Friday, 27 November 2015

'Murica Part 2: The Crowded Superhighway to The Nose on El Capitan

Previously, on The Climbing Obscurist: 'Murica Part 1: The Rocky Road to Mount Watkins (Yosemite Valley)...
 ...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.

We'd both suffered in the heat with severe dehydration; [...] with the hauling [...] and with the more committing free-climbing (anyone who has climbed in Yosemite will doubtless attest that the grades there are both sandbagged, and in a style which tends to humble even hardened granite climbers)...

[...]But regardless, I wanted to push myself here.

[...]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 [...] 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 now, The Climbing Obscurist continues with: 'Murica Part 2: The Crowded Superhighway to The Nose on El Capitan

Seconding Pitch 4 of The Central Pillar of Frenzy.
With Mount Watkins behind us, and a few days of rest to forget the Tour De Suffering that was our first Valley Big Wall, it wasn't long before the call of The Valley had us tackling more of the moderate classics. First up was the stunning Central Pillar of Frenzy (5-pitches, 5.9) on Middle Cathedral Rock, which was the first route we encountered with a real traffic jam of climbers on it. The Central Pillar of Frenzy deserves its reputation, as every pitch (even the awkward, slippery chimney on the first pitch) features classic climbing in a style which could almost be defined by the pitch in question:

P1 - Slippery chimneying and stemming 
P2 - Sustained and intense finger-crack climbing
P3 - Intimidating roof and off-width climbing; 
P4 - Face and seam-crack climbing; 
P5 - Sustained Laybacking. 

Despite still being trashed from Mount Watkins, Stephen and I were both drawn from our catatonic lethargy by the stunning trad climbing encountered on this mega-classic route.

Following this we did a day of cragging at the Pat and Jack Pinnacle, which was a great way to enjoy Yosemite climbing without the risk (or the fear) that many of the more hardcore crags require.

By this point, we were already discussing whether or not we wanted to tackle another Big Wall, and -in particular- whether or not we should tackle The Nose on El Capitan. Chris McNamara's Yosemite Valley Big Walls guide features a list of interim "test pieces" which can be used to assess a team's readiness to start up The Nose, and even though we knew that at least half of the people we'd observed on The Nose wouldn't have passed these interim assessments (because they were clearly a cluster-fuck of disorganisation and non-existent free-climbing skills), we decided to tackle one of them as a gauge of our own readiness (and subsequently, our enthusiasm) for the most famous Big Wall route in the world. We settled on the South Face of Washington Column (11-Pitches, 5.8 C1 or 5.10d C1 based on what we onsighted), which had only 3 pitches that Stephen and I would need to aid, and that Mr McNamara said should be done "in a day" to assess one's readiness for The Nose.

A view of the South Face of Washington Column. Majestic, no?

Stephen aiding through the infamous Kor
Roof on Pitch 4
We started our approach at 4am in the morning, because we'd observed that there was at least one group who had fixed ropes on the Kor Roof (Pitch 4) and were sleeping the night on Dinner Ledge. We needed to get in front of them or risk forfeiting our goal of climbing the route in 10 hours, and so it was in the dark I started up Pitch 1 (inevitably getting quite lost and climbing a harder and looser variant). I continued to climb free up Pitches 2 and 3 (which I linked at 5.10b), arriving at Dinner Ledge right on daybreak at about 6am.

We were surprised to encounter 2 teams of climbers sleeping on the ledge, one of whom was bailing from the route, and the other who were descending (having topped out the day before, but not managed to make it back to the ground before dark). Consequently, for all intents and purposes we had the South Face route entirely to ourselves. Stephen made his way up the iconic Kor Roof on Pitch 4 and (with some rope jiggery-pokery) linked it into Pitch 5. On being prompted by the teams on Dinner Ledge to "say something Australian", I left them with the appropriately cliche "I see you've played knifey-spooney before" (that's a Simpson's quote, for the unenlightened among my readers), and joined Stephen, continuing up Pitch 6 mostly free at 5.10d C1 (aiding a 3m section of 5.12).

Me onsighting the 5.10d section of Pitch 6.
Clearly I'm ready to climb The Great Roof
Stephen punched out the predominantly aid Pitch 7, I freed Pitch 8 (managing to get completely stuck in the body-squeeze chimney near the top, much to the amusement of the other climbers on The Column), and was stoked to also Onsight Pitch 9 (5.10b) which features some extremely tenuous seam-crack climbing on dicey gear (and with a broken piton getting in the way of the obvious good gear placement). Stephen cruised his way through the last two pitches (5.10a) and after a mere 11.5 hours of climbing time, we were at the top of the route.

Despite having punched out a route which is usually climbed over 2 or 3 days in a blisteringly quick time (on our first attempt), the infamous North Dome Gully descent still awaited us, and by the time we'd finished negotiating the loose scree, slippery slabs, worrying 4th class downclimbing and long hike back to the car, our entire car-to-car time for the day was 13hrs 45min. Having completed this well before the "in-a-day" requirement suggested by Mr McNamara, there could be no doubt that we were both ready and capable of smashing out The Nose, but the one remaining question was: did we really want to?

With the question of our commitment still in doubt, we took a rest day, then set about the next in our list of Valley Classics: Snake Dike (8-Pitches 5.7+R), a climb which is definitely the ultimate "sum of all its parts", as the route takes almost an entire day car-to-car to climb, yet the actual climbing can be done in under 3 hours. The approach to the southwest face of Half Dome past Liberty Cap and the majestic Nevada Falls would be an undeniably picturesque walk in its own right, but as we are climbers, the epic 2.5 hour uphill slog to get to the start of the climb merely served to justify the nickname for the climbing route in question: Snake Hike.

Me seconding Pitch 4... 1 bolt in 50m of climbing is
intimidating even on slabby 5.4 terrain.

There was another group on the route when we arrived at the base sometime before 8am, and another group arrived just after us (both groups had camped at a site within 30min walk of the route). As the day went on, the crowds continued to gather, and when we eventually lost sight of the base of the route, there was approximately 20 individuals waiting their turn at the first pitch.

The climbing in question isn't exactly hard (the normal route features two pitches of 5.7, and most are substantially easier), but the climb is infamous for its unfathomable runouts, with one 50m 5.4 pitch featuring a single bolt 25m off the belay. I took the first pitch and climbed it via the harder 5.9 variant, and straight off the bat I was into ludicrous runouts on generally featureless friction-slabbing. As you climb higher, you traverse past the "crux" friction slab and onto the namesake dikes that form the majority of the route. As you can see in the picture above, these dikes form an improbably consistent line of features that continues all the way up to the last 2 pitches and lends an element of security to the normally insecure notion of runout granite slabbing. Almost before we knew it, we'd reached the top of the route in 2.5 hours of climbing, and continued up the unending 3rd class slabs to the summit of Half Dome and our eagerly awaiting fans (read: hordes of tourists).

Hmm... This rock in the background seems familiar...
wait... is that El Cap?

The descent from the summit of Half Dome took about 3 hours, for a car-to-car time of 8 hours for the day Both of us were battling some seriously torched calf muscles, but for an "active rest day", it was worth the effort.

Another trip to Pat and Jack Pinnacle for some therapeutic Valley climbing followed, but as this one last day of cragging drew to a close, there was no denying the inevitable: the pysche was back and we were capable and ready. It was time to stop procrastinating, dig deep, and step up to the plate for one more Valley big wall.

Or should I say: The Valley Big Wall...

The Nose on El Capitan (1028m - 31 Pitches - 5.10c C1+)

Theoretically climbable at as moderate a grade as 5.8 C1+ (the sheer volume of fixed-gear on this route means it no longer warrants its original C2 grading), and going all free with only 2 pitches of proper hard climbing (The Great Roof and Changing Corners), The Nose on El Capitan is as moderate in its difficulty as it is majestic to behold. Inevitably, this means that it is seriously crowded.

Our gear stash in the rectory... I can think of
many humorous things to say about this photo,
but I don't want to piss off the people who let
a heathen like me stay in this place for free.
We'd done several recon missions to the cliff to investigate the average volume of climbers attempting the route, suss where it started, and identify the major bottlenecks below El Cap Tower (many parties bail before this point). Leading up to the week in which we needed to make our attempt, the weather forecast was looking grim, yet each day the foreboding skies would clear and prove the weatherman wrong. With 3 days of "cloudy but clear" weather in front of us (the ideal weather conditions to avoid a repeat of the Mount Watkins sunstroke), a veritable horde of climbers were making their own push up The Nose, leading to the ludicrous sight of dozens of colourful fixed ropes stretching 160m from Sickle Ledge (the end of Pitch 4) to the ground. This was inevitably accompanied by a mess of haulbags and gear on Sickle Ledge, and also at various points on the lower wall as climbers who really had no business being there struggled to move overstuffed haulbags using inferior, unpracticed techniques. In short: it was a disaster.

Despite our own misgivings at utilising such an impure strategy, Stephen and I made the judgement call to fix our own ropes to Sickle Ledge, with the goal of attempting our push at some unfathomable time at night, and get past all the parties in front of us before first light.

Fixing Day - 5th October 2015

Starting out early in the hopes of beating other groups and the forecast bad weather, we arrived at the top of the (somewhat sketchy) access scramble at precisely the same time as another group (The Catalonians). With appropriate rudeness, we made sure to drop our gear directly below the 1st pitch, and Stephen started aiding up before the Catalonians could finish flaking their rope (and almost before I could put him on belay). For a pitch of aid he made great time, and I joined him at the belay right as another team (The Chinese) arrived.

Hans Florine's Nose In A Day guide to The Nose describes Pitch 2 as "one of the scariest free climbing sections on [The Nose] with flared gear placements" due to insecure climbing up a vague seam-crack corner-feature, with fiddly and marginal protection in pin-scars (offset cams essential), and going free at 5.10c. That sounded like a challenge to a bold free-climber like me, and so I tackled it head-on, sketching my way up runout smearing in the shallow corner and doing my utmost to crush my fingers into tips-only pin-scars. After onsighting my way through this, I performed the first of what would be many pendulums on The Nose, and finished the pitch with a brief section of aid.

I linked this into Pitch 3 for a giant pitch, and was at the end of the crux 5.10c free-section of this pitch when I had a foot slip while standing high trying to clip a bolt, and had a long, cart-wheeling fall most of the way back to the belay. Sure, it was disappointing not to free Pitch 3, but as Stephen said of my fall later that day: "it was awesome, I was like: he's really going for it!".

The Sickle Ledge clusterfuck. The beige haulbag was ours (with
our orange portaledge bag attached), and you can see our white
rope (fixed via an improvised trad anchor) emerging from below
Take careful note of the girl in purple and the dude in the yellow
to the right... They are 2/4ths of the
Montana Team who will
feature prominently soon.
The last pitch of the day was another predominantly aid pitch with 2 funky pendulums following a section of 5.9 free-climbing, and it wasn't long before Stephen landed on Sickle Ledge, and right into the middle of the ongoing bumbly clusterfuck that had now been in progress for almost 2 days.

The photo shown here (taken by Tom Evans of El Cap Reports) later the same afternoon shows just a small portion of the Sickle Ledge disaster. Arriving on the ledge, every anchor was taken by a plethora of fixed ropes (stretching 160m to the ground), and each of the 4 belay stations below the ledge were loaded with as many as 2 groups struggling for hour after hour to haul their unwieldy loads up to the ledge. Clearly we weren't going to be using any of the conventional belays anytime soon, so after a moment of watching this baffling mess of cluelessness (and shaking our collective heads in disbelief), I decided to make our own anchor out of a nest of trad gear (you can see our white rope emerging from behind the beige haulbag in the middle of the picture) and utilise a combination of 3 joined ropes, and the vague recollection that there was another free route somewhere to the right of the usual belay stations used on the nose (and thus there should be other belay stations on the wall) to bypass all these other teams.

Fortunately my idea paid off. Despite having to get past a knot on each of the hauls, and having to rap the line and jumaar back up twice (to free the haulbag on my own), we overtook literally every group hauling up the wall, and were back on the ground for one last solid night of sleep by 1pm.

Wall Day 1 - 6th October 2015

Getting up at about 1.30am, we began jumaaring up our fixed ropes at 3am, running into the Catalonians once again, who were only minutes away from commencing their own push. Once again elbowing our way in front of our friends from the southern side of the Pyrenees (as politely as possible, I swear!), I powered through the next two pitches placing one piece of pro in total, and arrived at the next pendulum point atop Pitch 6 to encounter one of the dumbest things I've ever seen in rock climbing...

The Portaledge Incident™:

It seems that the Montana team we'd met the day before, had managed to make a grand total of 2 grade-nothing pitches in an entire day of climbing (both of which I'd just knocked over in about 7 minutes), and rather than fixing ropes back to Sickle Ledge, they'd had the ingenious idea of established their two portaledges -one above the other- using the pendulum bolts, and over the pendulum itself. The obvious problem here is that now no one could use the bolts to perform the pendulum, and even if they could, there were two stacked portaledges and about 1000kgs of gear in the way of performing the crucial pendulum.

Looking up at the Portaledge Disaster at 3am
in the morning. The crucial bolt to perform the
pendulum is what the top portaledge is anchored
Upon encountering this Next Level Clusterfuck™, and after several minutes of asking "what the fuck?" rhetorically, I began building an improvised anchor out of half-placed trad gear, with the idea of bringing Stephen up to my position and hopefully performing some sort of lower pendulum. While I was attempting to establish an alternative solution, the chick in the lower of these portaledges poked her head out and said (in the most accusatory way possible): "Excuse me, do you think it's appropriate to bother people at 3am in the morning?"

Somewhat distracted, I responded with "ummm, yeah, you guys are kind of in the way of the pendulum here and I'm trying to figure out how to get past you."

Her response: "yeah, well, you know, we were held up for like 5 hours by all these other groups and this way the only place we could setup our portaledges."

To which I, ever the diplomat, retorted: "yeah, but now you're in the way of all these other groups, and no one can get past you."

"Yeah, well, you guys are just going to have to wait your turn. We had to wait all day for all these other groups, so now you can wait until we start climbing at a more reasonable time in the morning." The irony of this response, is that despite her complaining about other teams holding them up, they were now causing exactly the same problem amplified tenfold.

"There are like five groups coming up behind us... You're now holding everyone up!"

The Montana team at about 8am in the morning... still trying
to pack up their portaledges, and still blocking the pendulum.
And on and on it ran, with her complaining about us waking them up at 3am in the morning and struggling to justify their ingenious portaledge location, and me trying to establish an improvised trad anchor, haul the gear and bring Stephen up to my position (all while doing my best to offend and irritate these self-righteous clueless climbers in front of us).

By the time Stephen reached the improvised anchor, the Catalonians were starting up the pitch, and 3 Nose In Day teams were in the process of climbing over the Catalonians on Pitch 6. As we began investigating trying to perform a super-sketchy lower pendulum off my improvised anchor, the husband of the ignorant chick from Montana poked his head out of the tent and said: "I don't appreciate the way you're speaking to my wife"... I won't pretend that the response he received from me was even slightly diplomatic, as by this time I was just pissed off.

Looking down at the imbecilic Montana team from halfway up
The Stovelegs: still trying to pack up their portaledges. Who's
What followed was a traffic-jam of epic proportions, 200m off the ground, on the most famous Big Wall route in the world. The Catalonians reached us and all 3 Nose in a Day teams attempted to get past us (and the stacked Portaledges) at basically the same time. With about 3 different languages in play, an ongoing dialogue between the imbeciles in the portaledges and the cacophony of climbers, and a sketchy lower pendulum that took multiple attempts to stick, the situation was getting confused and dangerous.

Eventually, a lower pendulum succeeded, and as each team moved past the pendulum, they took the haul line of the following team and fixed that to the anchor on the far side of the pendulum, allowing them to get past without having to perform the sketchy pendulum (and thus speeding up the process of getting teams out of the bottleneck). We took across The Catalonian's and a separate Nose in a Day Castillian Spanish team's haul lines, and as we continued up the route, The Catalonians took across the The Chinese team's line. This incident had wasted the better part of 2 hours.

As you might imagine, I was absolutely furious over how the incident had played out (and contemplating setting another "first" for The Nose: The first punch-up on El Capitan), and was almost ready to just bail and come back another day when my anger wouldn't ruin the experience of the climbing. But upon seeing all these different teams, none of whom shared a similar language, benevolently taking steps to help other teams to get past the pendulum without the drama that we'd had, I remembered just why it is that I love the international climbing community in general: Climbing is the universal language, and here all these teams were communicating through gestures and half-formed words of English, to help their fellow climbers continue up The Nose with as little hassle as possible. Realising that this team from Montana was the only deplorable group of climbers I'd encountered in America so far, and that everyone else had -in fact- been completely rad, I found my inspiration and continued upwards.

The stunningly talented team from Montana managed to make 2 more pitches of climbing that day, before bailing from the route, having successfully clogged the lower pitches for 3 consecutive days only to bail from Pitch 8. I did, however, take particular satisfaction when an Eastern European Nose In A Day team reached the group, and rather than having any pretense of being polite, simply told them: "Yes, you are stupid. This is the most fucking stupid place to set up your portaledges on The Nose, now no one can get past your idiot position."

The Rest of the Day:

Stephen high on the iconic Stove Legs crack.
Climbing quickly to make up for lost time (and placing minimal pro), I freed all the upward climbing to the remaining pendulum, performed that, freed some more and found myself at the base of the Stove Legs, having had to negotiate one more portaledge (this one more tastefully established) belonging to another team who were packing up to bail.

The stove legs are two consecutive pitches of steepish wide-hand crack climbing, originally protected by custom-fitted stove legs. Stephen had been "dreaming of this pitch" (his words) for years, so naturally the honour was his. Right at first light he set about leading the first of the pitches, and put up a valiant battle before pumping out right before the end of the pitch. The second part of the stovelegs were also his, and once again it was an awesome fight with only a single rest to break up its perfection.

5.10c offwidth... French-free: hell yes!
I blasted up the next two pitches, linking them into a giant 60m pitch with only a few points of aid on the worst of the wide crack climbing (5.10c offwidth... no thanks) and arrived at Dolt Tower, one of the major features on The Nose (visible in almost any photo of the route), the first popular bivvy spot, and a milestone with 10 pitches completed to get there. Stephen's next pitch involved an abseil, some traversing, and a long runout to the first bit of gear (made necessary by the down-climb), and he linked this through a sustained fistcrack to produce another monster pitch.

By this point in time we'd caught up to yet another group, who were in the process of making their way up Texas Flake towards The Boot, for the infamous King Swing Pendulum. Knowing that it would be an epic to get past them, and knowing that there was an "obscure alternative" near at hand which would facilitate getting around them yet required harder free climbing, I launched myself across the chipped Jardine traverse, climbing it at 5.10c A0 with some pretty outrageous face moves going free several hundred metres above the ground.

Tom Evans' photo of Stephen leading Pitch
11 off Dolt Tower.
Next up were two more variant pitches (Pitch 14 and 15) not normally climbed as a part of the standard Nose route, and I opted to create another 55m megapitch by linking both of them. It started with some very runout technical face climbing, culminating in a tricky mantle on slopers, made harder because of a dead rat decomposing right on the crucial mantleshelf (there had been an outbreak of rodent-borne pnuemonic plague earlier in the season, so I had no desire whatsoever to touch the rat, and instead mantled gingerly around it). This continued into a 5.11c corner-crack with a 5.10b offwidth finale, which I started climbing free (and managed to score an awesome photo from Tom Evans while still freeclimbing) until it became desperate, then switched to french-free (placing and pulling on small gear, while pasting my feet on the wall and keeping out of the etriers) to get through it as quickly as possible. For me it was a shame that we were so pressed for time (trying to get ahead of the other team in front of us), as the 5.11c thin corner crack was the sort of trad climbing that I usually seek out, as being one of my favorite styles of crack climbing.

My photo of Stephen on Pitch 11 off Dolt Tower,
taken within a minute of Tom Evans' own photo.
Looking down at Stephen from the end of the
Jardine Traverse (5.10c A0).

Tom Evans' photo of me starting across the Jardine

Stephen's photo of me freeing the last moves of the
Jardine Traverse.

My favorite of Tom Evans' photos of our climb.
This is me starting up the stemming corner of
Pitch 15, still climbing free (and onsight) to this
point. To the right is the group of climbers we were
trying to get past. They were on top of Texas Flake,
trying to gain The Boot.
I don't mind admitting that I was pretty trashed by the time I made it to the belay at the end of pitch 15, (having done a lot of free climbing, and linked a lot of pitches to get to this point so quickly) and was only too happy to pass the buck to Stephen for a few pitches. He decided to follow my suit, and linked the next two pitches (mostly on aid) through a huge arching roof, and culminating with a massive (and quite tricky) final pendulum to arrive at the belay with about 30cm of rope left to work with.

This put us on the "grey bands" pitch, which turns out to be a logistical nightmare as you struggle to move all of your gear across 30m of vertically irregular and poorly protected terrain to the next belay. I led across the traverse, setting up an interim belay to move the haulbag across (while Stephen followed, frequently being forced to carry and manhandle the haulbag as it got snagged on every grain of rock on the pitch), and another belay at the end to complete the pitch. We managed to finish battling our haulbag into position right as the last rays of light vanished, and night set in.

Despite knowing that this spot would be our bivvy for the night, I chose to lead one more pitch (and fix lines down to our bivvy spot) to save time on the following day. And so it was that in the dark, having been awake since 1.30am and climbing since 3am, I managed to onsight the slippery, steep and poorly protected awkward 5.10a stemming corner and push our fixed line to the start of Pitch 21. I then rapped back to our bivvy spot, and the two of us set up our portaledge (the first time I'd ever set up, and slept on a portaledge -"This really seems like something I should have practiced beforehand") fairly efficiently. And with the fine dining Big Wall meal of cold tinned Alphabetti-Spaghetti and tropical fruit cups we hit the proverbial hay at about 10pm, with the sky overhead seeming to overflow with the volume of unobscured stars, and to the sounds of another group 2 pitches below us struggling to free a stuck haul bag on one of the pendulum pitches...

With our portaledge set up, it was time to break
out the food. Mmm... Cold tinned spaghetti!
At the end of the Grey Bands traverse, at the spot that would
become our bivvy for the night. Luxurious.


Wall Day 2 - 7th October 2015


Stephen aiding his way up The Great Roof.
After packing up the portaledge and sorting out the Spaghetti with Meatballs tangle of ropes and assorted trad gear, I jumarred up the fixed line from the previous night and arrived at the belay at about 7:30am, at precisely the same time as a party of 3 Castillian Spanish emerged from their bivvy a pitch down on the Miur Wall with their haul bag in tow. They'd been on the Triple Direct for the previous 5 days, and after a few shared words (featuring my utterly rubbish Spanish language skills), and instructing Stephen to "put the throttle down" we politely pushed in front of them (no, seriously... I actually asked and everything!) and I freed my way up a pleasant 5.9 face climbing pitch to reach the belay below The Great Roof.

We'd made the strategic decision to leave our haul bag on the Bivvy spot last night, as the 60m haul line would just stretch from The Great Roof belay to our camp, and it would make for a nice straight haul. I setup the haul, rapped back to the bivvy as Stephen jumaared up, and upon his arrival at the belay I released the haul bag and jugged back up the rope. Inevitably, all perfectly conceived plans fail miserably, and the haul bag got so stuck it necessitated another abseil down the line to free it, and another 45m jumaar back up. By this time the Castillian Spanish were biting at our ankles, so Stephen launched himself up The Great Roof on aid with gusto.

Tom Evans' photo of Stephen on the Great
Roof... now that's quite the iconic photo
to have in your collection.
He made amazing time for an aid pitch, though the volume of semi-dubious fixed gear on the pitch robbed it of its "official" C2 grade, and expedited the process massively. For Stephen, this was another of those "I've always dreamed of..." pitches, and as he arrived at the belay after tackling one of the most stunningly iconic features in the world at a breakneck pace, he let out a resounding "whoop" that echoed around El Cap Meadow. Next up was the Pancake Flake, a pitch that -though only 5.10b for the most part- is a piece of trad climbing bliss, featuring a long, slightly steep layback up a worryingly thin flake feature, with 700m+ of clean air below you. This pitch was mine, and it went surprisingly easily, only aiding the final few metres of 5.11c (where Thomas Huber fell and broke his leg during one of the Nose Speed Record attempts, back in 2001). It's hard not to be fully motivated when you have climbing this perfect (and perfectly trad) with such monstrous exposure below you.

Me partway up The Pancake Flake, with
all the void stretched out below me.
Then came an awkward offwidth pitch that Stephen aided to get to Camp 5. I backed this up with an entirely aid pitch which -despite being far slower than Stephen at aiding- I stubbornly insisted on climbing, eventually going into my half-arsed "etrier-free" french-free version of aiding, and managing to skillfully take a lead fall onto my daisy chain for the sort of "winning" factor that Charlie Sheen himself could be proud of. One more pitch of grovelly off-width (with an awesome 5.7 free section up the face next to the crack) led by Stephen brought us to Camp 6, and the famous Changing Corners, a pitch that I was super-psyched to tackle because -like Stephen's aid-climbing goal of The Great Roof- the history of this pitch called to me. The first time I ever saw the footage of Lynn Hill freeing this pitch with her "Houdini Technique", I wanted to climb The Nose and free as much as I could.

What surprised me, is just how much of this pitch I did manage to climb free. I stemmed my way up most of the 5.10d thin crack at the start (I actually pulled on 2 bits of gear to get through it faster), clipped my way up the bolt ladder and pendulum'd into the right corner at the end of the free-crux (avoiding the C2 section by using the higher bolts), and only had to aid a few metres up the end of the free-crux before I was back into 5.9 tight hands. In the mounting dark, I battled my way up the awkward, vaguely steep crack, but couldn't for the life of me do the final mantle move, and eventually fell off (much to my disappointment), practically able to touch the anchors! In reality, only about 5m of this entire 45m pitch was actually aided.

At this point, it got dark again (aid climbing is slow!), but Stephen set about yet another grovelly steep offwidth with etriers in tow, to achieve Pitch 28 in the full blackness of night. We were now a mere 3 pitches from the top, and only 1 of those involved actual free-climbing, but though we had the time to make it to the summit before midnight, the idea of topping out and descending the East Ledges in the dark really didn't appeal to us. I optioned the idea of sleeping on the ledge atop The Nose, but Stephen countered skillfully with: "Imagine how amazing it would be to wake up on a fully-hanging portaledge at the top of The Nose, knowing that you've only got 3 pitches of straightforward climbing above you". There's also no denying that we were pretty pooped, and starving for a feed (mmm... more cold spaghetti!), so neither of us really needed much convincing to set up the portaledge once again. I'd never tried to set up a Portaledge on a fully-hanging belay... it turns out it's a bit of a cock around.

Climbing free high on the famous Changing Corners pitch. It's
all free at 5.14a, but I chose to forgo the Onsight in the
interest of efficiency. Maybe next time, right?
Any questions?






Wall Day 3 - 8th October 2015

Free-climbing Pitch 30 at 5.10c, with
1 vertical kilometre of air below me.

A late-ish start of 7am, some Bagels with Nutella for Breakfast, a bit more screwing around from a fully-hanging stance to un-ledge the portaledge, and Captain Grovelly-Offwidth was back in the etriers for some trench warfare against another steep wide one.

The perch below Pitch 30 was almost unfathomably exposed, and the beautiful clear morning gave us a clear line of sight directly down the nose, as I racked up and launched myself at the last pitch of free climbing, a 5.10c steep layback crack with an unprotected boulder-problem off the belay, and literally 1000m of clean air below you to propel you upwards. Onsighting this pitch was -for me- the perfect cap to The Nose, as it epitomised so profoundly my experience as a freeclimber on this majestic Big Wall, and as my last lead of our epic, it was something truly special.

I accidentally climbed too high and ended up doing the bottom section of the summit bolt ladder (Stephen didn't object too strenuously), but by 9.30am my climbing partner was clipping his way through the huge roof that caps the route, and continuing upwards with interesting sections of thin face/slab free-climbing to the belay at the top of the wall. From the belay, we fixed a line to the famous tree at the top of The Nose, and shuttled our gear up Class 3 slabs to the safety of level ground and zero exposure. And then, as inauspiciously as that, it was all over.

Looking down on my belay atop the haulbags as Stephen
leads the final summit bolt ladder to the top!
We performed the ubiquitous high fives, took the token photos in front of the tree, shared a hug and some positive vibes, but then it was time to descend. It was Midday on 8th October 2015, and the East Ledges awaited us. Having done the descent before, our only drama was finding our way to the descent from our position on El Capitan, a task which proved time consuming and frustrating. Stephen was struggling a bit with weariness, so I readily went into pack mule mentality and added the rest of the gear to the load that I was carrying, and within another hour or so we were back down at the carpark below Manure Pile Buttress, and I was doing the 1.6 mile jog back to where we'd parked the car 3 days earlier.

Stephen on the summit of The Nose,
and me waiting patiently at the hanging
belay. VICTORY!
In the aftermath of our ascent, the news of the Portaledge Incident somehow made its way around The Valley, and it almost became a bit of a joke how often we'd be speaking to someone about our climb, only to have them say something along the lines of: "Hey, you were on the Nose around the time of the Portaledge Incident, did you see it?" Hell, even Tom Evans had a few harsh words to say about the instigators of that Incident, and on his website wrote some veiled criticism regarding it on photo he posted of the group in question. The one thing that seemed to escape fact in all the people we spoke to about it was where the group was from: Montana, Milwaukee, Minnesota...

So, how do you bookend a tale of success on the most famous Big Wall route in the world, and one that I personally was satisfied with because I managed to step up to the plate and meet (within reason) my own free-climbing objectives on the route? 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:

Tune in next time for the epic conclusion to this Trip Report on: 'Murica Part 3: The Final Valley Assessment, Bishop Bouldering and Other Epics, where it all comes crashing down!

Stephen and I after completing The Nose in 2.5 days, posing in front of the famous tree that marks the summit.
Eat your heart out, Huber brothers... Now if only I'd had time to work on my six-pack... and my tan.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

'Murica Part 1: The Rocky Road to Mount Watkins (Yosemite Valley)

Stephen approaching the "bomber" Pitch 13 pendulum anchor
on the South Face route of Mount Watkins.
"...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!"

- 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!
Leaving Australia at the absolute height of my "climbing fame" (see this article on Rock and Ice: ), my climbing partner Stephen Varney and I headed to America to find out what all this "Yosemite Valley" hoo-ha was all about.

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.

Any questions?
After being blown away by the initial vistas encountered upon arriving in Yosemite Valley, and picking our collective jaws up off the ground after getting our first real view of The Nose on El Capitan, Stephen and I began the trip with a short day of cragging at Church Bowl crag (appropriately named, ay?). Tackling some easy-ish granite slabs in the rain, we both soon learned that the glacial-polished granite and climber-polished wear on the popular routes meant that Yosemite Granite has more in common with ice-skating than the granite climbing we were both used to... particularly when it came to smeared feet on friction slabs. The Valley also proved to be living up to its reputation for sandbagged grades (which would be further confirmed in the following months after I left The Valley and climbed elsewhere in America).

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.
Day 3 was a significant step in our Yosemite Initiation Process, as we tackled The East Buttress of El Capitan, a 13-pitch 5.10b (grade 19/20) route off to the extreme right side of El Capitan. Though not really regarded as "an El Cap route", it's still an engaging introduction to the longer and more committing climbs in Yosemite, and would also require us to descend the infamous East Ledges from the top of El Cap, something we'd need to have dialed if we were going to do one of the Big Wall routes on that wall.

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.
I linked Pitch 6 and 7 into a giant 60m pitch (I actually ran out of rope and had to belay a few metres down from the actual belay point), with extremely varied face, corner and crack climbing, culminating in an improbable series of moves through a rooflet and onto a slippery slab.

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.
Serenity Crack is particularly unique as an argument against the type of aid-climbing that features nailing, as it was once a hairline crack, which excessive nailing over time turned into a free-able line of pin-scar pods. It commences with a 7m runout of slippery 5.9 thin pin-scarred pods (particularly scary to do in the full summer-sun) before you place your first bit of gear, and continues for 35 more metres up pin scar pods of varying degrees of depth and usefulness, with the 5.10a cruxes coming in the form of sections that aren't as excessively pin scarred (and consequently more featureless, insecure and harder to protect). By the top of the pitch I was breathing hard, and my ankles were killing me from standing in the pods, but it was an absolute ripper of a pitch that I was glad to Onsight considering the heat.

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.
The 3rd pitch is the crux, and harbours an intense finale as the 5.10d crux resides in the final few metres. It starts with steep crack climbing up twin right-facing flakes on perfect jams, to a small stance before the crux. I cruised to this point, loving every moment, fiddled in some alright gear, then committed to the crux. The crux itself is vertical fingerlocks between spaced pin-scars, with absolutely no feet for about 5m. Though it's embarrassing to admit it, I tried to stop part-way up the crux to place gear, and eventually pumped out and fell off. After a brief rest, I committed to this section properly, not stopping to place any gear, and climbing in bad technique, as I wasn't trusting my skatey feet at all, and basically just used my pure crack-climbing strength to yard my way up these fingerlocks to the final slopey mantle (which felt decidedly scary when I looked back down at my last bit of gear miles below). As you might imagine, I was pretty disappointed with my performance (though I could maybe blame weariness from East Buttress the day before, or the baking sun as mitigating factors), and rather than deal with the absolute cluster of people trying to work out how to abseil from my anchor at the end of the pitch, I chose to link it into Pitch 1 of Sons of Yesterday for a giant 55m pitch (with almost no protection in the last 15m, as I had no more gear to place). But regardless of my failure to onsight something well within my limits, it's a cracker of a pitch, and worth the effort to get to it to try for the onsight.

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
the climbing.
Talking to locals at Camp 4, I learned that many parties don't even make it to the start of the climb due to the extremely demanding access (involving more than 2 hours of bush-bashing up a hill with tricky navigation, and 300m of jumaaring up fixed ropes of dubious quality). Stephen and my attention was originally drawn to this route because we wanted to tackle a big wall which was shorter than The Nose (though, admittedly, we only looked at the number of Pitches, rather than the actual length of the climb), had predominantly pitches that we could climb free, with only a handful of pitches of mandatory aid, and wouldn't be swamped with the crowds of the more conventional big wall routes in The Valley. I have to admit that I was also intrigued by the obscurity of this route, as despite being one of the 3 major faces, it doesn't really get climbed all that often.

Stephen at our gear stash near Tenaya Creek.
X marks the spot.
I went out for a recon lap on Sunday (our 6th Day in the Valley) while Stephen led Mass for the Catholic Parishioners at The Pines. Starting at Mirror Lake, I hiked along the main trail to Tenaya Creek, then bush-bashed my way up Tenaya Creek for several hours to the start of Tenaya Canyon, where Mount Watkins first came into view. After getting lost trying to work out how to get to the base of the main cliffline, I eventually arrived at the first of the 9 fixed ropes encompassing more than 300m of jumaaring. As carefully as possible I jugged each rope, backing up wherever possible (sometimes there were multiple fixed ropes on a pitch), testing all ropes before committing, and knotting/repairing damaged ropes as I came across them. After eventually arriving at the base of the actual climb, I deposited the small gear-stash I'd brought along, and rapped back to the ground. On the walk back down I ran into Stephen, and we cached a second volume of gear a short distance back down Tenaya Creek from Mount Watkins.

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
fixed-rope Jumaars.
Stephen high on the 90m Pitch 2 to the top of
the pillar.
The first Pitch is a rope-stretching 70m of easy 5.5 climbing (about grade 14/15 climbing) to a dubious belay. Stephen led the second 90m pitch (necessitating some simul-climbing) at about 5.7 (gr17) to the top of a very obvious pillar feature in the middle of the wall. After that (though, for some reason, not actually counted as individual pitches) you have to do 2 x 50m pendulums, whereby you rap down 50m from the top of the pillar, and make a massive pendulum rightwards to gain a ledge. After both climbers reach the ledge, you get to repeat the process to reach another ledge even further right and lower down. This turned out to be quite tricky as a lot of sideways motion was needed to make the distance on the pendulum, and with the pillar to smash into if you lost momentum and swung backwards. Stephen had the nerve-racking duty of managing both of these pendulums, and eventually, at about 4pm we arrived at the start of the 3rd pitch.

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.

In every good epic, there's a point where the proverbial wheels fall off, and it all goes to hell. At this point, Stephen and I had been baking in the sun for most of the day, an experience made worse by the polished white granite amplifying the onslaught, and driving home the fact that for the modern climber, 4 litres of water per person per day (remembering that this volume has to last each of us for all 24 hours of that given day), really wasn't enough in these conditions.

Stephen high on the notorious C2+ aid pitch, right as the
sun vanished behind the west-towers of Mount Watkins.
The next pitch off the Sheraton Watkins was Stephen's, and was a true C2+ aid pitch which was thin, vegetated, a bit loose, with super-fiddly gear (most of which subsequently popped out when I tried to jumaar up the fixed line on Second) and notoriously bad bolts. Suffice to say that despite fairly efficient climbing to this point, this pitch was slow, hard and sketchy, and both of us were becoming delirious with dehydration (something which seems to echo the infamous 1st ascent of this route, whereby the first ascensionists budgeted at 1/2 litre of water per person per day in summer!). After 2 hours of tenuous aiding, Stephen discovered that the last bolt in the final bolt ladder had fallen out, but had left the sheath stuck in the bolt hole (meaning he couldn't even skyhook the hole). He spent quite a while trying to pendulum off an utterly rubbish bolt onto a blunt rib-feature to the right (we later learned that doing it this way is 5.10+) but couldn't stick the free moves to climb the rib. In desperation he decided to try and hammer a pecker into the space between the sheath and the bolt hole, which resulted in a shouting match between the two of us as we tried to work through frazzled tempers and miscommunication to get the required gear sent up on the haul line. Finally, with a few millimeters of pecker hammered into this tiny space, Stephen managed a sketchy top-step in his aider, and mantled onto the ledge to finish the pitch right at sundown.

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.
Placing 3 half-placed wires in rotten rock to create an "anchor", I fixed the haul-line for Stephen to jumaar up (backing it up off myself, so that if the anchor failed I would still become an improvised anchor as I fell to the last piece, and prevent Stephen from going splat). Stephen jugged to the belay at the end of pitch 14, fixed our spare 70m rope to the tag-line so that I could haul it up, and belayed me from that stance to the end of pitch 15. I then left Stephen to jumaar up the newly fixed line and clean the gear as he went, while I fixed the 70m rope to the pitch 15 anchor, abseiled all the way down to the haul bag below pitch 14 to fix the 70m rope to it, and -when Stephen was in a position to haul- released the haul bag before jumaaring all the way back up the 70m line to assist Stephen with the hauling. My efforts to save time had cost us at least 1.5 hours of time beyond what it should have, and now we weren't looking so good for topping out before dark. With our limited water and food supplies, we really weren't in a position to spend another day on the wall, and we simply couldn't afford to waste time like this.

Stephen hating life on the crux C2/5.9 moves at the end of
a steep, off-width pitch.
Stephen tackled the next 2-pitches as part of a compromise (I'd do the top 2 steep pitches in the dark, if he'd lead the wide pitch, and the remaining C2 aid pitch), and methodically thrashed his way up some masochistically wide terrain over the course of 70m of climbing, forced to negotiate some monstrous runouts as we didn't have much in the way of big gear to protect the wider sections. Right at the top of pitch 17 he encountered a free-move through a crumbling rooflet and onto a blank sloping slab which required several falls, a bit of shouting, and much thrashing to surmount, but eventually, right as the sun went down, he managed it, and in doing so unlocked the last pitch of climbing on Mount Watkins that I was concerned about.

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 next pitch, at steep, sustained 5.10c, would be a classic pitch of all-free crack climbing if it weren't 1200m above the ground. I really wanted to free it, and certainly put some effort into battling my way up it, but the minute it turned to steep fist-crack climbing, I resorted to resting on the gear, and continued in the same fashion to the top, freeing it in perhaps 4 sections (in between rests).

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.
and onto a prow feature (described in the guide as a "killer topout"). I then climbed free up the steep arete with an exciting runout above the sucking void, and up a final steepish, sharp, crumbly and awkward crack to the summit. Clipping the anchors meant that there was now no more doubt that we'd make it back home this night, but it also instigated the final epic bookend to this adventure.

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 found out days later that we'd managed to miss a much easier variant of this same trek by staying higher on the ridgeline for longer, but in the dark it was 10:30pm before we found the branch-trail that would eventually lead to what we were looking for: the Snow Creek trail between Olmstead Point in Tuolomne Meadows, and Mirrow Lake in Yosemite Valley. Despite knowing that it was 11 miles from this intersection back to where our car was parked (and about 1500 vertical metres of descent), I was still operating in the kilometres mindset, and anticipated a mere 1.5 hours or so to get back to the car from this point. As it turned out, 1.5 hours actually amounted to more than 3 hours of slogging, and so it was that we arrived back at our home base in Yosemite Valley at 1:30am in the morning, with a large chunk of our gear still stashed above the climb.

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.
We'd both suffered in the heat with severe dehydration; I'd really struggled with the hauling (I don't have much mass to move a heavy haulbag, and building mechanical advantage into the system after each pitch is tedious); I'd also been somewhat disappointed with what I'd managed to free over the 3 days, succeeding in onsighting nothing harder than Yosemite 5.10b, though I tried to onsight as hard as 5.10d, and feeling -while on the wall- utterly unwilling to even attempt to onsight anything 5.11 or harder. I'm a free climber, not an aid climber, and the sections of french-free that I did do in between easier sections of free climbing just felt like I was allowing myself the easy way-out of the more committing free-climbing. Anyone who has climbed in Yosemite will doubtless attest that the grades there are both sandbagged, and in a style which tends to humble even hardened granite climbers not used to the very specific style of Yosemite granite, but regardless, I wanted to push myself here, and I wasn't sure I was able to do that on the Big Walls, or on the more committing 1-day multipitches.

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).