Monday, 7 December 2015

'Murica Part 3: The Final Valley Assessment, Bishop Bouldering and Other Epics

Previously, on The Climbing Obscurist: 'Murica Part 2: The Crowded Superhighway to The Nose on El Capitan 
[...]So, how do you bookend a tale of success on the most famous Big Wall route in the world[...]? With 2 major Big Walls in Yosemite Valley knocked-over, a swath of classic free climbs completed in fine style, and just under a week remaining before we needed to head out, how do you finalise this chapter of your climbing career?

Do you postulate some great epiphany, wax philosophical and speak about how you've achieved a new spiritual breakthrough as a result of these adventures? Hell no, as climbers, you go and do more climbing. And with this nice little resume of Valley climbs to our collective names, Stephen and I needed to tackle something hard. A real Valley free-climbing test piece...
And on that note: 
The Climbing Obscurist concludes with: 'Murica Part 3: The Final Valley Assessment, Bishop Bouldering and Other Epics...

The Nose was done and dusted, and -if I'm honest-, if I'd been forced to leave Yosemite at this point in time never to return, I'd have been happy to do so. Not because there wasn't a million other magnificent routes to tackle, but because all of the objectives had been met, the success had been satisfying, and anything beyond this point would only be icing on the cake.

Inevitably, though, as a climber you don't walk away, you dream of something more challenging and intimidating, something just that little bit bigger than you are, something like this:

Any questions?
In case you don't recognise this monolith (in which case, I suggest it's time to pursue badminton as an alternative sport), it's The Rostrum, the entry level hard-trad multipitch test piece, going free at 5.11c with not a bolt in sight. It was the first recognisable monolith that I saw as I drove into The Valley, shrouded in a veil of mist and rain on that auspicious first day, and it had been looming large over my shoulder for the past 4 weeks. It was something to aspire to, and now I was out of excuses not to step up to the plate.

After some vital time to rest and revitalise, Stephen and I did a day of climbing at The Cookie Cliff to get our collective free-climbing head back in gear and massage our egos after the intensity of free-climbing on The Nose (and I was pretty stoked to onsight an extremely technical bolted 5.11b slab/face climb). But with only a week remaining, it was time to tackle The Regular North Face Route of the Rostrum (8-Pitches, 240m, 5.11c).

The Final Valley Assessment

On the morning of Monday 12th October, Stephen and I drove to the carpark atop The Rostrum and began our descent. For the most part it's a somewhat loose walk down a steep gully, with 2 abseils right at the end to bring you to the base of the climb, but upon arriving it turned out that -even at 7am- we weren't the first ones on the route: a team of two Poms were just starting up the first pitch, and not long after two Czech climbers arrived, chasing our heels. After patiently waiting our turn to tackle the first pitch (a bloody hard 5.9 steep layback and chimney), Stephen started up the climb.

Stepping off from a small pyramid of rock, it begins with some insecure laybacking up a wide-ish flake. Encountering no gear smaller than a #4 Camelot (which he wanted to save for the chimney), and seeing good gear (and an antique piton) another move above, Stephen opted to continue stemming and laybacking up the crack to the superior placement. With his feet 3 or 4 metres above the ground, his left foot slipped off the polished granite, and catapulted him awkwardly off the climb, falling back first towards the pyramid of rock. I'd been spotting him since he left the ground, and as he fell towards me I managed to turn him so that he didn't land spine-first on the rock, instead depositing him face-first in the dirt and pine needles, managing to land atop him for my efforts.

At first, considering the "soft splat" sound of the landing, rather than a solid thump (or the even more terrifying: crunch), I thought that Stephen was likely just winded (as he was groaning audibly from the impact), but as he rolled over it became clear that we wouldn't be doing The Rostrum today, because wrists aren't meant to bend at stepped-right-angles to the forearm they're attached to. The Czech climbers rushed over to help, with one of them giving Stephen the once-over to check for other injuries (we were concerned for his collarbone) while I attempted to evaluate my partners' state through communication, and the other Czech climber helped to prop him up. When the full scale of the injury became clear, a sling was improvised with the use of my thermal shirt and a spare carabiner. With Stephen still refusing a "rescue" on the grounds that he was "walking wounded" (though, nauseated, unbalanced and clammy-white), and because neither of us wanted this accident to become "another climbing statistic", the two Czech climbers and myself assisted Stephen down the steep, wall-of-tree vegetated descent below The Rostrum, and across the Merced river to the nearest road. One of the Pommy climbers- half-way up Pitch 2 by this point-, called an ambulance for us, and it arrived at precisely the same time that we did.

"Um, dude... I'm pretty sure wrists aren't meant to look like that."
Stephen was in remarkably good spirits, all things considered (when asked by the ambulance officer: "how're you doing?" he responded with "well, I've been better"), and was soon being shuttled off to hospital in Mariposa (as it was Columbus Day, all of the local hospitals were closed). The Czech climbers did what Eastern Europeans do, and promptly went back across the river and up the hill to resume their attempt on The Rostrum, while I managed to hitch a lift with a local Ranger (flanked in the passenger seat by an M-4 Carbine, a Police Shotgun, a Beretta handgun, a Taser and a Can of Pepper Spray) 11-miles back up the hill to where our car was parked.

Cue Terminator Soundtrack.
I met Stephen in hospital in Mariposa, where they decided that his injury was too severe to treat locally, and promptly shipped him off to Merced, another 2 hours drive away. In Merced, they decided that his injury was too severe to treat at all (beyond a re-alignment of the shattered bones under general anesthetic) without surgery, and released him from the hospital with strict instructions to have surgery when he got back to Australia. A very-drugged up (yet surprisingly pragmatic) Stephen and I arrived back at the rectory in Yosemite Valley at 01:30am.

After returning to Australia a week later, it took 9 screws and 2 plates to put Stephen's shattered wrist back together. Even now, just under 2 months later, he still isn't able to climb, and is only just starting to be able to use it again for simple tasks.

"Is there anybody out there?"
After sleeping in, and with my immediate climbing future in America in doubt, I went up to Tuolomne Meadows and free solo'd Tenaya Peak (14-pitches, 450m, 5.5 with 5.8 var), a generally easy slab-ramble with a few moves of 5.5, and a variant finish up a steep handcrack (at the end of 450m climbing) at 5.8 to make things interesting. It was also entertaining to remove 2 pieces of "stuck" pro as I climbed, and then return them to their owners as I climbed past them a few pitches higher up. The free solo helped me to consolidate my conviction to return to The Rostrum before I left The Valley, and later that afternoon I left a message on the Camp 4 messageboard looking for partners for The Rostrum or Astroman (and back home, Neil Monteith went on a crusade of his own to find me a partner).

As it turned out, though, it was the ever benevolent Dave of the Catholic Church in The Valley who managed to find me a partner among his colleagues at the Awahnee Hotel, and so it was that the next day I teamed up with Mike (who advised me he'd ticked most of the Valley Classics in the 5.10a-d range to this point, but was happy to follow me up The Rostrum, provided that I lead all the pitches) and headed out to the Five Open Books for some moderate-grade classic multipitches. Managing to get completely lost on one climb (ending up on a 30m R-rated line on hideously fragile rock), we finished up the day with some steep crack climbing on a boulder near Pat and Jack Pinnacle, and locked in The Return to The Rostrum for the next day.

The Final Valley Assessment - Take 2

A word of forewarning: I chose not to bring a camera on this climb in order to minimise weight and increase my chances of success. All of the photos I've posted below are taken from other online sources, with the original uploader credited in the appropriate photo caption.

Looking up at Pitch 1, and all the way to the
Alien Roof at the top of The Rostrum.

Photo by: Darren in Vegas
After Mike arrived 30min late, we made the descent (again) and I started up the first pitch. I won't pretend that I wasn't a bit apprehensive about pulling the moves that had flawed by buddy (and I'll also admit that I did place the #4 Camelot to protect those moves, something that I honestly wouldn't have done, had I not seen Stephen hit the deck - I'd have run it out like Stephen did), but I pushed on as the steep layback crack that starts the pitch became quite desperate for the grade. Just before the layback crack ends you're supposed to traverse left along a narrow vegetated ledge, and continue up a blocky low-angle crack, but with the "onsight blinders" on I didn't realise this and continued up the rapidly fusing crack, culminating in a V3 boulder problem move at its end to get back on route. Some easier climbing followed, leading to an intimidating V-groove chimney on slick rock, with your gear miles below you and a desperate mantle move to escape back onto the face. All of this was made more terrifying, as the weather gods cursed me for my hubris, and decided to unleash the heavens upon us.

Pitch 2 starts with an 5.11a boulder-problem up a slab to get past an overlap in a seam-crack, which then becomes a finger crack (and much easier). With the rain still falling I couldn't even come close to doing the moves in the seam crack, and the variant (a steep and almost unprotectable wide-layback) didn't look much better in the conditions. In a moment of inspiration, I channeled my inner Steve Monks and managed to invent my own extreme-stemming variation, using the minuscule offset of the seam crack and a vague groove feature to the right to insecurely stem my way through the crux, and up the sustained crack that followed. Despite having made it through the crux, the rest of this pitch was no giveaway.

Photo by: Krister -
Arriving at the belay at the end of Pitch 2 and quickly assessing it as rubbish (it was a small stance on a slab, getting hammered by the rain, with the sole protection of a colourful series of of fixed slings looped around a granite spike like tinsel on a Christmas tree) I decided to continue upwards, having observed what looked like a good interim belay beneath a rooflet. Here, if I'm honest, I used some dubious tactics to pre-place a bit of gear on the first crux just above the belay, out of concern for my potential fall back onto the belay with the amount of rope now in the system (and being completely out of sight of my belayer). By placing and pulling on a piece of gear, I managed to get another piece higher up and clipped my lead rope through it, then down-climbed to the belay so I could get the pitch "clean". The initial crux of this pitch was a ring-locks crack at the back of a narrow V-groove, with awkward and insecure laybacking up the outside arete of the groove to propel yourself into the crack proper. Following this I encountered a section of sustained thin hands (think: knuckles only) of a size in which I only had one cam that fitted, being forced to walk it up with me for about 7m. Next came a wide-section which I couldn't protect at all, but I found a reprieve by traversing out of the offwidth after 5m, heading right via some unprotected face moves to my interim belay beneath a roof-capped corner feature, mostly protected from the rain.

Mike followed me, being unable to duplicate my stemming start (and with the initial seam a veritable waterfall, he was forced to pull through on gear), and cursing my name as the pitch continued, as all of my gear was placed in positions that necessitated a stemming stance (also unduplicatable) to remove. After he joined me on the improvised semi-hanging belay (pleased to be out of the rain), I continued up the remaining half of Pitch 3, which commenced with a run-out 5.10b layback around the roof, and was followed immediately by some spectacular sustained steep handcrack climbing to a stance. The last moves of the pitch consisted of technical 5.10a stemming up an open book corner with a fused seam on either side as the only useful features (and the only real protection), which was quiet exciting when trusting entirely in the friction of the wet rock to pull the moves.

A shot of the crux 5.11c section of The Rostrum.

Photo by: lstefurak -
At this point I had reached the half-way ledge on The Rostrum, the first truly cozy ledge from which to belay, and also the first "escape point" on the route, as it's possible to traverse off right, back into the descent gully. Apparently the Gods had decided to take pity on me, as now the rain stopped falling, and by the time I was joined on the belay stance the crux 5.11c fingercrack above had dried out enough to for me to make an attempt on it, rather than bailing from the route.

I launched myself up it, stopping at the start of the crack in an effort to dry my wet shoes, before launching up it with gusto. In reality, the crux is about 5m of slightly overhanging thin fingercrack, with stonker locks, but utterly no footers. Anyone who has climbed a steep fingercrack knows that -assuming you have the fingerlocking technique dialed- the real crux is trying to keep your feet pasted to the wall, as very little rubber is ever in contact with the rock or the crack. If you've ever seen the footage of Alex Honnold free-soloing this pitch, he climbs it with delicacy and poise, rarely placing his feet in the crack, but rather smearing confidently on invisible footers and calmly moving upwards. If you'd have seen me climbing this section, you'd have seen a demonstration of primal brutality, as I had absolutely no trust in my feet, and instead relied almost entirely on my sheer strength to propel myself upwards, road-runnering at one point as my feet gave out from under me while my vice-like fingerlocks stayed in. But regardless of my lack of finesse, I made it clean to the halfway "stance" (the sort of "active rest" on a steep face that a Blueys climber is used to), and then tackled the last 5m of the crux: a section of 5.11b technical stemming, with two seam-cracks that are offset by a centimeter or less. This section is described in the guide as "tricky liebacking", but I sure as hell wasn't going to layback it cleanly (it's definitely not one of my strong points), so once again the family jewels went on display as I tenuously broke out the extreme stemming (thanks Pythagoras Theorem at Eureka Wall in the Grampians for the practice!), and slowly edged my way up to the ledge that ends the crux. Right as the rain resumed falling I mantled out on the ledge and was done and dusted with the crux of the Rostrum.

Another photo of the crux section of Pitch 4.

Photo by: zwang -
Continuing up, the remaining climbing I did that day was surprisingly uneventful, with the noted exception that the rain grew progressively more sideways with the wind backing it. A nice runout section of blocky hand crack led to a harder corner-crack section of thin hands, and culminated in some desperate laybacking to end the next pitch. Arriving at the start of the first of the offwidth pitches, however, we encountered a dilemma of motivation...

I'm not going to deny that what followed was soft, especially considering that so far we'd overcome prolonged rain and dealing with having seen my partner break himself on this climb, but I will attempt to explain our rationale. It was quite wet, I was getting mentally and physically tired from leading every pitch; Mike was struggling just to follow me by now even pulling on gear, resting and taking falls; and -most terrifyingly- the next pitch was a 5.10a offwidth... A 5.10a OFFWIDTH!!! Sure, grade-wise it's not even close to the crux, but the very real fact was that it was likely to be the crux for me, especially considering the rain and all the pitches I'd led back to back so far. So, in short, I rapped back to the halfway ledge, we climbed the 5.6 traverse to escape back to the gully, and we went home.

What is there to say? I felt like I'd passed my final Valley assessment -Onsighting all pitches of The Rostrum up until the Wide Pitches (with the arguable ethical exception of the gear I pre-placed at the start of Pitch 3)-, even if we didn't summit The Rostrum. But in the conditions, would you have kept going? I'm not proud of copping out, but I'm not going to deny that it happened. In some ways, though, I felt vindicated, as the rain turned torrential for about half an hour after we arrived back at the car.

The Bachar-Yerian

The following day I dragged the semi-crippled Stephen back up to Tuolumne to investigate the infamous Bachar-Yerian route (4-pitch 5.11c + X) described in the Tuolumne guide as "The most famous Psychological Test Piece in the U.S". The climb has a somewhat contentious history, with John Bachar establishing it ground-up (placing bolts while hanging off skyhooks placed on fragile granite knobs), and using it as a figurehead through which to make a statement against what he perceived as the overbolted sport-climbing scene that was rapidly gaining popularity. Aside from the "X" making it sound cool, the X-rating is earned by some extremely runout climbing (with 2 bolts on the first 30m pitch, 4 on the second, 4 on the third, and with a ridiculously runout all-gear easier final pitch). But the fact is, that despite its somewhat deathy nature, the line itself is bloody beautiful, consisting of knob-features forming a wandery line up a vibrant black-streak, flanked on either side by sunset-orange rock. I was intrigued at the idea of working it in relative safety, then -if I felt confident enough- giving it a proper lashing for the tick. Let's face it, that would be a pretty epic feather to have in your cap.

Starting up the 5.7 "access pitch", with the
ominous black streak of the Bachar-Yerian
looming above me.
Reaching the base of the climb, we found that there was a fixed rope running the length of the climb (and another on the 5.13c classic "Peace" to the right of it). With this rope in situ, I could use some trickery to get my own rope above the dodgy runouts and work it properly on Rope Solo with my Mini Traxion.

It starts with a 30m 5.7 "access pitch" which helpfully isn't included as a part of the "official route", and was actually quite enjoyable (though sparsely protected) low-angle climbing up a groove-feature. The first real pitch of the route kicks of with 15m completely unprotected 5.9 slabbing up somewhat fragile knobs to reach a bolt at a small overlap and the crux of the route: a V4/V5 boulder problem (yes, on a 5.11c climb) to the next bolt above. It took me quite a few goes to put together the sequence for the crux, and eventually stick it in its entirety, but when I did I continued on in an attempt to link what I could, falling off halfway between the previous bolt and the anchor on grade 23 moves.

You see, the problem with this route when considered as an X-rated route, is that the knobs are fragile (I broke off a few smaller ones which I was using as footholds), and the route finding is difficult because it wanders back and forth over about 5m of horizontal terrain for the entire length of the climb. Despite Bachar's staunch "Ground-Up" mentality, it pretty much requires pre-inspection on repeat attempts even by the boldest of the bold (and hell, despite bolting it ground-up, Bachar had it thoroughly sussed when he went for the true free ascent). Where I fell off on the 1st actual pitch of the route was entirely due to climbing myself into a corner and running out of holds. If I'd fallen off at this point without my rope being above me, I'd have falling 10m (or more) onto the very featured slab below (hitting the knobs would be as devastating as hitting the ground itself), and be starting up a comedy troupe with Stephen entitled The Two Crippled Climbers. When I pulled back on I climbed clean to the end of the pitch and was fairly sure I could do so again consistently (the only move I was likely to fall off was the boulder problem, which was bolt protected anyway), but simply couldn't justify the risk due to the very real possibility of falling off Grade 23 technical steep-face climbing on fragile knobs amidst a Braille-trail of confusing options.

Just past the V4/V5 crux of Pitch 1.
I continued up the 2nd pitch anyway, once again climbing myself into a corner and falling off in the first 5m, a fall which would have been an exciting (though probably safe) whipper, but would have destroyed my belayer as I would have inevitably landed on him. As it turned out, despite only having 4 bolts in 30m, this pitch was reasonably safe (though bold as dicks), but the strategy to climbing it safely is to use a 70m+ rope, and have your belayer stay on the ground to keep him out of the firing line. Starting up the pitch again, I made it to the end without any falls (though I was pumped utterly senseless by sustained Grade 23 climbing for the entire length), resorting to all manner of crimps, sidepulls, underclings, gastons and meat-wraps to make the weirdly-shaped knobs work for me, and wandering all over the place to find the line of least resistance. Frankly, this pitch on its own was utterly stunning, and might well be one of the best "slightly steep face" pitches I've ever pulled on.
Part-way up the immaculate Pitch 2, this time wandering
to the left of the black-streak.

Reaching the belay at the end of Pitch 2, the weather began to turn again, so I rapped back to the ground, stripped my gear off it, and retreated back to the car as the rain turned torrential once again, and the remainder of the day was written off.

Reflecting on this climb is a frustrating experience. For want of ONE bolt (between the 2nd bolt and the belay) on Pitch 1, I cannot justify leading it. If that bolt existed I would have stayed in Yosemite solely for the tick, and would happily throw myself at it despite the risk. That lack of a single bolt is the difference between an R and an X rating, and is also the difference between giving the ground-up onsight "a shot", or sussing it top-down before you go for the tick. Ironically, in his attempt to make an anti-bolt statement, Bachar ultimately compromised another of his ideals, and -though I may be crucified for saying it-, I think that the danger-element of this route has the distinct aura of being artificial for this very reason. On the slate routes in Wales this premise is called "Designer Danger", where the first bolt is placed ludicrously high to introduce an contrived unnecessary danger through the initial splat-factor, though the remainder of the route is usually well-protected.

Spot the stupified Aussie up there... It's a lot bigger than you might think.

Sojourn in Bishop

It was clear by this point that the weather was turning as winter approached, and so I decided to make the Bachar-Yerian day my last day in The Valley. The following day I bade farewell to Stephen and made my way back through Tuolumne Meadows via Tioga Pass, and down into the Mountain Desert environment of Bishop, surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped High Sierras.

Rest day activities... Nothing Suss! Also, the closest
I'd come to a shower in the last 8 days or so.
Isaac (L), me (C) and Gabe (R) in a hot spring outside
of Bishop.
I swear that there was an audible "pop" sound as these guys
exploded out the back of their PeopleMover and into my
campsite in The Pit, Bishop.
James (L), Bulti (C), Pez (R). Rene: MIA.
Famed for its world-class bouldering (seriously, is there anyone here who hasn't heard of The Buttermilks), climbers congregate at a bare-bones $2-a-night campground officially called the "Pleasant Valley Campground", but colloquially known as The Pit. I would ultimately end up spending 3 weeks encamped in my 1-man "coffin tent" (a tent shaped like a coffin, and so small that I can do nothing but lie flat in it) in this dustbowl, surrounded by a mercurial posse of climbers from around the globe and featuring all manner of ability and personalities. Now I'm no boulderer, and I usually find that I can't take the sport seriously or put any real effort to actually getting good at it, but considering the circumstances I figured: what better place than Bishop to develop my bouldering?

Over the course of these 3 weeks, the ever-changing group of unaccompanied climbers that formed our posse kept at its core Isaac from Indiana, Gabriel from Quebec, Rory from Washington, Jeff from Orange County (his accent was heaps of fun to imitate: "duuuude, it's like, you knoooow"), Brendan from Washington, and Peter from Santa Barbara (CA). We were also joined for the first week by Michael Garrahy from Queensland (who knows a lot of my own Queensland climbing buddies), and briefly by my friend James Bultitude and his disorganised rabble (Rene Provis, Matt Perrett and James Peet) who arrived at my campsite, and exploded out the back of their rented PeopleMover along with a mountain of gear.

The climbing over the 3 weeks was focused mainly on the ludicrously high granite boulders of The Buttermilks, often on the coarse volcanic rock of The Happy Boulders (and sometimes The Sad Boulders), and occasionally the stunning endurance-climbing of the routes in Owens River Gorge. As the granite destroyed your fingertips (and your headspace), the volcanic bouldering trashed your palms, and the route-climbing in The Gorge obliterated your muscles, the trick was to alternate between the three destinations in order to climb somewhere almost every day.

This would make a great ad for La Sportiva
shoes, right? La Sportiva, are you reading
My first foray at The Happy
Boulders didn't get off to a
great start..

"The upper section requires great confidence..."
The Southwest Arete of the Grandma Peabody

Michael abandons spotting to take photos... Not
that he could do much anyway at this point.
Meeting up with Michael and Gabe on my first day without a climbing partner, we knocked off some awesome classics. Michael proved that he (unlike me) can actually boulder, and ticked some ludicrously hard stuff, while I threw myself straight into the deep end by launching up a V3 highball which is described in the Bishop Bouldering Guidebook as "The upper section requires great confidence..." A few days later I went for the ground-up Onsight of the very-high-highball Southwest Arete of the Grandma Peabody Boulder (12m 5.9+ or V0- + X), which features relatively tame soloing from a technical perspective, but is the sort of boulder you really can't fall off.

Actually, I really, really couldn't afford to fall off the boulder, as my insurance definitely didn't cover anything even remotely close to this, and the healthcare system in America is -as you probably already know- utterly ridiculous. Fortunately, we had a plan in case the worst should happen, involving Michael (a paramedic), an improvised sled in the form of a bouldering mat, and the notoriously dusty and well-trafficked Buttermilks Rd nearby.

But, aside from being tonnes of fun, highball bouldering (and the associated headgames) and granite friction-slabs weren't something I really needed to work on (in fact... that's about all I'm really good at), so most of my time was spent on the more bouldery boulders. I focused on a list of V4 to V6 classics in styles that are usually my antithesis, and was lucky enough that amongst our Posse of The Pit, others were psyched on the same.

I won't go into prolonged detail (after all, it's bouldering, who really cares, right? hehe), but some of the more significant sends of the trip for me were: Iron-Man Traverse (V4), Serengetti (V5), Rail Problem on Ranger Rock (V5); Unknown V5 on Ranger Rock (V5); Leary/Bard Arete (V5); Fly Boy Arete (V5); The Solarium (V4); Lululator (V4); Whiskey, Beer and Spliff Hits for Breakfast (V4); Bleached Bones - SDS (V4); Ketron Classic (V4); and Beef Tumour Right (V4).

Of the awesome easier stuff (and there were tonnes of classic easy lines), the most memorable were: Sheepherder (V2); The Prow (V2); Birthday Direct (V3); Buttermilks Stem (V1); Robinson's Rubber Tester (V0); The Hunk (V2); East Rib (V3 R); and Green Wall Essential (V2).

And of the super-rad boulders that I didn't manage to tick, only two particularly stand out: Atari (V6 R) and Professional Widow (V4 R).

So, in the interest of letting images speak louder than words (or a bunch of tedious boulder-descriptions) , I'm gonna leave you with a brief photo montage to sum up this stage of the trip. When watching this section, I suggest you play the embedded video below to set the appropriate theme. Also, if you don't care about bouldering, there will be more rad epics below the photo montage.

Me sending Serengeti (V5).
Jeff finally sends Sheepherder (V2). It took both
of us multiple days to send this V2... no, seriously.

Isaac, Peter and Gabe hiding from the rain beneath
"Son of Claudius Rufus (V5). Oh, we also all Sent
the problem as well.

Jeff on Atari (V6 R). One of the proudest
lines at the Happy Boulders, and one of the
boldest. Jeff sent this a few days later.
Me on Fly Boy Arete (V5).
And another one on Fly Boy Arete (V5).

How to know when bouldering really has gone mainstream.

Gabe also working Akira (V6 R).
Brendan on the immaculate:
Whiskey, Beer and Spliff Hits
for Breakfast (V4)


The line of Santana (5.11c). Starting on the thin
wooden plank below the rooflet, any fall until you
turn the roof will leave you swimming in the river.
Fun (and snowy)!

So, the final component of the climbing Mecca that is Bishop is Owens River Gorge. The Gorge climbs like a weird cross between Nowra and Spanish limestone (despite being volcanic like the Happy Boulders), featuring long routes (a short route is 25m in length), and with every hold being some form of sloper that requires power to move off. From a distance it looks like choss (though the Gorge itself is spectacular in its aesthetic beauty), but up close you realise that after 30+ years of people climbing there, the rock/holds that remain are bombproof (and polished to a point of being kind to your skin).

Of the 20-odd routes that I climbed there only 2 were not worth climbing, and some were truly spectacular. Among some utterly mega mainstream routes (Black Hole (5.12b), Darshan/Rip-Off (5.12b), Venom (5.11c), and pretty much everything on the Great Wall of China wall), there were a few obscure routes that required a multipitch mentality to climb, and were sandbagged and unchalked when I jumped on them. There was also plenty of opportunity to link pitches and create megapitches that required multiple abseils to get off. My final climb in Owens River Gorge was Santana (5.11c), and the epic that was this climb is best summed up by my "logged" ascent on

"What an amazing last climb in Owens River Gorge... On the precipice of darkness, with snow blowing around and proper arctic conditions, and I decide to get on the rarely climbed thin arete/face directly over the river (you belay off a small plank of wood bolted to the wall, after traversing on other planks above the waterline to get there) where a fall at the 1st 3 bolts will put you in the river... a desperately cold insecure techy battle up a proud unchalked line, out of sight of my belayer."
I would readily recommend The Gorge to any climbers who happen to visit Bishop during their time in the US.

About 1/4 of the majesty that is Owens River Gorge (and with only the unpopular walls visible).

The line to get into the Reel Rock
screening at the festival. It went
right around the block.
As my sojourn in Bishop drew to a close, I was lucky enough to end this phase of my journey by attending the "Fall Highball Festival", a climbing festival which brought climbers out of the dustbowl like cockroaches for a few evenings of climbing-related fun (of particular note: a presentation by Peter Croft). Though smaller in scale than the more recent Australian Climbing Festival held in the Blue Mountains last year, the fact that this is but one of a dozen festivals in this particular festival chain (and there are countless others as well) demonstrated just how much more mainstream climbing is in America than in Australia.

Any questions?

The Mount Whitney Epic


Ah, yes, the Mount Whitney Epic. I almost didn't want to retell this misadventure, if only because it was so fucking stupid, and because it crossed the fine line between "Strategically Bold Climbing", and "Dangerous climbing", a line I've always prided myself of staying on the more rational side of. In short: this epic, though somewhat macho in retrospect, doesn't paint me in the best light as a safe climber. But I believe that admitting to my mistake is an important factor in recognising and learning from it.

And so, with this foreword, I take you back to a time halfway through my sojourn in Bishop, when I left the arid pebble-fields for something grander...

Approaching Mount Whitney from Upper Boy Scout Lake.
The Day Needle is the spire on the left; the Keeler Needle is in the middle, and Mount Whitney is the broad peak on the right.

Mount Whitney is the "highest mountain the lower 48 states of the USA", and at 4421m it makes anything we have in Australia look pretty pathetic. Having said that, though, via it's easiest route its a walk up a hill in Summer, and a crampon up a hill in winter, so it's hardly what one can call "technical". It's blessed with several moderate-grade climbing routes, and one "easy" climbing route which is a popular solo: The Mountaineers Route (3rd Class).

In summer or early-spring/late-autumn The Mountaineers Route is a 3rd Class gully scramble. After a snow dump or in the middle of winter it's snow-plow territory as you wade waist-deep in the stuff. However, for a small portion of the year it consists of refrozen ice, the sort that is a doddle with an ice-axe and crampons, but is akin to ice-skating when wearing conventional boots. Despite knowing that I would be attempting it at the worst possible time of year, and having heard from other prospective summiters that it was covered in refrozen and consolidated ice, I figured that I might as well have a crack at it while I was here.

On Tuesday 27th October, at 6:30am (and after a night of anxiously anticipating being eaten by Brown Bears as I open-bivouacked on the side of the road rather than pay the exorbitant price for a legitimate campsite), I departed Mount Whitney Portal and made my way up the indistinct route to Mount Whitney's East Face. I made good time initially, smashing out 1600 vertical meters of rocky scrambling in just under 3 hours, and passing by some stunningly photo-worthy scenery. My blitzkrieg pace meant that I didn't really get to enjoy the aesthetics of the environment, but I was working to a schedule: a massive storm (which was expected to end the "conventional" climbing season) was forecast for about 2pm.

I arrived at the start of the Mountaineers Route at about 11am (at approx 3800m elevation), and found that even the approach to the gully was almost un-climbable as the refrozen ice was too tough to kick steps in with my boots, and I didn't have crampons or ice-axes to make it more manageable. Gaining height above Iceberg Lake via the 1cm deep steps I managed to kick, and feeling the ice getting tougher as I entered into the "no falls" height above the terrain below, I chose to traverse across the couloir and onto the northern side of the gully, which featured some relatively tame scrambling/climbing and paralleled the couloir I wanted to follow.

Looking down at Iceberg lake from the very start of the Mountaineers Route. A moment of calm before the impending storm.
Traversing above the gully while pulling the odd climbing move in between scrambling on loose, snow-covered blocks, I noticed that the low-angle climbing I was following was rising more steeply than the couloir, and consequently the Mountaineers Route itself was getting further away. When I reached a space of perhaps 15 vertical meters between my position and the icy-gully below, I intercepted a narrow branch-couloir, which headed steeply (and directly) up to the North-East ridge above. I couldn't cross or climb this branch couloir, and deciding that my only feasible options were to reverse what I'd already climbed and go back down, or parallel the branch couloir up onto the ridgeline (and see where that would take me), I opted for further vertical exploration.

The initial stages of my off-route scrambling.
Nothing too exciting, but don't let the
perspective of the photo fool you: it was realclimbing.
As I gained even more height, the climbing continued to gain in difficulty and the angle grew much steeper, being forced to pull the odd 5.6/5.7 move on somewhat loose rock. The conditions didn't help, and I resorted to using my alpine climbing gloves to sweep snow off holds, then remove them to make the necessary climbing moves. When I finally reached the North-East ridge, I wasn't greeted by a gentle, blocky buttress, but instead by a tenuous 1m-wide knife-blade stretching forever above me, with a sheer drop down the North face on the other side. With the storm clearly mounting in the distance, the wind was beginning to pick up, and I distinctly remember a pang of desperation as I encountered the void of the North face waiting for me. Though at this point it was possible to reverse what I'd climbed all the way back to the couloir and retreat to my car with my tail between my legs, I was uneasy at the prospect, and still didn't want to abandon my attempt. And so -foolishly- I decided to continue following the North-East ridge towards the lower summit where it ended. As a point of interest: I learned later that Neil Monteith had a similar experience on Mount Whitney, but instead of continuing up the North-East ridge, he chose to turn around and made another attempt on the frozen couloir in the gully... Smart guy, that Monteith chap.

An old phototopo (from a very out-of-date copy of the climbing guide to the High Sierras) showing the routes on the
East Face of Mount Whitney. The Red Line shows the route that I climbed.

The terrifying view of the sheer North face of
Mount Whitney that greeted me as I arrived
on the North-East Ridge: It's brown-trousers
Photo: Neil Monteith
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the North-East ridge is 5.10+ A1, and consequently was not the sort of adventurous alpine route I'd ever consider soloing (especially in the conditions), and as I continued up -pulling real climbing moves with death on either side of me-, I certainly came to realise that I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I particularly remember one move, which featured an enormous granite flake sitting atop a block (looking akin to a giant mushroom), whereby I had to turn the lip of the rooflet it formed and mantle on ice-covered slopers. But I continued on, starting to feel quite panicked -but knowing it was unlikely I'd be able to reverse what I'd climbed to this point-, and occasionally down-climbing a few meters onto the North-East wall of the gully and traversing below the ridge to avoid the hardest moves. 

Looking up the North-East ridge, with the
branch-couloir to the left. Don't let the
perspective fool you: there's a reason why this
is 5.10+ A1.
Photo: Neil Monteith
Eventually, though, I learned why the North-East ridge is 5.10+ A1: A sheer drop of 8-10m guards the blocky continuation to the summit, and an abseil is required to negotiate it. When I reached this point, with the storm not too far in the distance, alone, knowing I couldn't reverse what I'd climbed, and right on the edge of losing my head, I'm not ashamed to admit that I almost broke down. Have you ever seen the footage of Ueli Steck crying after he was hit on the head by a rock while soloing in the Himalaya and was knocked off the climb? Well, I wasn't crying, but I embodied the defeated, deflated, "what do I do now?", "I'm such a fucking idiot!" aspect of the Ueli Steck footage. After some investigating I once again down-climbed onto the North-East side of the gully, being forced to rely 100% on head-sized rounded blocks, barely keyed-in and all moving (and featuring choss, snow and ice), and managed to traverse below the abseil of the North-East ridge, and then back up to the ridge itself via some terrifying snow-covered friction slab moves.

In the col between the North-East
Ridge and the Summit Couloir
to the top of Mount Whitney.
Drawing on the final strands of my sanity, I eventually made it to the summit of the ridge, which -while finishing 15 vertical meters above the col where the Mountaineers Route concludes-, provided access back onto the route I was after via some convenient low-angle flake and crack systems that I managed to down-climb. All that guarded the summit of Mount Whitney now was the ice-covered summit couloir which is normally the crux of the route. I was lucky that someone had obviously been up this particular couloir in the last few days, as there were enough crampon scratchings that I managed to make it up this vertical ice-skating rink in my boots, and arrived at the summit at the same time as Alex, an American who had reached the summit via a different route after 18 days of hiking the John Miur Trail from Yosemite.

Talking later to Alex about our first encounter, he told me that his first impression was that I was "A bit of a weirdo", because I was visibly shaken, distracted, and vague to talk to. While he might be right about my being a weirdo, what he said about my arrival at the Summit of Mount Whitney echoes my own memories of the event: I couldn't consolidate my thoughts and didn't feel like I was existing in that place and time. I was seriously upset. I like to climb bold (in fact I pride myself on my ability to do so), I like to take risks, but this crossed my threshold, and I was genuinely struggling to deal with the schizophrenic thoughts doing battle within my own mind.

Me on the unimpressive summit of Mount Whitney. Hooray!
Alex during the long, long, so very long descent.
Alex and I joined forces for the descent via the Regular Route (the Mount Whitney Trail), as even though it is technically easy the refrozen (and compacted) ice made it as slippery as it comes, and a fall here would still be catastrophic. The descent took hours, due to our slow progress on the icy terrain, and the sheer length of the trail. If I'm honest, I was bloody glad to have company on this final leg of my journey, especially after feeling so very alone for so much of the day. We eventually arrived back at my car at 8:30pm, scored some roadside Mexican food out of a dubious-looking van, and bivouacked again in the scrub.

The forecast storm moved in about 4pm, and the dump was so massive (reportedly up to 2m in areas) that it ended the "regular" climbing season in the High Sierras, and resulted in the closure of Tioga Rd through Tuolumne for the year. I'd been planning to solo Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne before my Mount Whitney epic, but -even before access was denied to me by the snowfall- I'd changed my mind about prospective adventurous soloing before I even got back to my car.

Live and learn, right? Fortunately, in this instance, I got to live, and thus a chance to learn.

Into the Desert


With only a week to go before I had to depart America, I was reunited with James Bultitude in LA, and we undertook an audacious whirlwind tour across the deserts to Boulder, Colorado where he was due to commence an internship on the same day I was due to fly home.

First up was a trip to Red Rocks in Nevada, which inevitably meant a trip to Las Vegas, due to the climbing area being scarcely 30min drive from The Strip. We checked into a ridiculously cheap room at the Stratosphere, then spent the evening trolling The Strip with gallons of cheap beer in hand, investigating the cacophony of elaborate clubs that so define this apoplexy of tacky hedonism.

Bulti, Beer and Ridiculously unsubtle
hedonism. It's Vegas Baby!
Yes, I am walking through the casino carrying my
milk and cereal... I'm not paying for a Hotel Breakfast!

Bulti approaches Mescalito.
The next morning we raced out to Red Rocks Canyon and jumped on arguably the most well-known climb of the area: Dark Shadows (4-pitches, 5.8) on Mescalito. Though it's possible to top out by climbing 12 pitches of decreasing quality and obviousness, most rap off after the first 4-pitches, so with our time limitations that's what we chose to do. I can safely say now that the climb is a classic in every sense of the word, and we encountered 3 other groups on it during our brief 3 hour round trip. It starts with an enjoyable 30m 5.5 slab protected by two bolts (I opted to solo it), then backs up this with a short but engaging pitch of technical stemming and laybacking, and an airy traverse left. The 3rd pitch is "The Money" (and was all mine!), featuring 40m of steep technical stemming and crack climbing on immaculate rock in an exposed position The 4th pitch serves as the appropriate conclusion, being short, punchy, bizarre and memorable.

After rapping back down the route (and inevitably dropping our rope into the creek), we raced back out of Vegas and started the long haul to Moab, crossing from Nevada into Arizona, and eventually into Utah. We arrived at Moab quite late, but started early the next day in order to make the most of our time here.

The corkscrew summit of Ancient Art. I'm
not sure a funny comment can do justice
to this.
Purchasing a guide, we made the most of our Rental "Rally Car" and set about Ancient Art (6-Pitches, 5.10c), which is one of most iconic routes of the Moab area. The loose "mud-rock" climbing of the desert towers might well be something of an acquired taste, but if this route is indicative of the potential in the area, then I can certainly see the appeal of it. Bulti ran up the first "access" pitch. I stemmed my way up the short 5.10b boulder-problem bridging-on-pebbles pitch. Next was a funky steep Chimney pitch, followed by a 5.10c sloper-arete boulder in an excitingly exposed position.

But the real reason for doing this climb is in the next two pitches (which are best to link), that take you over an extremely narrow fin of rock with all the void on either side, past a funky mantle, and up an improbable corkscrew spire. You rarely get such an obvious, clear-cut summit on rock climbs, and even on the Desert Towers this one is unique. With the ridiculous wind we encountered, the summit (and especially standing on the narrow summit) was an exciting proposition, but we both took turns to lead the pitch and score about 1000 photos a piece, then rapped our way back to the ground.

We had plans to hit up a single-pitch crack-climbing area nearby, but these were thrown into ruin as it began to rain. Before long the rain turned torrential, then into sleet, and eventually into snow. Then the snow became quite thick, and our prospects for camping were also ruined. We spent the night bivouacking in the only dry place we could find: atop picnic tables in a random picnic shelter, and still the snow kept falling. By the next morning it was clear that our plans for Castleton Tower and Fine Jade (on The Rectory) were a write-off, and we soon came to the conclusion that the followed planned days at Indian Creek were also out of the question. Frustrated, we left Utah that day, morphing our Rental car into a snow-plow and visiting Rifle Canyon to knock over a 5.11a and some 20m 5.12a steep crack before heading out.

You know you've made it as a
true dirtbag climber when thisisn't anything out-of-the-ordinary.
Um... It's snowing... in the desert, dude.

With our time to climb rapidly running out, we made out way to Boulder and hit up El Dorado Canyon. If ever you visit this place don't rely on the "Mountain Project" website for route beta... it's rubbish. We'd hoped to do the amazing multipitch trad-arete of The Naked Edge (6-pitch, 5.11b), but with our lack of a guide, limited daylight, and the rumours that getting off the top of Redgarden Wall was something of an epic, we set our sights a little lower: Yellow Spur (6-pitch 5.10c).Though it's possible to climb this at as tame a grade as 5.9, I opted to take all the harder variations as we progressed up it.

Two climbers high on Yellow Spur, with the leader just
entering the 5.9+ technical shield that is the crux of the
normal version of the route. Below the climbers you
can see the enormous roof you're required to traverse

Photo: Aeon Aki -
I tackled the 5.10b "boulder problem through a roof above tiny gear" original starting pitch done by Layton Kor, which was a radical way to start the climb (and quite the wake-up call after so much time driving to get there). This I linked into the 2nd pitch, which was a pleasant steep-ish stemming corner and combined with the first to make an entertaining 50m warmup. The 3rd pitch was Bulti's, and featured some technical stemming and a committing move around a bulge (far above good gear) near the top (5.8). Placing no gear in the first 15m of climbing (I meant to combine the next 2 pitches at 5.9+ (har har) and needed to mitigate rope drag), I accidentally also did half of the 6th pitch for a rope-stretching 70m pitch of climbing which necessitated an improvised belay when I ran out of rope. This m.. m... m... MonsterPitch™ had some horrendous rope drag, but bloody classic climbing. It involved an outrageous traverse under a huge roof, backed this up with some terrifyingly insecure moves up a fridge-like spur of rock, and ended with a hard and technical 5.10c directly up a thin arete variation to the 6th pitch. I cannot sing the praises of this pitch enough, and thoroughly recommend this enormous linkup. The top of the 6th pitch is a notoriously exposed low-angle arete, culminating in a true "pointed summit" topout, and after Bulti lead us up there we had the moderately involved challenge of getting down from the summit and off the Redgarden Wall, making it back to the car at about 6:30pm.

Toyota Yaris turns Snow Plow in Rifle Canyon.
Though barely scratching the surface of El Dorado Canyon, it was quite obvious to me that there was a mountain (pun intended) of amazing potential for awesome trad routes there. I was disappointed to have to depart before I could really get to experience it (and certainly before I could climb The Naked Edge).

Some locals had tipped us off about a good free camping area in Upper Boulder Canyon, but after investigating the site and finding it deep in snow, we attempted to head back down towards Boulder only to find that the car couldn't get back up the ice-covered slope we'd driven down. Nothing that we did could get this accursed front wheel drive car up the hill, and our attempts to "tackle the hill with gusto" were further thwarted by the Traction Control button being mashed into the dashboard and stuck permanently "on", throttling the power we could put down on the ground. Eventually Bulti took one for the team and traipsed off into the wilderness towards a house he'd spotted in the distance, while I took apart the dashboard and eventually managed to free the Traction Control button (and promptly turned it off). Our salvation came in the form of a semi-drunken local who lived at the bottom of the road I was now blocking, and was willing to have a shot at getting the Yaris back up the hill. Riding as a passenger, I almost shit myself as he backed up as far as he could, and hit the hill (complete with a slight dog-leg at half height) at more than 65 Miles Per Hour, skating it around the corner and bouncing off the snow bank, but somehow managing to get us back to the top in once piece. It was at this precise moment that Bulti returned, accompanied by an elderly local with an industrial winch on the back of his pickup truck. No one can say that the locals aren't hospitable... or entertaining.

Despite my best efforts to kill it, somehow the Yaris just
kept on going.
For our last day of climbing together, Bulti and I tackled a few climbs in Boulder Canyon, but generally climbed quite terribly. The only thing of note to come of this day was that I gave a super-bouldery 10m 5.12a/b crack (called Gill Crack) a full-hearted attempt (despite the fiddly and sparce gear) and managed it with just the 1 sit (to pre-place a crucial piece of pro). Following this, Bulti and I parted ways, and I made the 1260 mile journey back to Los Angeles over two very long days of driving. After the usual disaster of returning the rental car, I flew out of the United States of America, and thus ended my trip with less success in the Desert than I might have hoped for.

So, what happens now? Well, I've been back home for about 3 weeks and in the meantime I've managed to do some pretty rad adventurous routes that I'll write about in my next blog. I've also managed to get utterly spanked by pretty much every steep route I've gotten on, and willingly relapsed into my usual addition by bolting a 40m rap-in, climb-out route over much air (in the gr26/27 range).

But as to what happens next... The answer is that I leave on the 12th December for yet another trip to Tassie. So, I'll be gone again before the dust can settle, with just enough time to sort out all my unfinished business here, do some extra work on "comfortising" my van, and do some training so that I might have a chance at ticking my Project in Tassie.

What can I say... It's a tough life I lead.

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