"...You get up to 3 upward-driven pins that are equalised as an anchor, and that was the pendulum point for aid climbers to swing over. [...] When we did it, there were 3 upward-driven pins. When I went back [...] 5-days before doing the Triple [...], one of the pins had fallen out and there were now 2 pins, upward-driven. And there was still an anchor and the other pin was just dangling there below, and I was like "well that's sketchy". And then when I solo'd it in the Triple, there was only 1 pin left and there were 2 dangling!"
Stephen approaching the "bomber" Pitch 13 pendulum anchor
on the South Face route of Mount Watkins.
- Alex Honnold discussing Pitch 13 on the South Face of Mount Watkins
|Notoriety for falling off stuff... Now that's|
the type of fame *I* can aspire to!
Two Australians, One a Priest, the other a Philosopher, drive into Yosemite Valley sounds like the opening line to a joke, and perhaps the punchline was on the Catholic Church for letting a heathen like me ride Stephen's coat-tails (Priestly Robes?) and stay in the Rectory in Yosemite Valley for 5 weeks for free... or maybe the joke's on me, for being indebted to Stephen's connections to the Catholic Church in the Valley (and a particularly awesome parishioner called Dave who resides within the Valley) for making this leg of my trip to 'Murica incredibly cheap and quite cushy considering my dirtbag status... But regardless, two Australians, one a Priest, the other a Philosopher, drove into Yosemite Valley, and both returned to Australia without having murdered each other and having had a radical time, so regardless of who was the butt of that particular joke, I'm certainly not in a position to complain.
|Running it out on Pitch 3 of Nutcracker.|
On the 2nd day we hit up the classic 5-pitch 5.8 crack "Nutcracker", which lived up to its 5-star classic static, but also confirmed my fears regarding the hyper-polished footers, as I certainly felt like I was working a lot harder than I ordinarily would for a mere grade 16 trad route! We finished the day doing some other single-pitch climbs at the Manure Pile Buttress (including two R-rated routes, to get our collective heads into gear for the more psychologically intimidating climbing to come in the following weeks), but finished the day early in preparation of the following days adventure.
|Mimicking Timmy O'Neill on the bold Pitch|
4 of the East Buttress.
The climb began with a funky chimney leading to a technical stemming corner, and was followed by the crux Pitch featuring an unprotected friction-slab traverse into a really cool shallow groove-feature which I stemmed up, and linked into the next pitch. Pitch 4 starts with a bold rising traverse to gain an exposed arete (the cover of the Yosemite Free Climbs guidebook features Timmy O'Neill soloing this pitch), and was (in my opinion) where the climbing went from being "standard trad-multi" to something really special. To my left was an awesome view of the entire East Face of El Capitan, to the right was Glacier Apron and Half Dome, and here I was riding this exposed, easy-ish, and fairly runout arete. This was my "I'm in bloody Yosemite Valley!" moment.
|Stephen turning the "5.9" roof onto the super-polished|
slab to finish Pitch 7.
Next up I linked Pitches 8 and 9 into a 55m pitch, which commenced with some intimidating moves up a prow and a rising traverse beneath an arching rooflet, before leading terrifyingly to a steep, polished offwidth which I didn't have any gear capable of protecting. After sketching my way up the offwidth, I ran-out the pitch 9 section placing only about 2 bits of gear in 25m of predominantly face climbing (mostly because I had no gear left to place).
After the relatively short 10th pitch, I led the stunning 11th, which is described in the guide as the "psychological crux of the route". Leaving the belay, I had to traverse right, climbing and downclimbing several undercut flakes/blocks, placing minimal gear to avoid epic rope drag. I then headed up an incipient vertical crack system with some Blueys-esque thin face moves thrown in for laughs. This was probably my favourite pitch of the route, as it was airy and isolated (you're out of sight of your belayer after the first few metres of climbing), with crucial gear-management to avoid rope drag, somewhat tricky gear placements, and a wide variety of moves to keep it engaging.
|The upper slabs on the East Ledges Descent Route.|
Stephen ran up the 12th Pitch, I waltzed up the doddly 13th Pitch, and the two of us made our way down the East Ledges descent, which proved to be easier to navigate than we'd expected, and thankfully had fixed ropes on all 7 abseils. Despite these boons, it also featured some incredibly sketchy 4th-class slab downclimbing, which would be quite deadly to attempt after rain.
|The "Wild Dykes".|
We arrived back at the car right on dark, and cruised back to base for some well-deserved beers.
We had a late start on the 4th day, and headed out in the scorching afternoon sun to tackle the famous Serenity Crack (3-pitch, 5.10d) and Sons of Yesterday (4-pitch 5.10a) directly above the historical Awahnee Hotel.
|The bizarre pin-scar pods, as seen from the start of Pitch 1|
of Serenity Crack. The 1st bit of gear is at the overlap
feature in the top 1/4 of the picture.
The second pitch wasn't as sustained at 5.10a, but probably had harder moves in the form of the two cruxes. Stephen onsighted this pitch in fine style, leading up a tricky rattly fingerlocking section through a bulge, then performing a balancy (and intimidating) traverse right to leave the rapidly fusing initial crack and join another thin crack. The new crack began with some seriously insecure moves up the initial seam, and continued up sustained bomber fingerlocks to the anchor. Stephen thought he'd make this pitch a bit scarier by opting to lob his entire rack of wires at some climbers on the ground below, leaving him with very little gear to adequately protect the 2nd crux and above. Talk about hardcore.
|Team selfie from the base of Serenity Crack.|
After Stephen joined me at the end of the first pitch of Sons of Yesterday, in a moment of softness, we decided that we were sick of the intense sun and the crowds of climbers bumbling around on the pitches above us, and chose to rap back down to the ground and call it a day. Regarding the climb itself, I'd say that the top two pitches of Serenity Crack are absolute classic, and I don't doubt that the rest of Sons of Yesterday deserves its reputation... But the first Pitch of Serenity Crack, though involving some outrageously cool climbing, is pretty sketchy and painfully unpleasant, making it a hard sell to justify going back up again for the tick.
The following day was mostly just a rest day, involving a trip into Oakhurst to buy food, and a brief aid-climbing refresher session at Church Bowl crag before tackling the real objective of this first leg of our Yosemite Trip:
The South Face of Mount Watkins (910m - 19 pitches - 5.10b C2+)
Though we didn't know it at the time, the South Face route on Mount Watkins (climbable at a minimum of 5.9 C2+, though based on what we onsighted I claim 5.10b C2+ for our ascent) has a reputation as being harder than the The Nose on El Capitan, or the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome, and as with these other routes, it's the 3rd "major face" of Yosemite Valley (which forms The Triple Enchainment as solo'd by Alex Honnold last year). It's only a few hundred metres shorter than The Nose on El Cap, is longer than The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, has more difficult access and descent from the summit than either, and due to it's unpopularity is quite loose, vegetated, and with lots of the original manky bolts.
|The 1st of 9 fixed ropes and 300m|
of Jumaaring to get to the start of
|Stephen at our gear stash near Tenaya Creek.|
X marks the spot.
On our 7th Day in Yosemite Valley, Monday 21st September 2015, Stephen and I set out to tackle our first big wall. We hiked all the way back to Mount Watkins, jumaared the fixed ropes and brought the entirety of our gear stash to the base of the actual climb. In the early afternoon (and in the worst heat of the day) we commenced climbing the bottom pitches with the goal of fixing ropes on the first 3 vertical pitches and sleeping the night on the comfortable ledge below the climb.
|Stephen on the last of the |
|Stephen high on the 90m Pitch 2 to the top of|
|Stephen on the 2nd (easier) pendulum. Vertical wall-running|
is apparently his specialty.
The 3rd pitch at 5.10a wasn't too hard, but immediately was quite scary as I climbed up vegetated, loose blocks on vertical terrain and with bad gear. The real saving grace for the pitch was a short but intense finger-crack through a rooflet and onto a smooth blank face, but unfortunately was followed by more loose rock and unprotected gardening. Arriving at the belay we fixed 3 ropes to the ground, and retreated to our campsite right on dark.
Having been slaughtered by the heat in the brief amount of time on the wall, I decided to go all the way back down the fixed ropes to refill some extra water bottles at Tenaya creek to bring our total to 16 litres between the two of us over the 2 following days. This of course necessitated yet another trip up the fixed ropes, but by the time I arrived back at our camp on the ledge, I was so tired I slept like a baby.
|Stephen, dead as a doornail, at our camp below Pitch 1.|
|The men below their mountain. Full of optimism.|
|Attempting to free the brilliant 5.10c Pitch 5,|
and failing due to a frustrating foot slip.
We commenced jumaaring up our fixed ropes early the next day, and Stephen led the 4th pitch (a mixed aid/free pitch through a roof and up a wide crack) at first light. I tried to free the next seam/corner/wide crack pitch (at 5.10c) but had a silly footslip on the lower crux which robbed me of the Onsight. Next up was a super-runout pitch of face climbing with some very creative (and basically rubbish) gear, followed by 2-pitches of ledgy corner-crack climbing which I linked together (with hideous rope drag, despite placing almost no protection for the specific purpose of minimising rope drag) to arrive at the "Sheraton Watkins", a big ledge which is supposed to be a good bivvy spot, but looked utterly terrible.
|Stephen high on the notorious C2+ aid pitch, right as the |
sun vanished behind the west-towers of Mount Watkins.
|Looking back at Stephen at the end of Pitch 10.|
|My bivvy on the ledge below Pitch 12. Exposed!|
After this sublime effort, I took the last 2 pitches to our planned bivy spot. The first of these was a 45m low-grade rising traverse left (which I left almost unprotected in the interest of speed, much to Stephen's chagrin), and the 2nd of which was a bold 5.9+ with almost no gear and some weirdly bouldery moves off the belay on bad rock. At about 8pm, we arrived at our belay at the end of Pitch 11. We established an interesting camp whereby we'd both be sleeping on small ledges about 1m wide next to 600m+ of clean air, prepared our poorly thought-out meals (being in charge of catering on this climb, I had the totally ingenious idea that dry 2-minute noodles and nutella wraps would be the perfect meal to cap off a dehydrating long day of trying to contract sun-stroke), and hit the hay to the sound of bats flying around us in the dark.
|Stephen on his side of our overnight perch.|
This sure beats the Hilton.
Starting at 6am the next morning, I led pitch 12 via a predominantly free variant start at about 5.9 C1, which deposited Stephen at the base of the huge, steep, leftward arching corner with the infamous pendulum on the lone remaining upward-driven peg that Alex Honnold spoke about in his interview (quoted at the top of this entry). Climbing mostly on aid, Stephen worked his way up the corner, balked at the utterly rubbish remains of the pendulum anchor (he eventually managed to clip a single bolt several metres above the normal anchor, which is used for the all-free variation of this pitch at 5.12d, and pendulum off that instead). The joys of any pendulum whereby the pitch doesn't end after the pendulum, is that inevitably you have a prolonged section of climbing where your only piece of pro is the last thing you clipped to perform the pendulum, inviting all sorts of possibilities for an out-of-control reverse pendulum of epic proportions. Regardless, Stephen finished the pitch, and now it was my turn to contribute the epic pitch (some might say "epic screw-up") of the day.
Due to contradicting information between different guides to this route, I was operating under the assumption that it was possible to link pitches 14 and 15 together in a single rope length, and in the interests of making up time (and because I love climbing giant pitches), that's exactly what I tried to do. I climbed the 5.10 pitch 14 section all-free (featuring some pretty scary fall potential due to big runouts), continued past the belay up a wide section and arrived at the C2+ section on pitch 15. The aid section started up a bolt ladder with some of the worst in-situ gear I've ever seen, commencing with a copperhead off a ledge with only 2-strands of the original wire loom holding it together, and those strands rusted into oblivion. For me, rope drag at this point was becoming disastrous, and I didn't have many draws or carabiners left, so I was forced to back-clean each of these rubbish bolts as I went, forcing me to trust a single rusted manky bolt at each point to stop me taking a disastrous fall onto the ledge. At the end of the bolt ladder was a tenuous traverse left along a tiny, crumbling horizontal flake on bad camhooks and skyhooks (made worse by the rope-drag screwing with my efforts to balance on my etriers), which then led to a section of steep climbing around a bulge on half-placed wires. At precisely the point where I was about to move past the bulge and onto the final section of 5.7 friction slab to the anchor, I realised that the almost insurmountable rope drag had now simply become an unmoving rope: I'd used up all 60m of my rope. The initial moves at the start of pitch 14 were too tricky to risk Stephen simul-climbing to get me an extra 10m or so of slack (considering how bad my last few pieces of pro had been), and I was in a terrible place for an improvised belay.
|Stephen approaching the infamous 1-peg pendulum anchor.|
|Stephen hating life on the crux C2/5.9 moves at the end of|
a steep, off-width pitch.
One way or another, we would get to the top now.
|Using the emergency "cheat stick" as a selfie-pole at the|
start of the 5.10c Pitch 18.
The last pitch on Mount Watkins, Pitch 19, 5.9 A0, would be done entirely in the dark, and by this point I'd given up all pretense of real free-climbing. I aided my way up most of the initial 5.9 steep layback section and up the bolt ladder through a crazy exposed roof-feature
|Another perspective of the start of the 5.10c steep crack pitch.|
|Stephen, jumaaring the fixed line to turn the roof and gain the final crack to the summit.|
After Stephen reached the anchors and we shuttled our gear away from the ledge, we still had the monstrous descent in front of us, and it was already 9pm. Making a tactical decision to stash our climbing gear (and only take anything that the local bears might be interested in consuming with us), we continued up the torturous slabs to the true summit of Mount Watkins, and then walked along the ridgeline and into the dense bush. Though we had some vague directions for where to head from the guide, there was literally no trail (though we did find a few random cairns), and the topographic map we had was difficult to follow accurately as we couldn't see the usual landmarks in the dark, relying instead on dead-reckoning via compass bearings to navigate trough the Wall of Tree in the general direction of the trail.
|Our gear stash at the summit of Mount Watkins. |
"The bears won't find our climbing gear here!"
We allowed a rest day, then traveled up to Olmstead Point to access the summit of Mount Watkins via the easier approach on the Snow Creek trail (something we couldn't do during our descent, as it would have required a 2nd car to be left up there before we began the climb). The round trip to recover our gear and return to Olmstead Point took about 4 hours, but at the end of this epic both of us were -if I'm honest- feeling rather broken, and quite disillusioned about the idea of doing any more big walls while in the Valley.
|The view from Olmstead Point, with Half Dome to the centre right, and the high Point of Mount Watkins to the far centre left. Not too shabby a view to bookend this stage of our Yosemite Valley trip.|
Yet despite all these dire thoughts, the fact was that we'd only been in Yosemite for just under 2-weeks by this point in time, with at least 3 more weeks to go, and plenty of time to try and perfect Valley trad-climbing in the more challenging grades. Furthermore, we had the time to rest, revitalise and decide whether or not we had the inner strength and tenacity to try and tackle another Big Wall within the next 2 weeks.
And on that note:
Tune in next time for the continuation of this Trip Report on: 'Murica Part 2: The Crowded Superhighway to The Nose on El Capitan (Yosemite Valley).