Quarter Dome is Full Adventure
Since I did this climb, and because of this trip report, I've become good friends with Mark Hudon. We climb together for a few days or more each year and we've climbed up El Capitan, The Diamond on Longs Peak, the Rostrum, AstroMonkey at Smith Rocks, Naked Edge in Eldorado, Iron Messiah and Spaceshot in Zion, etc. Most of the time Mark is winching me up like a haulbag. After retiring from being a traveling climbing, Mark eventually settled down in Hood River, Oregon where he founded the Hood River Coffee Company with his wife. He then started climbing at Smith Rocks and eventually redpointed every route there easier than 5.13c.
Mark contacted me about this trip report and we talked about his and Max's ascent. He said that back in those days they didn't really consider free climbing pendulums. When Max and Mark worked on the Salathe,they didn't bother trying to free the pendulum into the Hollow Flake (later freed by Stefan Glowacz at 5.12c), for instance, or the pendulums on their mostly free ascent of the South Face of Mt. Watkins. Apparently it was something that they didn't really consider. On Quarter Dome Max led the All Time Nailup (5.12) crack pitch and he did not make the leap indicated in the topo. As I state below, I still believe that no one has done this leap.
Mark and Max onsighted Quarter Dome (beside the leap, which they didn't even attempt) and felt it was another step in the evolution of big wall free climbing because it required climbing 10c far above gear, onsight and with no protection added, and that it was much more remote than previous free climbing efforts.
When Mark and Max freed Quarter Dome, they hiked into the wall, climbed a few pitches, but ended up sleeping at the base of the wall on the first day. The second day they climbed the wall free (save the pendulum) and hiked over to the saddle by Half Dome where Mark's brother met them with food. The next day they climbed the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, onsight, with only about ten moves of aid, all on the bolt ladders, the Robbins Traverse pendulum, and the final A3 slab pitch. They used strict free climbing ethics with both climbers freeing all the pitches. They onsighted the Zig Zag's last pitch, considered 5.12b/c these days! This was certainly the best onsight effort on Half Dome until 2004 when Phil Gruber onsighted the complete route (a year before Leo Houlding). This wasn't unprecedented for them for Jones freed the pitch just below the Salathe Roof, which is now rated 5.12b (5.12d if linked from Sous le Toit Ledge), and Hudon followed it free on his first try.
Also, Hudon and Jones did the route in just 5.5 hours. That time is probably still unmatched for both climbers freeing this much of the route, though maybe Dean Potter followed Leo Houlding completely free when Houlding onsighted the route in September, 2005.
So, Quarter Dome and Half Dome both onsight "as free as can be" on two consecutive days in 1980 (Clint has it listed as 1979 on this site, but I thought the guidebook called this 1980). Pretty impressive. Even today there are not many climbers who could match this feat.
But, the route has yet to be completely freed, as far as I know.
Friday I received a postcard in the mail from my friend John Blackberries. Berries was residing in fabled Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, living out his dream of being on the Search and Rescue group. The postcard said:
I need a climbing partner. Come on out and climb Quarter Dome with me. :-)
I don't think he expected me to come, but it just so happens that I was switching jobs at the time and my wife had granted me a week of vacation before starting the new job. I dashed off a letter (the only way to contact John) and he called me the following Wednesday night. The trip was on and I would arrive the coming Monday. I called the Loobster, who lives in Gilroy, California, to see if he wanted to join us and it didn't take much convincing before he acquiesced.
John had attempted Quarter Dome before. He had also attempted Washington Column once before without much luck. This guy really wanted to get up a wall and I hoped to be the guy to help him.
John knew a hardman friend, Don, who had climbed the North Face of Quarter Dome - Valley to Valley - in one day! This is akin to doing the Nose in a day! Which Don had also done. We were shooting for three days. Donís advice was to bring a hammer and a few pins, but for some strange reason, laziness I guess, we left them behind. Somehow I thought that the route was climbed more often and any necessary pins would have been replaced by now...this erroneous logic would haunt me later.
The North Face of Quarter Dome was first climbed by Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost in September of 1962 and rated Grade V, 5.9 A2. This rating isn't too accurate though. Due to its location, approach, and 19 pitch length, it is more of a Grade VI than the Northwest Face of Half Dome. Certainly a Grade VI if Washington Column is a Grade V. The route was supposedly free climbed and renamed Pegasus by Max Jones and Mark Hudon in 1980. I have my doubts though...
Mark Hudon wrote an article entitled "Free As Can Be" that was published in the American Alpine Journal in 1981. This article dealt with climbing the big wall routes of Yosemite in the best style possible. The article mainly concentrates on their efforts to free the Salathe Wall, but briefly discusses Quarter Dome. They rated the route 5.12 without any letter designation. In 1980 this was near the top end of the freeclimbing scale on short, worked, easily accessible climbs, not Grade V backcountry climbs. Yes, Art Higbee freed the Higbee Hedral (5.12) on the free variation to the Northwest Face of Half Dome in 1976 but this pitch was much more accessible, attracted more attention and was located low on the route (pitch 5 versus pitch 16.) Also, in the article they never mention the wild leap required at the end of the "All Time Nailup" pitch. I would think such a radical move to complete a first free ascent would be quite notable.
Regardless, the route certainly hadn't been free climbed this year (and doubtfully climbed at all) and certainly isn't done often. In fact, I doubt it has ever been free climbed. The free variations are completely overgrown. What did the free climbers do? Aid climb up and garden the crack before the free attempt? Also, the "jump" at the top of the All Time Nailup Pitch doesn't look too possible. This would involve a sideways leap of about ten feet from about ten feet above a six inch ledge! And you would be leaping from finger locks and a crack foothold! I doubt this could be achieved on the first twenty tries. The second would only have one shot at attempting it. In addition, the start of the All Time Nailup looks extremely hard to protect while freeclimbing. Was it pre-protected with pins? Anyone know any details about this? Has it ever received a second free ascent? Anyone know how I could contact Jones or Hudon? Clint told me Max Jones was living in the Tahoe It seems like another "Hall of Mirrors" type story is in order for this route.
I flew into Fresno and waited for John to come pick me up. Three hours later he shows and off we go. Unfortunately, Johnís elbow was hurting him and was getting worse. His participation in the climb was already in doubt. Eventually, on the morning of our departure, John backed out completely. His elbow was causing such pain that he didnít even think he could jug the route. It was the right decision, but a painful one for John to make.
Charitably, John agreed to hike in with Loobster and me and be our guide. His friends, Jaymi and Mick, also wanted to come along to scout the approach. They were anxious to help us hump in loads also and we reluctantly (yeah, right) agreed. We started hiking at noon.
Quarter Dome isn't climbed very often and there is a good reason for it. In a valley filled with dozens of great walls and hundreds of routes with minimal approaches, Quarter Dome has one doozy of an approach. On Berries' attempt, it took him two days to get to the base of the climb. The backcountry experience in Yosemite Valley wouldn't come cheap. Because of John's previous approach, he guaranteed that we wouldn't make the wall that day. Roper's guide says it is a four hour approach, so I figured we could make it in eight hours. Roper is a sandbagger extraordinaire!
Outdoor enthusiasts frequently disdain the Valley, and me, for going there so often. "How can you stand that place with all the people?" they whine. I shrug my shoulders, raise my eyebrows, and smugly answer, "You just have to get off the beaten path." Here I spent three days in Yosemite Valley and didn't see a single soul besides my companions! Impossible? Read on.
Clearly the approach is what limits the traffic on Quarter Dome. It is long, beautiful, adventurous, arduous, and as much of a bushwhack as things get in Yosemite. The hike lies deep in Tenaya Canyon. A couple miles past Mirror Lake the trail ends and you are on your own. A faint, very faint, trail is spotted intermittently as we pick our way up the north side of the creek. This is also the approach to the South Face of Mt. Watkins.
Our first obstacle is crossing Snow Creek. Loobster and I attempted to reconnoiter Mt. Watkins early last year and couldn't get across this raging torrent. But this had been a dry year and a little scouting found a reasonable crossing.
We laboriously worked our way up along the north side of Tenaya Creek deeper and deeper into Tenaya Canyon. The going was over talus, through brush, along sandy slopes, continuously going up or down with little or no sign of a trail. We stopped below Mt. Watkins for a rest and admired the new views of familiar structures. We decided to cross Tenaya Creek here and started heading up the slope to Quarter Dome. Before heading up, we filled our water bottles via my Sweetwater pump (this is a great, easy to use, inexpensive pump, by the way.)
Now the loads were truly heavy and we had 2000 vertical of bushwhacking and steep slabs to go. We thrashed upwards through god awful growth until finally getting into a dry, rocky drainage. Here our companions turned back and the loads increased once again. Loobster and I continued on straight up 4th and low 5th class slabs unroped. This greatly increased our speed on the approach but was a dangerous risk. Most of the climbing felt solid, but near the top the slabs were rotten and covered in lichen. At one point I threw a rope down to Loobster when he wasn't confident. Soon after we were at the base of the wall.
The approach wasn't yet over. Our topo showed the route starting from the top of a ramp that led out to our left. To get there we needed to climb a 5.5 pitch and then follow the 3rd class ramp for another pitch and a half. Loobster led this section and I followed with the haulbag on my back. This was strenuous but once again saved us time and it was the last work of the day. We reached the rock walled bivy at the top of the ramp by 7 p.m.
We had time to relax, get organized, eat and drink before it got dark. The route above looked intimidating, but we were excited to get on it and planned an early start the next morning. The bivy here is very comfortable and we spent a wonderful night feeling very alone in the wilderness.
The alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. and we slowly started to move. Eating this early is never a very pleasant activity, but the Poptarts made it easier. After packing the bags, I started up the first pitch at 6. I climbed the mostly 3rd class face to a ramp where I found a pin. I decided to belay here since I was almost out of rope. The topo doesn't really show a belay here, but it is essential as the next pitch is 150 feet long also and ends at what the topo shows as the first belay.
I led the next pitch also since our plan was for me to lead the odd pitches. I scampered up an easy ramp and exited out onto the face via a 5.8 hand traverse. Easier rock led me to a vertical to overhanging chimney that proved challenging. The rope drag was tremendous due to the circuitous nature of the pitch and it was a massive struggle to reach the belay where I found some old pins. Each belay on the route, with one exception, was fixed although usually with old pins and occasionally old bolts.
The guidebook calls for a "light aid rack", but it isn't clear what this constitutes. Does that include a hammer and a few pins? Does the route go clean? We counted on doing it clean as we brought no hammer.
The Loobster took over the lead now and inched right away from the belay. Here a tricky, poorly protected 5.9 move gains easier ground. The taller you are the easier this move is. The Loobster then scampered up the dihedral to the belay. This was a short pitch.
The third pitch was mine and the first of the 10a free climbing pitches. Steep crack climbing in a small right facing corner led up to a tiny roof. Here I followed the crack by underclinging and jamming out to the right and then up again. Here I was forced into strenuous liebacking. The wall was extremely smooth and no rest in sight. Five feet above my last piece I pumped out trying to place another cam and took the plunge. Damn! I usually flash 10a. I donít know if the climbing was harder or that I was just intimidated by the remote position and the big wall rack. I hauled myself back up to my top piece and stretched to place another camming unit. Then I hauled up on that and shook out. From here I was able to finish off the pitch without any more tainting.
While I hauled the bag, the Loobster jugged the pitch. Quickly he set off on the next lead which went left around a corner. Here he had two choices: a wide 5.8 crack and a thinner 5.9 crack. He chose the former and had to run things out a bit. When I followed this pitch, I thought the 5.9 crack looked easier. It wasnít very long and protected easily. The exit move at the top of this pitch was an awkward grunt as the crack turns into an offwidth/squeeze.
The fifth pitch had me descending left at a slight angle along an exposed 4th class flake. From here I bridged over to a five inch 5.7 crack. After thirty feet of this, the crack became a classic Yosemite chimney with polished walls. I grunted my way to the top. The Loobster had to give me considerable help freeing the bag on this pitch as it was constantly jammed in the chimney.
The next pitch was mine also since it was rated 10a. This is a beautiful crack pitch that starts with 5.7 climbing but steepens and leads to two parallel cracks. Once again I pumped out a bit and had to hang on the rope. The pitch ended on a small ledge and I hauled once again. The next pitch didnít match our topo very accurately. There is no face climbing on this pitch at all. The pitch leads up a curving corner and turns a difficult 5.9 roof. The Loobster led and I jugged up after him as it was his turn to haul the bag.
This put us on a narrow ledge and the next pitch involves traversing this ledge 140 feet to the left. Due to the distance of the traverse and the difficulty with lowering out the bag, I followed this pitch (only 4th class) while dragging the bag along with me. This was a bit scary but saved us quite a bit of time.
The far end of this ledge wasnít any better than the other end. I couldnít believe that John had actually spent the night on this horribly exposed ledge on his attempt. The anchors werenít that great and you couldnít unpack the bag very easily. But the topo even indicated that this was the bivy. Since it was only 1 p.m., we decided to at least fix another pitch and hope for a better bivy up higher.
This next pitch is what stopped John and his partner. They couldnít find the start of it. The topo shows it going up the ubiquitous right arching corner. Unfortunately, there were a number of possibilities and I could see why they got confused. Fortunately for me, there was a rope hanging down near one of these corners and I decided to give that one a try. Of course, it might have been the wrong corner and that might explain why the rope was left. Maybe the previous party determined that they were going the wrong way, rapped off, and then had their rope get stuck. But my choice was somewhat confirmed when, a short ways up the corner and partially hidden by a bush growing out of the crack, I found an old piton.
The climbing was supposedly 10b, but with the plant growth it was aid for me. The corner arched up and right and the climbing was near vertical. Less than thirty feet up, the corner ended and awkward free moves got me above the overhang and into a wide crack system. The climbing above here was only supposed to be 5.8 and that might be accurate, but it was physical, continuous climbing. And it was long. I ran out the entire rope before I reached the belay ledge. Everything finally matched the topo and I knew we were on route. Whatís more, the ledge was considerably better than the one Loobster was on. It was small and sloping, but two people could cram themselves side by side and bivy here. Also, it was much deeper, almost three feet, than the ledge below and you could relax on this ledge. Protection was abundant and I backed up the two pins with numerous pieces.
When the Loobster arrived at the ledge we setup camp. It was only 2:30 p.m. and we had a lot of time to spend here. We first took a well deserved rest and had some lunch. At one point I was lamenting how this ledge would be even nicer if there was a piece of protection at the other end of the ledge and we could then string a section of rope between the two points and hang gear from this. As I pointed over to the blank wall where I hoped protection could be found, I noticed that there was a bolt on this wall! Cool! Wish for a bolt in a certain location and one appears. Just think what damage you could do with such a power. Especially if possessed by an ardent rap bolter!
Around 5:30 p.m., after some reading (I never go anywhere without a book to read) and a nap, I decided to get off my lazy butt and fix the next pitch. The start of this pitch required difficult 5.9 moves to get into the big chimney above us. From the topo we thought the base of this chimney was another possible bivy location, but this isnít the case. At the back of the big chimney, another right curving dihedral leads up and out of the giant chimney. A few chimney moves and I was up to a fixed pin and switched over to my aiders. The chimney is so wide now that it isnít really a chimney any more and is climbed via the crack in the dihedral. Supposedly this is 5.10c, but was a bit damp and overgrown and I aided it.
The corner went easily as the angle was slightly less than vertical and there were a number of fixed pins to speed things up. The top was capped by an awkward little overhang and then I was on a small ledge. The protection here was a bit marginal, two old pins, but I managed to back it up with small stoppers, a TCU, and a small cam. This done, I rappelled back to camp for more rest and food.
The night was long and very uncomfortable on the cramped ledge. We were squished up against each other so that whenever either of us moved, the other was disturbed also. Fortunately, the night was warm. The views of the Valley, when the moon rose, were stunning. In fact, the entire day we were reveling in the beauty and unfamiliarity of the views of Yosemite.
The next morning after breakfast and packing up the haulbag, I was zipping up the fixed line by 6:30 a.m. Loobster was starting the first lead of the day by 7 a.m. Right away, things became much more difficult than the previous day. The next three pitches would be the meat of the route. Loobster started the pitch by moving off the left end of the small ledge via a couple of bolts to a right curving corner. The crack in this corner is thin, too thin to accept cams, and because of the curve of the dihedral the crack opens almost straight down. This proved to be a very dicey aid lead and I would recommend a few pins and a hammer for climbing this section. Unfortunately, this wasnít an option for us. Delicately, the Loobster slowly worked his way up the corner until he could exit straight up to a pendulum point. From here, he pendulumed twenty feet back to the left, and free climbed up the belay.
Following this pitch was scary. I clipped on the jumars and started up the first section without too much trouble, but when I got to the corner things started to look worse. The taut rope was running almost horizontal and now all the gear wasnít being weighted straight down, but pulled way to the right. I was right above another right curving dihedral so, in essence, I was right over the lip of a roof. One of the intermediate pieces popped and scared me, but the piece I was on didnít pull. The anticipation of the gear pulling get me very much on edge. I cleaned a couple more pieces and then, pop! pop! pop! pop! Four pieces pulled and I took a 15 foot fall/pendulum back underneath the roof. Yikes! That was scary. I jugged over the roof and things went smoothly from this point on. At least it wasnít difficult to clean the pro...
It was past nine oíclock before I started up the next pitch, which would prove to be the crux. The topo calls for one to immediately follow an "easy spectacular crack which diagonals right." Well, this is wrong. There is no crack right off the belay and what I found thirty feet up wasn't too appealing. The "spectacular crack" is nothing more than a dirt and grass filled seam with a single Lost Arrow piton at the start of it. The free variation is supposed to go up yet another curving corner which hangs above this seam but it looked like a Cascade bushwhack as further up large plants obscured the crack. Things look hopeless.
I free climbed (5.6) up and slightly left toward the arch until I reached the start of the crack. "We're hosed, Loobster," I said, dejected and exasperated. What about the arch? It looked like it would take pro for a ways, but then bushes. It was too far left to Pendulum back right. "We're hosed, Lou."
Upon returning I asked a friend, Clint Cummins, if he knew of anyone who had free climbed the route. He told me that Brian Cox had attempted a free ascent and his comments when asked about the climb were:
Actually, I haven't done Pegasus. Elliot did the route with Greg Murphy I believe. I tried shortly after I heard that it had been freed, but with no map, we didn't know that the free pitch that led to the base of the "All-Time Nailup/Finger Crack" really did go up the rather grungy looking right arching corner system. I tried to aid the much cleaner looking dog leg aid crack, but we didn't have the necessary gear, so we bailed. I do remember Elliot and/or Greg saying that the leap was truly one of considerable faith.
You're right: we didn't have any TCUs on the Pegasus attempt. But, we were carrying courage in the form of a hammer and a few pins. Too few as it turned out: only two would fit the dog leg aid crack, and, as I was leapfrogging them, dropped one, thus ending the climb. I doubt, however, that we would've been able to free the "All Time Nailup". Still, we freed the route to the dog leg aid crack -- including the pitch where that guy died. Easy to see how that happened: unprotected 5.10 face moves off of a very pointed pillar. Quite scary; fortunately, it wasn't my lead... I asked Max, much later, about why they hadn't put in a bolt. He claimed that they would've, but didn't have a bolt kit.
I hauled up the nut tool to try and garden out the diagonal seam. Clipping an aider into the pin, I stepped out onto the 85 degree wall. Dig, scrape, poke, garden..."Hey, there is a crack underneath all this shit!" I place a small stopper; test it; stand on it; clip in the rope. Cool. This might work, I thought
I gardened my way up and right along the diagonal dirt crack, painstakingly excavating each placement. The less-than-vertical angle allowed me to climb high in my aiders. Dicey placements ensued though. Each time I would caution Lou below, "Testing!" I would nervously call out. A marginal placement held and I was anxious to get off it. Another marginal RP had me worried. The diagonal crack made placements difficult as they rotated a bit when weighted. The RP held and I backcleaned the previous marginal piece and moved up.
Pop! I was falling! Slamming into the wall fifteen feet down, I hung upside down. My elbow screamed in pain and blood soaked my shirt. "Are you alright?" queries the Loobster. I cringe in pain and can't answer for a moment, but I am okay and soon acknowledge this. Damn!
Back up to my high piece I go, and find a better placement for a #0 Flexible Friend. My elbow hurts and I'm worried about the blood, but it isn't swelling so it must be just a cut or scrape. I continue upwards, albeit a bit more carefully and a bit more spooked.
Eventually, the crack turns and heads straight up. Here the topo calls the climbing A2. There is no need to garden anymore, but the placements are even more tenuous. It takes me a long time to find something that works. I inch upwards on marginal gear.
Thirty feet up the crack diagonals a bit left and then disappears into a blank wall! What now?! The topo neglects to mention this section. I can't believe it. We have reached an impasse, a dead end. Loobster is ready to retreat after my fall and having numerous placements pull upon testing. I don't even want to think about retreating down fourteen pitches and then the technical slabs below. I am more than half a rope length out and will have to down aid the pitch. Ugh. Things look bleak in either direction.
I can see a five inch ledge that cuts across the wall to the right and it is only twenty feet above me. A measly twenty damn feet. If I could only reach that... I notice some grass, just a few blades really, sticking out from the rock up and left. I can't even see the seam, but figure it must be there. Maybe...if I can get over there...that might work.
Two marginal pieces later I am trying to get anything into the last piton scar on my current crack. Nothing will work. It is hopeless once again. I slump in despair. A couple of pins would make this climb A2, but without them...retreat?
Ridiculous thoughts pass through my mind. I scan the face for footholds, handholds, anything. An eighth inch flake presents itself. With that and my fingers in the piton scar, I might be able to reach the grass to my left...I don't want to try it. It scares me. But I don't want to retreat either. Indecision and despair tear me apart. Arraghh!! What to do? Free climb above shitty aid placements to...to what? I don't even know if there is a crack up there. This is insane. If I get hurt badly here, we are in deep shit. The previous fall hurt but didn't disable me. If I fall here it will be two to three times as far depending upon how much gear pulls.
With pure, unadulterated fear gripping my mind, I decided to try it; take the fall; and hopefully descend undamaged, but with the peace of mind of having at least tried it. Then I could retreat with a good conscience. I just wish the pro was better for the inevitable fall...
First, I tried making the move from the 2nd step on my aider. Too low. I would have to top-step with my right foot and step up on the tiny flake with my left. "I'm trying it, Lou" I press up into the top-step and jam my fingers into the shallow, slanted pin scar. It sucks. Then I ease onto the flake and stretch for the edge where the grass grows. The edge is positive but is oriented almost vertically so it doesn't provide a good hold unless I lean slightly away from it.
Now both hands are on the edge, feet smearing on little nothings. I peer around at the crack...totally filled with grass and dirt! Panic is starting to take hold of me as my arms start to pump out. I quickly grab the nut tool and start flailing away at the seam like a Beni-Hana chef without the accuracy. Five feet above five pieces that will all pull, hanging on by my left hand and gardening for all I'm worth with my right, I'm right on the edge of losing control. Fear has such a tight grip on my mind that it forces my arms to cramp and my hand to sweat.
Alright, the crack is clean. What now? #0 friend? "Damn! Damn!" Too shallow. Only three cams will seat. I pull on it gingerly and it pops! "Shit! I'm coming off, Lou!" I re-grab the crack with my right hand and adjust my feet. My calves are starting to quiver and shake like a beginner. Fear owns me.
What about a stopper? Fiddle, fiddle, yank, pop! Damn! Too flared, too shallow, too slanted. A TCU! Of course. It is my only hope now. That or take the plunge. #1? Too big. Legs and arms are going...#0? Shaky, barely in there. Slanted. Will it hold? It must because I'm cooked. Cold sweat covers me as I reach for my bundled up aider and clip it in, then hook my fifi in a loop and slowly weight it. I close my eyes in fear. It holds...
My mouth is completely dry as I gingerly move up. A piece of grass is jammed between the cams of the TCU and the rock. The cams shift! "It's coming out!" But it doesn't. I manage to get in two more shaky pieces and now I am faced with another mandatory free move to reach the ledge above. Top stepping on a #1 Lowe Ball (that would be destroyed as I rip one end of the cable from the stopper on this move, and yet it did not pull), I stretch and reach the ledge. No turning back now. Both my aiders have been left behind at this point. I mantle onto the ledge and bury two bomber stoppers, one above the other, in a thin crack. My first decent pieces in thirty feet.
Now I shuffle right across this ledge. No pro here and Lou will have fun following, but I can see the pendulum point and the belay. Two biners have been left behind at the pendulum, but they are so sticky I can't open their gates. An easy tension traverse/pendulum and I free climb to the belay: a couple of small footholds protected by two ancient pins and a bolt. I'm safe.
I had used two complete sets of RP's on the pitch along with my smallest cams and Lowe Balls. It was the hardest, scariest lead of my life. But we weren't going down. I can honestly say that if we weren't so far up and so far back, I wouldn't have attempted the free moves. I would have retreated. My advice: bring a hammer.
I fixed the rope and hauled the bag. I was at the base of the "All Time Nailup" pitch and it looked bleak. It appeared to be just a seam for the first 25 feet. Would it go? It had to. I was so far right of the last belay that we couldn't rappel back to it. I started to look for options. Could we pendulum back to the belay? Or to a crack and then pendulum again? Damn, retreat is only getting worse. I sure hope the Loobster can do this pitch, I thought, as I was too mentally fried to attempt it.
When the Loobster arrived at the belay he wasn't too intimidated by the next pitch and quickly started up it. The crack did offer some hidden stopper placements, but a few were desperate. The going was slow initially, but soon the crack opened up to accept small cams. Loobster backcleaned furiously here as two of our units fit the crack perfectly. Soon he was at the top of the crack where another pendulum was required. This one back to the left. This is where the free variation is supposed to jump across this void! As I stated before, this doesn't look very feasible. The topo shows the belay immediately after the pendulum, but this isn't a good spot. Loobster ended up climbing considerably above this to a good stance. This was the only belay on the climb that we had to build solely out of our own gear, but the belay is very solid. I followed and lowered out the pendulum (we had to do this a lot!). It was now 2 p.m. and we were starting to get concerned about the time. At the rate we were moving, we wouldnít make the top by nightfall. Things had to pick up.
The next pitch is supposed to be a 5.9 pitch and I was glad to be getting a free pitch that should go fast. Our pace up the wall had been incredibly slow since the bivy. We had only done three pitches so far this day. Each one had taken over two hours to do. My only pitch had taken over two hours just to lead! I quickly covered forty feet or so and spied a couple of bolts above me. Hmmm. This looks like the next pitch. I whip out my copy of the topo and sure enough, I am starting up the next pitch already. With the Loobster climbing up higher to belay on the previous pitch, we could combine three pitches into two. Alright! We needed a speed boost.
The drawback was that I was now leading another aid pitch. I clipped the ancient, half pulled bolts and tried to get off them as soon as possible. They looked like body weight would pull them. This led to, surprise, surprise, another right ways arching corner.
The climbing wasn't too bad but did have a couple of dicey placements to keep me on my toes. The pitch ended at a small stance and I scoped out the 10a free variation to the next pitch while Loobster cleaned the pitch. When Loobster arrived I volunteered to attempt the free variation. This started out with an immediate tension traverse - so much for freeing the variation. I went left a bit, then a bit more. Past one dihedral and then another. I couldn't figure out where to go. Eventually I started up a corner that looked promising and promptly cornered myself with unclimbable and unprotectable rock above and runout 5.8/9 climbing below.
I placed a stopper and had Lou lower me back to easier terrain. After pulling the rope I backtracked the pitch to the previous corner and started up that. The climbing was easier but the top looked very hard. Halfway up the dihedral I was able to exit out of it via a wild, overhanging mantle on a flake that stuck out of the left wall. This put me near the end of the aid pitch and I clipped the last two fixed pieces of this pitch and was at the belay. What a pain! The aid version looked easy and I should have taken it judging by all the fixed gear on it.
The final lead fell to me also since it was a 10a pitch and it was hoped that I could move quickly. This last pitch turned out to be one of the easiest on the entire route. I easily aided it without aiders due to the proximity of fixed pins and the low angle. Once again I climbed a right arching corner until exiting onto the summit slabs. This final section was a bit scary: 5.5 friction moves on a grainy slab with a 25 foot runout. After clearing a short headwall, I was on the flat summit!
I can't adequately describe the feelings I felt on the summit because of my shortcomings as a writer. The joy and relief were overwhelming and rooted deep in my emotions. I half wanted to weep from relief but instead whooped for joy like a small boy winning a picnic race. The summit was so much in doubt and the fear and uncertainty on the wall so great as to make the summit supremely meaningful. You wonder, as Loobster did, why you climb such things. But you never wonder this as you stand on the summit in the golden warmth of the late afternoon.
We slapped high fiveís and even embraced. The hike out would be long and half of it would be by headlamp, but most of it would be a well traveled trail and the flush of success would drive us on. This was one of my greatest adventures. Climbing in the backcountry...in Yosemite Valley!