one of the Nutcracker. The unprotectable wide section is just above the tree and the steeper 5.8 layback is at the top of the photo.)
Things seemed fine as I started to lead pitch one. But I quickly discovered that I wasn't at my best. I realized as soon as I started climbing that I felt utterly exhausted. At the time I figured three days of hiking, two days of climbing, and a healthy dose of beer the night before must have taken their toll on me.
The pitch features a wide 5.7 layback that can't be protected for about 15 feet. I hemmed and hawed but eventually got through this. I wasn't about to backslide so much that I'd abandon another 5.7 lead. But then I got up into a steeper part of the pitch, with 5.8 laybacks up a polished corner (with great pro), and I continued to have trouble. I was making the moves but with every step I felt more tired. And with the exhaustion came nerves.
I stopped and took a hang on a good cam. Then I took an immediate lead fall (my only one in Yosemite) right next to the cam when I tried to stand up back into the layback. Angry and cursing, I tried again and stepped up to a good horn at the top of the corner. The pitch was basically over. All I had to do was to flop onto the shelf above the corner, but just then my foot slid off and I almost went for a pretty good ride. I managed to hold on, though, and collapsed onto the shelf, panting and sweating.
It was going to be one of those days.
Adrian walked right up the easy 5.4 pitch two. Very soon it was my turn to lead again, and the guidebook described pitch three as only 5.7 but featuring "sustained and polished" 5.7 laybacks! Not again. I wanted to die. I still wasn't comfortable on these polished laybacks.
(Photo: Heading up pitch three of the Nutcracker. You can see the polished crux above me.)
I got through it eventually, but it wasn't pretty. I wasn't enjoying this great climb. When Adrian joined me at the belay I told him I thought we should consider bailing because I just didn't have it today. But ever supportive, Adrian told me he thought I'd regret it if I didn't at least try the famous mantel on pitch five. And he was right. It is a Yosemite rite of passage. I had to try it. So we carried on.
(Photo: Adrian on pitch three of the Nutcracker.)
I was glad Adrian led pitch four, which has a tricky 5.8 roof and then some sketchy 5.8 slab past a piton.
Very quickly it was my turn to lead again. It was mantel time. Just one hard move up a mysterious steep corner and it would be 5.6 cruiser climbing to the top.
(Photo: Getting up to the infamous mantel move on the Nutcracker.)
I wasn't sure what I had to do, I just knew it involved a mantel. Seemed like you had to commit to the steep corner and then reach up high without being able to see what was up there. I placed the best gear I could, a nut and a small cam, in cracks at the back of the corner. I wished I could get something higher. If I blew it up top these pieces would not prevent me from hitting the slab.
I really wanted this over with. I stepped up and grabbed a good side pull with the left hand, then reached high with the right.....
And found jugs. Lots of jugs. A quick high step and a push (mantel!) and it was over.
(Photo: Success! Whew.)
For once something felt easy. I was glad to salvage something positive from the Nutcracker.
I think the Nutcracker is another great climb, with a lot of variety on it. But its popularity has resulted in an unpleasant amount of polish. It is really quite slick in places.
When we got to the top there was no question of doing more climbing. I was so wiped out. I felt like I'd been hit by a truck.
(Photo: Adrian topping out on the Nutcracker.)
I wasn't sure what I could do the next day, our last. We only had until early afternoon. We both had to get back to San Francisco for flights.
When we awoke it seemed like the rain we'd been promised had largely passed us by. The boulders in Curry Village were dry. It was still cloudy but I expected it to clear in an hour or two, if the previous night's forecast was still valid. Seemed like we might be able to do at least a little cragging before we left.
But then after we ate breakfast it started raining steadily. It didn't stop for two hours. Eventually we decided we were done. It was over.
It cleared up as we left Yosemite Valley.
(Photo: Sentinel Rock emerging from the fog.)
(Photo: A bear sighting on our way out.)
I really loved Yosemite and I think I got a good introduction to what it has to offer the hiker and the climber. Of course there is so much more to experience there. I'm sure we'll find a way to go back, especially since my wife enjoyed it as much as I did.
About the climbing, well, Yosemite is an intimidating place! I did some good climbing and a little whimpering and hanging. I think I need to log some serious time in New Hampshire working on granite slabs and then I can come back and conquer the Valley!
In retrospect, I think my sixth-day exhaustion was partially the result of a virus coming on. As soon as I got back to NYC I got sick. I've been fighting the bug ever since. The weekend has been beautiful here in the city and I've spent the whole time indoors, propped up on Dayquil, blowing my nose and coughing.
But I'm not complaining. I'll cherish the week I spent in Yosemite. I had a wonderful time and I'd love to go again.