SOLO NIAD – October 20, 2018

El Capitan the week before. Over half of the climb was completed at night with a headlamp. Photo Credit: John Clark

(To clear one thing up: technically the climb took 25.5 hrs and therefore wasn’t done in a day, but it’s the spirit that counts).

For most people, a solo NIAD would be the result of meticulous planning and preparation, but instead I chose to do it on a whim, with arguably terrible timing. The week prior, a cheeky climbing ranger passed me on the Muir Wall as he completed a proud 18 hour ascent, calling my rack a “peasant rack” because it lacked double black Totem cams. He and his partner’s banter was amusing, but their passing us made me and my friend top out in the dark that evening. Later that week I decide that the Nose is much easier than the Muir (when climbing both routes clean), and that I should at least be able to climb as fast as this friendly foe. I’ve previously climbed the NIAD twice, so I more or less know what to expect, although it has been several years and there are two concerns that I have. One concern is the logistics of soloing the route, and the second is that I am absolutely slammed at work for the the entire four day period leading up to the climb after I decide to do it, so I have roughly zero time to actually plan anything. 

I work until 1500 the day before the climb in order to finish writing up a large project for a pressing deadline. After work I go home, do my laundry, change the oil in my car, wash the dishes, and rack up for the climb in my dirt driveway using the last of the waning daylight. I leave Meadow Valley at 1730 and begin my regular six hour weekend commute to the Valley. I make a stop in Reno at REI to purchase a new lead line. I bought a 70m 9.4 Black Diamond rope, as my other rope was fuzzed out and core-shot, and I wanted something that would be slick to handle and not cause me undue stress on the climb. I still haven’t bought groceries yet for the trip, so I stop and pick up an assortment of bars and other quick eats. I also buy the cheapest and lightest watch that Walmart carries, as my cellphone had drowned the previous weekend and I have no other way of keeping time for pacing. Using the bright light of the Walmart parking lot, I finish the final stages of packing my already pre-sorted gear.

I continue to Travertine Hotsprings, the standard highlight of my drive to Yosemite. There had been no time for sushi in Reno, but I enjoy a relaxing 15 minute soak with two fellows who are smoking weed and talking about how only drunks and outlaws drive at 2AM. I drive for another hour before passing out at 9000′ camp, just outside of the east entrance to Yosemite. At 0300 my alarm sounds, and I blast across the moonlit landscape of Tuolumne Meadows. No people or animals are awake at this time; I have the road to myself and am able to make it to the El Cap bridge by 0415. Unfortunately, I’m rolling on less than 3 hours of sleep at this point, so I set my alarm for 0500 and pass out.

A commotion wakes me up: headlights reflect off the roof of my car as other climbers are racking up at the bridge. I’m instantly wide awake, and in less than 5 minutes I am running to the base of the route at a brisk jog. I can’t afford to let anyone get in front of me – I have no idea how crowded the route is, but I know that I will be passing every party on the route and don’t want to start off waiting at the base. Tom Evans reported that the Nose was relatively uncrowded the previous weekend, and I was banking on luck that it was currently in the same state. I pass one party on the approach trail, hoping that no one else is in line. I barely remember where the start of the route is, but I figure it out well enough. I solo the fourth class approach pitch, and luckily find myself alone at the start of the real climbing. The party that I passed continues on towards the SE face of El Cap.

I start climbing at 0530, Self-belaying the first pitch with my unmodified GriGri and the new rope I had carefully flaked in my backpack last night. It is always challenging to get in the rhythm, and the first pitch probably took me 30 minutes to complete. My new rope feels slick and is not twisted (yet). The first pitches are fixed, with haul bags at the top of pitch two. For the second pitch I decide to clip a minitraxion to the fixed line so that I can free climb it in my approach shoes, with only a small amount of french freeing. Morally confused, I still belayed myself with my own rope. I later found out that those fixed lines belonged to a friend from Montana. I lower down to clean pitch two as the sun is rising, and another party is jugging up below me. “Hell of a way to start the day, with a stuck rope!” I explain that I’m soloing the route and I’m cleaning the pitch. He wishes me luck, and I catch my final glimpse of him as I look back from Dolt. He’s progressed a single pitch, but appears stuck at a bulge.

I begin Pitch 3 without a rope, aiding up the C1 section and building an anchor with a 0.75 and 1” cam and a bunny ears knot. I aid soloed the first section so that I didn’t need to re-stack as much rope. The rest of the pitch goes buy without a hitch.

Pitch 4: the first real pendulum. I climb up and tension traverse to a crack, clip a fixed piece, and tension over to a juggy flake. The flake has a large flat top, so I build an awkward gear anchor at an alcove (semi-hanging) and clean the pitch. I lower, jug up, clean my first piece, jug to the furthest pendulum point, clipping it as a directional, clean the few cams I had placed on the C2 section below, and then do a single strand lower out through a beefy quick link. Because of where I built my anchor, the rope pull is not at risk of being caught up by the rope eating flake below me. I stack my rope in my pack, and quickly solo across Sickle, dispatching pitches 4 and 5 in under five minutes. A team of 2 from the state of Georgia is climbing pitch 5-6, I free solo through their party, up to the 5.9 bulge and then request to minitrax their haul line in order to comfortably free it in my approach shoes and pass them faster. As I minitrax past the bulge I awkwardly pass 3 pieces of gear that they left for pro. I am self conscious, I am still climbing in my approach shoes and I do not want to knock any loose rock on the party who is so graciously letting me pass.

I get to the anchor and pull out my rope, attaching it with two lockers. The party is still hauling, and I learn that this is their first wall. I wished them luck, despite them having standard daisies and alpine aiders. They had fixed to Sickle and hauled the day before, and seemed to be fairly competent free climbers. A week later I learned that they did indeed top out the route. I place a couple of cams before I get to a bolt on the 5.12a variation, tension traverse to the second bolt, and lower myself out to the next corner system (the standard way is to lower straight off the anchor, but my route keeps me out of the way of the party I had just passed.

I climb up to just below Dolt Hole and built a gear anchor. Just above me there is a team of three Aussies from Tasmania, two at the anchor, with three giant in-line haul bags already docked, with their third already leading. I rap down and clean the last pitch, swinging over and unclipping the bolts. I ask the team from Georgia to unclip my anchor for me, which they kindly oblige (this is simply to reduce crowding at the anchor). Their second had cleaned the pitch and they were sorting gear for the next lead. The lead Aussie is now off route, they swung past Stovelegs and are in the next crack system. I suggest that they retreat and go the correct way, which they do. Starting lower, I swing over to the 5.9 lieback, which is a thin juggy flake (approximately a 0.4” crack). I aid it, and stop at an alternate belay below the 5.8 hand section of the Stovelegs.

I clean the last pitch, and again, have the leader of the party from Georgia clean my anchor for me so that I don’t have to tension back the entire way. As I talk to them I learn that they are planning on spending 3 nights on the wall, with 3 liters/person/day. I hope they have enough water, but there is always the possibility of stashed water… The Aussie is back on route and is now at the anchor. Their lead line and haul line have somehow crossed several times, I‘m glad to be getting ahead of whatever cluster is about to ensue. I quickly french-free/crack jug past them.

Stovelegs Pitch. Photo Credit: Tom Evans

I almost drop my rope. It was flaked in my pack, but as I start climbing (ropeless) I heard the sound of the rope zipping out of my pack and reach back to grab it. Maybe 10m had already escaped from my pack. After that experience for the rest of the climb I ensure that the rope is clipped with a carabiner to the bag itself.

Aid soloing and French freeing. Photo Credit: Tom Evans

I crack jug/french-free Pitches 8-11 with my rope inside my pack until I reach Dolt Tower. Someone left water stashed here. I bring my rope out briefly for a single strand lower out (tie in with a figure 8, lower with GriGri, untie, pull rope) to get from Dolt Tower to the “5.7 squeeze”. Whatever that was, it was probably not a squeeze. I do a mixture of free and french free to get up to the pitch 13 fist crack, which I quickly aid using two #4’s. An easy solo up to El Cap Tower. The highlight is the high pulp orange juice that someone has left. After cautiously smelling it, I drink a third of a liter, leaving some behind. Shockingly, it was still good!

Approaching Texas Flake. Photo Credit: Tom Evans

I aid the first 5.9 crack moves off of El Cap Tower, then free climb the loose face to Texas Flake. A Bonanza of Water!!! possibly eight 2L soda bottles, all completely full and in the shade. It’s approximately 1230 and I am thirsty. I gulp down a liter of water and stupidly do not refill my own bottles. At this point I had only drank 0.5L, but I had been pounding water the night before. I strip off my chest harness and rack and attach it to my pack via 2 attachment points, put on my climbing shoes, and began the awkward start of getting into Texas Flake. I‘m not in love with committing to the fixed tat slung around chockstones, but manage the awkward dance. I throw in a left hand jam and smash my wide hips into the chimney, repeatedly getting stuck, but finally dislodging myself and walking back into the cool depths. Black booty biner! I climb the chimney it facing out, below the lone bolt which I of course did not clip. I start climbing it as a starfish, with my pant legs rolled up to protect my knees, but then have to awkwardly transfer to knee-to-back, which is probably my least favorite chimney technique. There are not many foot holds to speak of, and it feels as desperate/more desperate than the last two times I led it. When I finally get high enough to reach the lip it is quite a relief. At the end, I remember that most people climb it further right than I had. Oh well, I had been committed. I haul my pack with my minitraxion 1:1 by hand. The cap of my water bottle wore one small hole in my pack, but luckily the bottle did not leak.

Flying up the bolts. Da BoltZ!!! Photo Credit: Tom Evans

The bolt ladder to the King Swing feels heroic, I daisy solo it as quickly as I can, building an anchor on the last bolts and clipping the last bolt as a directional and to prevent a factor 2 fall. I begin cam hooking up the Boot Flake. The gear quickly gets better, and soon I‘m on top of the boot. I had been unsure of how to best do the King Swing, but decide to opt for the same way I had gotten from Dolt Tower to the next crack system. I pass a single strand through one rap ring, tie into it, and lower myself on my GriGri. There is a knot in the very far end of my rope as a fail-safe. I lower 20′ below the boot, and on my second try I am able to tension over and latch the reasonably good jug that brings me over to Eagle Ledge. I debate for some time whether to climb high and then pull my rope, or to just go for it (the flakes adjacent to Boot Flake with numerous cut ropes had me spooked), but I decide to just go for it and give it a big whip. The rope comes free and falls neatly without issue. I flake it on the ledge, and then flake it into my pack.

I climb ropeless to P18, where I build a gear anchor and aid up to the pendulum point, back cleaning all but two pieces. I push a bight of rope through the quicklink, and lower myself to the Gray Bands with an ATC while on belay with a GriGri. I arrive at the anchor and pull the bight, then rap down and clean the 2 pieces, plus my anchor.

Pitch 19 is a traversing pitch in the Gray Bands. I perform a single strand rappel to get past a blind 5.7 downclimb which didn’t look so bad after I could see it. I then solo to the next anchors on juggy terrain that climbs like a mixture of face and crack.

I put myself on belay for the next pitch, as the opening free moves on the traverse look intimidating. The moves climb better than they look. I had brought 2 hooks for these pitches, in case the face climbing was too much, but it proved to be doable in approach shoes without chalk. The crack following the face is awkward and wide, I have to place some very deep cams (which I back-cleaned) before the crack closes down to a reasonable size.

Arriving at Camp IV I have my second lunch/dinner. A feast of bars and cheese sticks, washed down with a fair bit of water. It has been windy for the last couple of hours, and this bivy is flat, wide, and has a wall to the west which blocks the wind and makes for a terrific back rest. I could have stayed put forever, but press on in an effort to race the sun with the thought of arriving at the great roof before sunset, just in case Tom Evans is taking any photos. Pitch 21 feels like a heroic free solo as I climb the black diorite cracks in my approach shoes, and then tackle the 5.7 face traverse without undue hesitation. There is one fairly difficult reach-over move, assisted by a fixed sling. I’m very wary of using any fixed soft-goods, but this sling appears new and seems good enough. I french-free the final 5.9 moves and arrive at the base of the Great Roof. Time to put on the headlamp.

The whole thing is chalked up, Nina Caprez and Lynn Hill are working on freeing it. It is inspiring to say the least, my favorite observation was a smiley face drawn in blood under the overhang. The starting C1 pitch is a breeze due to many fixed nuts interspersed with, many blue and yellow Totem cam placements. I back-clean most of it, leaving a handful of fixed pieces as pro. The fixed gear under the roof is a bizarre mass of equalized pieces, nuts, lost arrows, etc. that all seem like fairly recent additions. I clip these intricate mini-anchors as pro, and then back-clean to the anchor. To clean the pitch I pay out a load of slack, rap down, jug up the other side of my rope, pass the first lower out, repeat, and then clean to the anchor (leaving 3-4 pieces of fixed pro up high as directionals), jug up, then do one mega lower out, using the black carabiner I bootied in Texas Flake, and in the process booty a BD quickdraw that was left on the anchor.

I aid solo Pancake flake, which is thin enough that I place my cams deep and work to avoid certain sections with hairline cracks. As I climb the next pitch a missile flies past me, probably no more than three feet away. It is dark, so I can’t tell what it was. Maybe a cam, maybe a rock. It probably would have broken my arm if it had hit me. I shout up at the party 3 pitches above me. I rope up for the next pitch, bringing me up to Camp V, and am disappointed to not find any water. At this point I’ve drank three liters of my own water, and am now down to the last half liter. I drank so much so soon partially to reduce the weight on my back (my gear weighed 42 lbs starting out, including food and water), and I was feeling the fatigue and chafe. As an aside, my right daisy had also begun slipping slightly, luckily my left was still holding well.

I make an anchor at the first bolts of Camp V, then scramble up and left, climbing 5.7 cracks and ramps to get to the base of the Glowering Spot. On the scramble I see two water bottles, with only the tops visible. The condensation is clear. My excitement grows, but is short lived. The water bottles look like a dark and funky tea, and while I know what they are I open one just to be certain. Big mistake, as my sinuses are flooded with the smell of ammonia. I quickly close the bottle, cursing the parties that had left those here. I guess the OJ earlier on the route makes up for it. I start up the thin cracks to the Glowering Spot, immediately getting in a 0.5 and 1” cam. The crack quicky pinches down to thin sizes like purple C3. I transfer to the next crack at the correct time, and the sizes get larger. I lower down, cleaning the pitch. Once back at the Glowering Spot I promptly pass out at the luxurious ledge, which is more like 3×5′. I use my backpack as a back rest, and sit cross legged while wearing my belay jacket for the first time since the morning prior. The temps are in the 30’s, but I am warm because the ledge blocks the updrafts. Although I could have foregone the sleep and finished the climb in sub-24 hrs I am more interested in feeling good at this point. I naturally wake up in short order, and force myself to continue as I am still low on water and 6 pitches from the top.

Above me the C1+ doesn’t look too hard, so I aid solo the pitch to Camp VI, free soloing the final section. There is a party of two Scotts asleep in their portaledge, I quietly creep around them but can’t help but wake them up with my headlamp. I sheepishly ask them how they are doing on water. They are also low, but have some stashed on top. They are surprised when I don’t haul or seem to be with anyone else, and after a bit of deliberation I bid them goodnight as I step directly on their anchor that is strung up in my way, and began aid soloing the semi-loose rock directly above them (of course using the utmost discretion when placing gear and pulling on holds). The broken rock soon becomes a long, never-ending flake system, which pinches off just below the Changing Corners.

There is no two bolt anchor as shown in the SuperTaco (it had been chopped, so I built a 2 #2 Camalot anchor designed for an upward pull, with a #1 as both a directional and a pendulum piece. I penji to the first button head, and swing further around the corner where my progress is promptly ground to a halt. The gear is thin, camhook thin, but the angle of the corner won’t let me place any. There are a handful of fixed nuts, and tons of chalk everywhere, but I struggle to make my own nuts fit. One nut pops as I began to weight it, the leverage of the cables on the edge was all wrong and I knew it. I begrudgingly step up high on a tipped out, flexing green C3, and clip one of the high fixed nuts. I don’t know why it takes me so long to commit, but I haven’t fallen yet and am not entirely stoked on the idea at this point. I really wish I had a medium beak instead of the useless hooks I had brought. Nevertheless, I finish the pitch, and when I clean it I shudder at how sharp the knife edge was, making my 9.4 rope snaking back and forth across it look so delicate. I should have only clipped the face bolts, but I had also clipped nuts as pro, my mistake. The pitch is so steep and long that I am again exhausted. I try to pendulum out left to rest on a 4” ledge, but the wall is overhanging to the point where I can’t rest. I pass out briefly on the ledges up higher while seated in a squatting position (only attached to the rope by my ascenders). I wake with a start and finish the pitch, motivated by promise of the “wild stance” above.

Pitch 28 is one of my favorites, Lazer to Lazer. Pure blue totems from the top of Changing Corners to the roof, then 0.75-2” with enough horizontal traverse that your aiders aren’t pinned one on top of the other, like so many of the awkward low angle corners down below.  I bump gear ferociously. I feel home-free, there is one “C2F” pitch above, but I remember that it wasn’t a big deal last time. I rope up for pitch 29, and am fairly glad for it at the end, as there are a couple weird flaring placements, as well as a transfer to free climbing using a sling. Cleaning the pitch is a lower out and jug affair, the last crux of the route. At this point the sky is getting brighter, and I am able to turn off my headlamp.

The rest of the route is a ropeless aid solo, The 5.10c crack of pitch 30 requires one or 2 moves to get into, but once established, is a splitter flake that I practically fly up. The bolt ladder suddenly looms in my vision. I am ecstatic, clipping the fat Fixe hangers and 3/8” sleeve bolts with gusto. Much of the pitch is lower angled and not too reachy. The middle has some tremendously steep roofs, and I have to get almost horizontal (fully cinched in on my daisies) to clip the next bolt. Heroic. The one move of C1 requires a purple (maybe a green) totem, no big deal. I continue up and solo the exit 5.5 slab to the summit, tag the tree and hike down past what seems like dozens of sleepy climbers, scattered in the boulders. I hadn’t told anyone about my plans to do the climb beforehand, so I was amused to arrive in the meadow and hear everyone’s crazy theories as to who I was or what I was up to, including one person who mistakenly thought I might be Alex Honnold, or another that thought I probably had a BASE rig in my pack when they didn’t see me climbing with a rope. Some people are just full of imagination.

For those who are interested:


  • 70m 9.4 Black Diamond dynamic rope
  • Patagonia Ascensionist 30L pack (for carrying water, rope, belay jacket, snacks, head lamp)
  • 5.10 Guide Tennies
  • La Sportiva Muiras (only wore once for Texas Flake)
  • Arcteryx FL365 harness
  • Misty Mountains Big Wall Gear Sling (chest harness)
  • Petzl GriGri
  • Petzl Reverso
  • 2x Yates adjustable daisies with BD Hotwire carabiners
  • 2x Yates speed wall ladders
  • Petzl Ascension ascenders (L&R)
  • Petzl Microtraxion (for hauling bag/flaking rope)
  • 6 Petzl Spirit lockers
  • 4 Wildcountry Helium II quickdraws
  • 4 alpine draws (Edelrid Nineteen G carabiners)


  • 000 BD C3 (1)
  • 00 BD C3 (2)
  • 0 BD C3 (2)
  • green blue offset Alien (1)
  • green/yellow offset Alien (1)
  • yellow/red offset Alien (1)
  • blue Totem (2)
  • yellow Totem (2) yellow Alien (1)
  • purple Totem (2) purple BD (1)
  • green Totem (2) green BD (1)
  • red Totem (1) red BD (2)
  • yellow BD (3)
  • #3 BD (2)
  • #4 BD (2) (wanted to be able to aid everything, very useful at many times)

**If attempting again I would consider substituting the purple, green, and red Black Diamond cams for two red link cams.


  • DMM offset (gold, blue, red)
  • BD stoppers (4-6)
  • DMM brass offsets (1 set)
  • BD micro offset (2 medium)


  • Moses camhooks, medium (2)
  • (BD cliffhanger, Petzl skyhook) – didn’t use
  • Moses Tomahawk, medium – didn’t bring, but wish I had one for Changing Corners.


  • 3.5L, I bootied an additional liter of water on the route, wished I had more.

With Wild Abandon – PCT Kickoff

Enter the World of Long Distance Hiking at the ADZPCTKO.

Aka: Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off (Party!), variously pronounced: adza-pacit-co.

We pulled into Lake Morena through impenetrable fog and were greeted by weary folks who met us with a cheerful facade, for they had already greeted nearly a thousand others before us, and it was nearly time for the day’s talks and presentations to wind down for the evening. Butts sore from the six hour car ride, my mom, Mary Wuest, Liz Donovan and I were given bandanas as swag and name tags with pins to tear holes our delicate clothes. Zipper pulls were the fastening location of choice, and we managed to grab delicious melt-in-your-pocket brownies and burritos as the dinner station was in the process of being torn down all around us.
By coincidence Mary ran into an old camp friend named Katy and the two hit it off chatting. I moseyed around and stared at the hundreds of different tarps and tents set up in the park, it was an impressive display to be sure. We were able to make the last presentation of the evening, a tribute to Greg ‘Strider’, a long time trail angel and seasoned thru-hiker who had passed away recently. His iconic phrase was “Sweet!”, and as the audience sang it in unison I felt a connection to this man I never knew. Shortly after we turned in early, so we could get a 5:00 AM early start on the 20 mile day ahead of us. 
At 6:00 my mom finally poked her head under the 8×10′ cuben fiber tarp Mary and I were sleeping under to see what was going on. We had slept through our alarm, there would be no beating the 6am shuttle crowd to the border. Mary gently flung an earwig off her arm and into the leaf litter with a sing-song “go back to nature!” We broke down our camp and packed light bags for the day. We wouldn’t carry all of our gear, just enough to survive being benighted if we didn’t make it back to camp by 4:30 as expected. 

Feelings of excitement at the Mexican border

We got to the trailhead at 7:00 while it was still cold out, and after photos we started hiking in down jackets. At the one mile mark I stripped down to boardshorts and a T-shirt and we continued onwards. At 1.5 miles we simultaneously heard the call of the wild and made first use of our ultralight titanium Big Dig trowel, hand forged by a hiker named QiWiz. As Mary used the trowel I used a trekking pole tip to great effect in the crumbly decayed Quartz Monzonite soil. Many others had apparently decided this was a good place to relieve themselves as well, but not all were as scrupulous in their leave no trace principals. Toilet paper flowers and crispy cracklin’ oat bran turds filled the arid landscape. We moved on.

Yucca blooming in their full glory.

The hike wound up a moderate hill interspersed with small boulders a la Joshua Tree National Park, sans the Joshua Trees. In their place stood tall Yucca plants in full bloom, and amongst them were various smaller plants such as lupin, manzanita, cacti, grasses and shrubs. We dubbed one plant spaghetti bush for the long orange stringy mats engulfing it and invented a game called melon ball utilizing the spiked melons found growing on vines along the trail: the purpose being to hit a melon with your trekking pole when one is thrown in your direction.  

A freshly burst spiked melon.


“Spaghetti Bush”

We passed a group of three who had also been picking up trash – I had grabbed a broken trekking pole and Mary had stuffed the bungees on her pack full of bottles. We paused to chat and I swallowed a chuckle when one in the group pulled out a full sized iPad to take our picture. At the top of the hill we reached the halfway mark and were essentially walking inside of a cloud, which was surprisingly refreshing. We calculated our pace at a fairly consistent rate of 22 minutes a mile, which would put us into camp somewhere around 4 or 4:30. Mary’s snack timer on her watch went off for the fourth time (set to go off every hour) and we ate lunch on a broad rock. 
After lunch Mary and I leapfrogged along as I frequently darted off the trail to take photos. I made an impressive find of 4 enormous Duracell pro-cell batteries tossed in a bush. They clocked in at about 5 lbs,  which I strapped to the outside of my pack so they could swing around awkwardly. We began descending the hill we had just climbed when I spied a nearby power line tower I couldn’t resist climbing partway up. 

A most inviting tower!

At the base of the valley a new hillside greeted us, more barren and sun baked than the previous one. We made quick work of the switchbacks, and the moist ground from the rain the previous morning was keeping the dust down spectacularly. After cresting the hill we began winding down towards camp quite quickly, views of the lake spurring us on. We found a large knobby boulder to scramble on, snapped a few pics, and bolted into camp just in time to see Liz win third place in the homemade gear competition for her siliconized spatula spoon. 

No hands knob climbing!

We continued on and checked out the latest in ultralight vendors offering steep event discounts and I quickly shifted focus to closely examining a live-in Sprinter van, fully decked out and luxurious as Mary talked with the founder of Six Moon Designs, the owner of said van. As we bought raffle tickets and ogled the goods many people walked up to me and asked me what device the giant trash batteries I had powered. After meeting the first expectant stares with an incredulous look I started to make up the most outlandish reasons I could think of: powering my portable electric scooter for the road walking sections, etc. When I had tired of playing this game I offered up my batteries to the kind vendor at the SMD tent who offered to drive them to Portland where they would be properly disposed of.
We barely made it to the class photo, which was taken at the campground rocks at 4:30. Mary, Liz and I stood together and my mom shot photos amongst hordes of other onlookers. We got shrimp burritos from a food truck and ate them inside a large yurt to escape the cold and charge batteries. Soon the clouds burst their angry bellies and the rain began to drive more and more hikers inside; shortly thereafter video presentations began, followed by the raffle. The girl next to us got a backpack, and several bigger prizes were likewise won, but alas we scored nothing. The rain had’t stopped, but it had momentarily lessened as we hastily scrambled to set up our tarp. We slept soundly and there were no epics in the night as our shelter stood strong against the weather.
“Name tags, please.”
Was the greeting we met with bleary eyes as someone was walking around camp collecting up name tag holders to presumably reuse next year.
Awake, we made a luxurious final meal of sourdough toast, eggs, avocado, cheese, and coffee with a side of pilfered brownies from dinner two nights previous. Mary and I had a slow final gear sorting as Liz was shuttled to the border, when we noticed amidst our gear explosion that she had left her trekking poles. My shuttle mom turned around to meet Mary who had ran them to the road, 5 minutes later I saw Liz’s award winning third place spatula spoon, which I ran with at full speed in crocs like a racer’s baton to the park entrance, which turns out was the exact opposite direction of where my mom had met Mary. One insta-blister on the ball of my right foot later, I got back to camp and simply taped it up under our picnic table for her to find when she made it back to camp.
Soon there were no final deeds to be done and we said final farewells to my ever-loving mom and wished her a safe drive home as we began walking north through fields of grass which gave way to dirt, rocks, and chaparral. For the first time it felt like we were really on our own, hiking our own hike.

The Nose in a Day

November 16, 2014 – Practice Run

I sat on top of Dolt Tower, frowning at the blood oozing from the cuticle of my right middle finger. In my haste I accidentally stepped on it as I was pulling onto the ledge. Earlier that morning we had forgotten the ascenders in the car, forcing me to sprint back and wasting almost 30 minutes. I took off my shoes and helmet on top of the tower as Brian jugged the fixed line, enjoying the light breeze. Just as quickly I put my helmet back on, as a rock whizzed past us not twenty feet out from the tower.

Hand abuse.

This was only a practice run, if we were really going to climb the entire 3000′ route in a day we wouldn’t be able to make these mistakes. Nonetheless, we made fairly good time (4:30 to Dolt, our goal for the day). The day was beautiful and it was still only noon, making it a bit sad to turn back instead of pushing onwards.

View from Dolt Tower.

Retreating from The Nose takes two 60m ropes. We had brought a lightweight half rope to use as a second for this purpose and set about rappelling the 11 pitches we had just climbed. 

Double rainbow all the way.

The sound of a rope free falling 400′ and whizzing by your head as you pull it down is something else. Like a jet taking off it roars past, building speed, followed by a hissing shriek that is quelled as the tail snaps into space with an unmistakable bullwhip crack that threatens to break the air. It’s a sound that never grows stale.  By the time we got down it was 3:00 pm and we toasted beers in the meadow, contemplating next weekend’s rainy forecast.

The following weekend could be summarized in short:

Trip to J-Tree. Phenomenal climbing and a nice change of pace, nothing beats wandering around the desert, especially with rain in Yosemite.

November 25/26, 2014 – Day of the Send

It was nearly impossible to sleep the night before, so I didn’t really bother. There was a buzzing excitement, the kind that keeps building and won’t leave until the anticipated tension is relieved. After a measly 4 or 5 hours of sleep I gave up, flipped on a light and reviewed the East Ledges descent route, various big wall techniques, pitch by pitch beta, and finally light streamed through my blinds. I had breakfast with my mom and dog on the Embarcadero before saying farewell. My dad gave me his lucky rock to carry (a rock?? You really want me to climb up El Capitan with a rock in my pocket??) My mom gave me a surprisingly spirited send off, something along the lines of “Go kick ass up there, I know you will”, and with a final hug I began driving east towards Fresno. I stopped at REI and bought a new headlamp, the Black Diamond Icon. With 200 lumens and the longest lasting battery life they offered I decided it was a worthy upgrade, since we would be starting the climb in pitch blackness. I rested in the parking lot while waiting for Brian, he had to leave town later because his college classes were still in session. We chose to drive separately part way because the following day was Thanksgiving, whereupon we would be parting ways.

We met at a park-and-ride where I parked and hopped into Brian’s car as we continued to the Valley. The air was crisp as we pulled up to the El Cap bridge at 8:50 pm, Christmas carols from the drive still chanting in my head. We made a batch of coffee with my Jetboil. I drank a small share and set the rest in an open thermos next to Brian. As he swung his foot out of the car door it spilled into the earth, warming and stimulating the frosted gravel.

That was the last of our coffee, so much for that. We decided resting was pointless and headed off to climb. It was nice to have rehearsed the exposed 4th class approach pitch in daylight two weeks ago (twice, since I had needed to run back to the car once) and we made it to the start of the actual climbing quite quickly.

It was 10:30 pm and the rock was forgivenly warm; I set off aiding the first pitches in my climbing shoes, repeating memorized moves and sequences. Silverfish scattered as my light tossed shadows across the rock, and tawny frogs chirped and lept free from seeping pin scars as I placed offset cams in their wake, standing high in my ladders.

I was going faster than our practice run two weeks prior, and maybe the frenetic pace was why somewhere on the second or third pitch I placed a piece of gear that popped as I weighted it. I had been back cleaning as much as possible, and as a result I slid for about 30 feet down the polished slab until my next piece stopped me. My hands felt numb from repeatedly bouncing over the subtle undulations of the rock surface on my way down, like someone speed-reading Braille. The fall snapped Brian and myself into full alertness. I feared a sprained finger which would have ended our attempt on the spot, but luckily after a minute the tingling faded away and I was no worse for wear. I flashed back to our practice run where I had rushed and stepped on my own finger as a result. Promising myself to slow down and stay focused, I finished the pitch.

We simulclimbed across Sickle Ledge and swapped leads, now it was Brian’s turn. We were still making great time, and for a while my torch helped illuminate Brian’s path. When he moved sufficiently far away I turned off my light, savoring the stars and feeling grateful for the perfect Fall weather. It was night and I was in just a lightweight long sleeve shirt. Brian climbed deftly up the Stovelegs pitch, so named because on the first ascent Warren Harding had hammered 4 enameled stove legs into the perfect hand crack as a means of protecting it (modern camming devices had not been invented yet).  Brian was absolutely crushing his pitches, short fixing and essentially soloing the short 10c offwidth pitch up to Dolt. We reached Dolt Tower, our previous high point, by 1:00 am.

Leading up to El Cap Tower.

We were now in terra incognita. Brian continued for an extra long block, pushing us three more pitches up to El Cap Tower. We were attempting to divide our leading into blocks that would let Brian do most of the harder free climbing, while I was responsible for the more aid intensive pitches in order to suit our respective strengths. We switched over leads on top of the tower.

I led Texas Flake, a totally heady pitch for me. The flake extends 90′ up from a ledge covered in giant teetering shards of rock. It was impossible to avoid the rope from lightly dragging over them, causing them to shift slightly. I shouted down a warning to Brian, and then moved my focus to the chimney ahead of me. I pulled myself inside, knowing I would need to climb the entire length without placing any protection (not like there was any), in order to flip the rope to the outside  for Brian to follow. Starting was intimidating, but I was literally between a rock and a hard place and the only way out was up. I began awkward and squished, but soon I moved higher and it opened to a more natural width. At the top I reached backwards over my shoulder and grasped the enormous lip, spinning around and hoisting myself comfortably on top of it. I tied off to the anchor, and as Brian began jugging up I raced up the short bolt ladder leading to Boot Flake with a large loop of slack in tow.

I waited at the top of the bolt ladder for Brian to put me on belay before making a tenuous cam hook move, then it was back to plugging cams up the right side of the Boot Flake. I got to the top, and prepared for the King Swing. I was excited to lead this pitch. It’s one of the iconic moves on the route: you lower down almost the entire length of the last pitch and then run back and forth across the wall, ultimately swinging out 30 feet to the left in order to grab a corner and reach a new crack system starting at Eagle Ledge.

I accomplished the feat on my second try, as Brian egged me on with shouts of encouragement. I wasn’t able to quite reach the corner just by swinging, I had to tension off the rope using small foot holds and my climbing shoes to push myself further out. Even around the corner there were still a couple moves before I was at the anchor on Eagle Ledge.

Soon it was Brian’s turn.  Brian swung out and grasped the corner, but it was soon clear he was losing his grip – his approach shoes simply weren’t finding purchase on the rock. I tried to grab a loop of slack and toss it to him like a life line, but I was too slow and instead watched helplessly as he fell away backwards into the darkness. I heard an impact and a cry of pain. The backpack had caused him to rotate as he pendulumed backwards, yet offered no protection as he hit the wall hard with his tail bone. I shouted blindly around the corner hoping to assess his condition; he was in pain, but it was tolerable and he would try again.

Brian following the King Swing.

I readied a loop of slack to throw, this time we nailed it and I reeled him in. I was momentarily fearful – unlike our practice run we only had one rope with us, bailing off the climb if one of us couldn’t continue would be very difficult, but we had decided that saving the weight would allow us to move that much faster and push us harder to succeed. Luckily we were able to continue.

I finished up my next four pitches and Brian was able to follow just fine. At 5:40 am we reached Camp IV (the top of pitch 20). We were technically almost two thirds of the way done, and it was still black out!!! Because we both wanted to climb the Great Roof in daylight we decided to take a break until dawn. At 6:30 am the sky turned rosy and we switched puffy jackets for climbing gear as Brian began his lead block.

Unbeatable views.

Into the Great Roof.

First light.

In the meat of the roof.

Light accentuating the curves.

Nothing but Stoke.

It was a brilliant lead, Brian did a wonderful job back cleaning so that I had just one giant lower out to do. The Great Roof is a wild thing, a giant bifurcated granite wave spreading far out over your head into space. I would have loved to have lead it since I didn’t get to examine it as closely, but alas, next time. Up next was Pancake Flake, more excellent free climbing. I jugged pancake as fast as I could – Brian was already free climbing well up the 5.11 corner of the next pitch, and probably was pretty  grateful when I finally put him on belay. I was impressed, not everyone would onsight Valley 5.11 after 23 pitches of climbing. It’s times like that when I was happy to settle with more aid climbing, and give Brian a few extra money pitches. He was earning them.

Pancake Flake.

5.11 Shenanigans.

The view was pretty good.

As I joined Brian at Camp V a party of three was in the process of retreating. It was their third day of climbing and they had been poised to summit that afternoon, but unfortunately their leader had just fallen and ripped out a piece of gear not far off the belay ledge – decking and breaking his foot in the process. I offered my SAM splint, but they already had an air cast of their own. When it was clear they had their self rescue well under control all we could do was clean the gear they had left on the route and mail it back to them.

Bummer start to the day.

looking down from the Glowering Spot

It was my lead, and I took my darn sweet time cleaning and climbing the pitch where Freddie of the other party had just fallen. I removed all their gear, replacing it with my own and not trusting anything. It looks like they had been hurting for some offset gear, as their placements were tipped out with poorly engaged lobes. Earlier on the route we had found a perfectly placed number 2 Camalot abandoned, as well as a quickdraw and some carabiners. It had been strange, as there was no obvious reason why they were left. My guess is at least one member of their party was less experienced, maybe the one that fell? Regardless, I climbed the pitch without incident and reached the Glowering Spot relieved.

Looking up.

Camp VI

Jugging to Camp VI

Brian checking the topo at Camp VI.

I headed up the next pitch, a sheer sweep of gold falling away to my right and a white canvas blasted with dark gray xenoliths to my left. Without checking the topo I went with my gut and traversed far right, where I encountered a 5.8 offwidth that I was not in the mood to lead without protection. I retraced my steps, and opted instead for “awkward 5.8,” which amounted to jams, lie backs, and face climbing. Aesthetically it was one of my favorite pitches, such beautiful rock! We finished the pitch at noon on the dot.

Up next was the iconic Changing Corners, one of the free climbing crux pitchs on the route, clocking in at 5.14a. A photograph of Lynn Hill (the first free ascensionist of The Nose) completely contorted between these sharp blank angles was one of the first images to really inspire me towards climbing harder and longer routes. It was cool to be in the same place, albeit climbing it in a much easier style. Fixed cams made the climbing relatively simple, and at the top of the corners the most laser cut finger crack I’ve ever seen split the wall before me. I leapfrogged yellow C3’s to a hanging belay, where Brian joined me.

Looking down the Corners.

Sun and exposure!

Laser cut crack to hanging belay.

Hanging belay.

Poor Brian stood in his aiders and hung in his harness while I led the next pitch as quickly as possible, continuing up the laser cut crack and into the arching roof that it merged with. It was a short pitch, and soon Brian had joined me at a nice little stance and we swapped leads for the last time. I tried eating a Cliff Bar Shot Block, but the gummy sweetness turned my mouth to acrid paste without any water to wash it down. We weren’t completely out of water, but for the last few hours we had suffered the full brunt of the sun’s heat and we were both feeling the fatigue of being awake for the past 32 hours straight. I swished around a mouthful of water to clear the taste and swallowed it in small gulps, making it last.

Brian back in the lead.

Pretty wild view!

Final bolt ladder.

The end of the climb was now in sight, literally and not just figuratively. Brian free-climbed through the 5.10d lower section of pitch 29 and possibly the upper section too, skipping the optional belay. Soon I was jugging up and Brian was already at the top of the crack leading to the final bolt ladder when I arrived. Linking pitches 30 and 31, he climbed up the reachy overhanging bolts, the monolithe’s last line of defense guarding it’s summit. I followed, racing across the easy 5th class terrain at the top and joining Brian’s calls from the tree.

Coca Cola.

Never did such a simple gift taste so sweet, as that high sugar carbonated beverage left by an angel in the shade of the tree. It was warm, but it didn’t matter. Taking off the harness was amazing, followed by the shirt. I lay on my pack in the shade for what seemed an eternity, absorbing the views. Not only was this my second big wall, it was my first time ever standing on the summit of El Capitan! Er, laying, as it were. We called and texted loved ones, notifying them of our success.

The face that says it all.

Ultimate relaxation.

Couldn’t have done it without this guy.

Sun still high towards the coast.

We topped out at 3:00 pm, 18 hours after we had started, not subtracting our hour’s rest below the Great Roof. We were happy, but it seemed strange that the climbing was over for the time being as we shifted our focus to the final challenge: the descent.

Luckily for us Brian had already hiked the East Ledges descent, so when my phone promptly died at the summit it was his memory that guided us down. We walked down endless slabs, eventually finding that the pools of water leading to Horsetail Falls were still ice cold and freshly flowing. I plunged my face in and tried to drink the entire river as I greedily gulped it down. It may have been a tie with the Coca Cola from earlier, but this time I came away fully satiated.

The rest of the descent went by without a hitch, involving minor route finding, several rappels, and a scramble down blocky drainages to meet up with the trail from Manure Pile Buttress. Now we were in very familiar territory, and I stubbornly insisted we hurry so that I wouldn’t have to turn on my headlamp, even though the sun had long since set and only faint silhouettes were visible.

We made it to the road without a twisted ankle, and waited for a car to finish packing up so we could hitch a quick ride to where we had parked. I got naked and jumped in the river under the bridge, Brian considered it but ultimately couldn’t be troubled to, since it was already dark and cold out. Feeling ultimately refreshed, we quickly celebrated and then drove out past Fish Camp where Brian slept in his car and I slept adjacent in the gravel. It was a different level of tired, and we both slept deeply.

In the morning we woke up and made hot beverage, then drove back to the park and ride where we had met not 48 hours ago. We did the gear shuffle and after picking up a piece of free pottery from by a tree in the lot and changing into clean clothes we parted ways. It was Thanksgiving afterall, and I had some high quality relaxation to attend to, and there was food to be eaten.

Bolting after Work


What led me to pursue the dark art of developing rock climbing routes?

It began as a desire to fill the void created by my copious free time. Working as a biologist on commercial fishing boats, I maintain a career of sorts with a highly variable schedule. Work consists of multiple days on the water in spartan conditions, but when I’m on land I may go for weeks at a time without work. This begs the nagging question: what do I do when I’m not working but everyone else is? I’ve gotten very good at filling my days with various activities such as bike riding, rafting, fishing, skiing, skating, climbing, hiking, etc. However, most of these are more fun with other people, and I find myself frustrated by constantly juggling other people’s weird schedules to mesh with my own – oftentimes I’m stuck doing it alone.

Climbing solo is one of my favorite pastimes when no one is available. I don’t mean climbing without ropes (usually), merely climbing without a partner. Toprope soloing is a wonderful way to push your very limit, without boring a partner to death or risking frequent falls. When I want to project hard 5.12 I simply drive 40 minutes to Rosario Beach and spend the afternoon hanging around on a fixed line, climbing up using mini-traxions and lowering off with a Grigri. It’s quite good fun, I assure you. Better than pulling on plastic at any rate. When I’m done I sometimes throw on my wetsuit and jump in the ocean – the Puget Sound is the second best muscle recovery treatment since beer.

Unfortunately, driving all the way from Bellingham to Anacortes just to do a few hard burns does not make good environmental or economic sense. Finding something closer to home seemed like a prudent decision. Bellingham isn’t exactly known as a rock climbing mecca, but I decided I would see what the area had to offer to a new set of eyes.

One afternoon I thought to check out the biggest piece of local rock that I knew absolutely nothing about: a prominent ridge that is visible for just a few seconds off of I-5. I spent two years living in Everett and commuting to Bellingham for work, so I have probably spent more time than anyone else nearly driving off the road while craning my neck trying to catch a better glimpse of that crag as I fly past it. When I did finally move to Bellingham I was much closer to the area and it wasn’t long before I decided a preliminary bushwhack was in order. My first attempt bore no fruit, I saw what could have been one or two chossy lines, but they weren’t even worth bothering to figure out a toprope on. It turns out I was in the wrong area.

Google Earth is an adventurer’s best friend, you can look at areas of interest in great detail from the comfort of home, and then use it in the field to help pinpoint exactly where you want to be. When I finally found myself on top of the correct cliffs it was difficult to see anything. Wet slabs fell away from me into the mist. The top was covered in verdant moss and detritus, beckoning foolhardy explorers too close to the treacherous lip. Still, the rock was obviously much steeper beyond the rolling horizon, I just couldn’t see it. I was ill-equipped, but I left with hope in my heart.

When I finally made it back I brought the equipment needed for a proper exploration: a flannel, Carhartts, my 10″ leather boots, a 60m beater rope, Grigri, aiders, ascenders, and anchor materials. I found a stout tree and rapped off it, examining the rock as I descended with increasing delight. It was more climbable than I had imagined. The bottom of the rock was steep and dry despite the light rain that was falling. The slight overhang created a rain shadow at the cliff base, meaning there was a natural corridor through the otherwise dense brush extending a few feet out from the rock.

I split off to the right, picking my way through young vine maple and alder trees, crushing the invasive Himalayan blackberries underfoot as I pushed onwards. The rock was strikingly beautiful. It was steep to overhanging, with gorgeous black water streaks cutting the clean white face above me like running mascara. The occasional imperfections in an otherwise blank face beckoned my imagination upwards. At the far southern terminus I saw a most appealing line, something that just begged to be climbed.


Beautiful steep climbing up sparse features.

Over the next weeks I explored some of the various lines in more detail, rappelling in and ascending on mini-traxions, climbing what I could while sussing out the moves. It didn’t work well. The problem was obvious, the rock was simply too overhanging and every time I fell I would swing out far from the cliff and have to either lower off or ascend the rope all the way back to the top. Plus, the rope sawing on the slabs above me and knocking down loose debris over my head didn’t exactly seem like a good thing. I was able to plug some pieces of gear down low to act as directionals, but that only created more sawing on the rope. The climbing would be so good, if only it were fluid and not inhibited by the contrived nature of a toprope.

I spent a long time pondering the issue. The routes were obviously not leadable on natural gear. A toprope was not a good solution, due to the slab above and overhang below. The only thing that made sense was to bolt the routes as sport climbs. They would certainly add harder routes to Bellingham’s otherwise limited selection. With potential for more than just a handful of routes (spaced generously apart) it seemed an idea worth pursuing. In addition, the approach by and large follows a pre-existing trail, no epic bushwhacking required.

A bit of research shows that the land surrounding the crag is classified as a timber harvest area. This conclusion is supported by a dense populace of uniform young Douglas Firs erupting from a forest of decaying stumps surrounding the cliff on all sides. The landowners already encourage public use of the land to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. It holds no special designations such as being a Wilderness or Wildlife Conservation Area. it seemed reasonable that developing a new climbing area with minimal alteration to the natural state of the rock and landscape in an already highly impacted area was well within the local ethic.

Excited, I talked with some friends who were already experienced developers; they shared their techniques and gave me a thumbs-up to go ahead and get to work. I spent weeks agonizing over how to best develop the local sandstone: what materials to use, how to safely space the bolts, choosing the ideal clipping stances (I’m 6’4″, so I tried to place bolts as if my maximum reach was over a foot shorter). I read every article and watched every video related to bolting that I could find on the internet, spending days glued to my computer.

There are enough moss covered, rusty old bolts in Washington that by now people should realize that stainless steel is the only responsible material to use when developing new routes or replacing old bolts. All research pointed to the same conclusion: Climb Tech glue-in Wave Bolts are the leading standard for use in soft rock types such as sandstone. At half an inch in diameter and penetrating five inches into the rock, they are an order of magnitude stronger than expansion bolts in both pull-out and shear tests. Because the bolts are encased in glue there is no way for moisture to come into contact with the metal, making them highly resistant to corrosion. The “glue” I ultimately chose to use is Redhead A7 acrylic adhesive. While Powers or Hilti epoxy is more commonly used, the A7 is more viscous and has a shorter working time (making it easier to work with), it looks better, is super strong, and as an added bonus, it’s cheaper. Cheap is a relative word, as the total material cost for each route I developed ended up averaging over $150 out of pocket.


Better than Christmas morning.

Making the journey to the cliffs became my morning commute. A heavy backpack stuffed to the brim with steel hardware, hammer, hand drill, glue, rack, brushes, belay seat and a rope was quickly forgotten as I marched along the trail shirtless, pants cuffed high, and jamming to tunes. I became efficient, sometimes completing the 1.3 mile uphill approach in as little as 22 minutes. One evening I even I made it back to my car in under 12 minutes, running the entire way.

The first time I drilled a hole I was nervous, and in my hesitation it probably took over an hour to complete this seemingly simple task. The next hole was easier, and pretty soon it was only taking half an hour, if I could find a comfortable stance. This was oftentimes not the case, whereupon I opened my full bag of tricks to ensure the ideal bolt placement. Being even a couple of inches out of proper alignment is exhausting when hammering for so long, especially if you are hammering above your head on an overhang. Each bolt requires approximately 2,000 hammer strokes – efficiency is desirable, and you have a lot of time to think about such things when you’re spending 10 hour days hanging in a harness.  I would oftentimes take as much time getting comfortable as I actually spent pounding steel into rock, employing a mixture of free climbing athleticism with aid climbing trickery to pull myself closer to the wall, using tools such as cam hooks, heel hooks, ball nuts, body tension, and more.


Sub-optimal cam hook placement under a steep roof.

Numerous people have expressed surprise that I choose to bolt routes exclusively by hand, a laborious process compared to the mechanized efficiency of a battery-powered rotary impact drill. In response, I can only express the deep satisfaction I feel from spending so much intimate time in one location. After logging literally hundreds of hours at this place I am still blown away by it’s beauty. Why would I want to rush the inevitable? I realize that when the cliffs are developed it will no longer be my private Eden. It will be a shared resource, and I look forward to other climbers enjoying the fruits of my labor. At the same time, some of the magic will be lost and I will inevitably move on to new projects.


Delicate yet powerful climbing in a beautiful location. Free Candy, 5.11c

The fun is in the process, at least for a developer. I enjoy hard work and slowly seeing my vision realized. As a climber I can’t wait to get more mileage on the routes themselves, as many of them are quite good. I’ve tried to maintain the highest quality standards when selecting routes. Each one is a natural work of art, following beautiful stone features sculpted by natural processes. Bolting them allows skilled individuals to explore the stone in a physically interactive way. So far, the easiest of the seven completed routes is 5.10c. The majority of routes fall in the 5.11 range, while the hardest is 5.12. I don’t have anything against easier routes, the grades are merely a reflection of the steep and blank nature of the rock. Harder grades, coupled with a moderate approach should naturally limit the number of people visiting this area, thereby reducing user-related impacts to manageable levels.

I’m currently making a PDF guidebook which will be freely available when the area is ready for public traffic. Hopefully this will be sooner than later, but it may be another season before that time comes. In less than three months I’ll be embarking on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m currently mending a broken foot, and there is still great opportunity for improvement and expansion of the area.

For those who can’t wait, here’s a climbing teaser:


Local climber Mary Wuest enjoying Coffee Enema, 5.11a.


Same route, pulling into the first roof.


Author leading the second roof.


Stoked on the 10d slab finish of Free Candy (5.11c).


On Falling and Trusting Gear


I’m not even sure I had time to say falling.

My legs were stretched to their limit, bridging the gap between between two smooth, outwardly flaring basalt columns at the very maximum of what my tendons would allow. The sky was overcast, and I had felt rain droplets earlier. I looked down at my previous piece, a red/yellow Alien placed at the bottom of a shallow flare down by my knee. I had placed it on a long runner so that maybe it wouldn’t get yanked out sideways by my first piece if I fell on it, since it was in the right seam, and my first piece (a bomber yellow C3) was placed about twelve feet off the ground and to the left.

I slotted two fingers into the crack on the right, it didn’t feel exactly secure but I shuffled my feet higher to stop them from bouncing uncontrollably. This was a climb I had done several times before on toprope, but I had never led it due to the thin and tricky gear placements. I decided on this day that I would simply not fall near the bottom, I was capable of doing the moves and the gear would get better in just a little bit. I chalked up again, why does it feel so humid out? I shook my head, feeling out left and noting how my fingers slotted deep into a crack on the left side. Stemming on pure friction, I kept my right hand in a slightly off-fingers finger lock as I reached for another yellow C3, perfect finger size for me. I stuck it deep where I had just tested with my hand, and it seemed like a good deep placement, albeit one that I couldn’t see.

I suppose it was my folly to relax and let my guard down; the pump had been building, maybe more psychological than physiological due to the inclement weather. Trusting small gear is never easy, it takes practice to place well and if you haven’t been climbing on it for a while it takes time to get back into the proper headspace. I had been busy with other projects, I hadn’t climbed on gear in over a month. But I had just placed my favorite piece, and I was relieved. I half-assed the next moves, and my foot blew.

The rope engaged quickly, my girlfriend Mary was belaying me and I’m sure she was more on edge than I was, giving me a nice close belay. Just as quickly the rope disengaged, and I had a small cam flying in my general direction. I had a moment of initial surprise – I had thought the placement was super solid. Then everything slowed down, as I re-entered free fall. I was in a good body position, maintaining upright posture as I skated down the smooth walls surrounding me. I knew the second piece wouldn’t likely hold, so I was happily surprised to feel it at least slow me down some before it popped free from the rock. At this point I was really hoping that my first piece was going to hold. Either way, I needed to clear over Mary, who was belaying me from a tight broken column that only provided a 4×4′ platform. I jumped out from the wall, attempting to keep falling for as long as I could so that the rope might re-engage.

My feet exploded in bright lights; they hit at the same time and I kept falling. Luckily, the rope had slowed me down pretty well at this point and I only fell another 3 feet where I ended up in a semi-hanging position hovering just inches above a lower column.

A chorus of concerned voices rang out from the hordes of climbers surrounding us:

“Are you ok?”

“Oh my God.”

“That was a crazy fall.”

To which I hastily replied, “I’m fine!” to assuage their concern.

IMG_0659 copy

Typical weekend warrior junk show – Stems and Seeds, 5.11a (where I fell) starts at the red “x”. Vantage, WA.

Working my way back up to where Mary was, I sat for a minute and calmed my nerves. I performed mechanical tasks that didn’t take much thought: I took off my gear sling and worked my knot loose. I knew I was flushed full of adrenaline and was probably in shock, but so far it seemed like I just had a bad double heel bruise. I took off my climbing shoes, examining my feet. Nothing seemed too out of place, I put on my socks and slipped my Crocs over them (no judgement). I took a proffered sip of water, and grimaced as I realized our day of climbing was probably cut short. Trying to stand up drove the nail in the coffin, there was no way I would be climbing anymore today.

I looked upwards at that high first piece that had saved me. If it had failed I might have kept going all the way to the ground, falling another two body lengths. I was grateful that Mary had a belay anchor, otherwise if I had kept falling I would have risked pulling her down as well. Putting myself in harm’s way is one thing, but when my decisions risk injuring my partner that is unacceptable. As it was, she walked away from the situation with bruises on her hips from the force of catching me on a 20 foot fall.

A climber top roping the adjacent route was kind enough to swing over and retrieve my first piece, as I wasn’t about to send Mary up after it. We packed our bags, and Mary shouldered one on her back and one on her front as I down-crawled to the main trail. At first I rejected help from strangers, attempting to use Mary as a crutch and nearly pulling her over in the process. When that didn’t work I decided that crawling was a viable solution. The car was normally a 20 minute walk away, it would be slow going (and miserable with the giant mud puddles near the car) but I felt it was my cross to bear, and if I was still able to self rescue I’d be damned if I didn’t.

My crawling technique improved rapidly, I cuffed my pants to the knees so that they acted as thin knee pads, and as I crawled I grasped broad flat rocks in either hand so that I didn’t need to worry about each hand placement as much. I was making good progress, but the first crack in my armor was when someone offered me a Codeine tablet, to dampen the discomfort. After I accepted that it was harder to say no when a fit climbing couple offered to lend me their shoulders. Arm in arm with total strangers I was able to walk with very little weight on my feet and was regaled the story of when Matt (one of my saviors) broke his foot ice climbing six miles from the road. He hobbled out alone, passing one party who indifferently asked if he knew how far it was to a nearby lake. He was paying forward a kindness he never received, and I accepted with humility.

I stayed in high spirits as we returned to the parking lot; Mary ran ahead and drove the car around to pick me up. I offered my new friends a bottle of wine and beer as thanks, it was the best I could do and at that point I’m sure we all could have used a drink. We parted ways. I took off my shoe in the passenger seat, my foot had ballooned up considerably and if there was any doubt I needed it checked out it was at that moment erased.

We broke up some pieces of ice from a nearby frozen stream and I iced my foot as we drove to the Cle Elem Urgent Care Center. After borrowing a wheelchair I was rolled in and six x-rays were taken, three of each foot. Although there was considerable swelling in both feet I had only broken the base of my 5th metatarsal in my right foot, the prognosis was a 4-6 week healing period and I was given crutches and a walking cast which (thank goodness) was removable.

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My feet the next day.

I’m now in my third week of healing. The first days were the hardest, as I couldn’t bear any weight on my right foot, and could just barely weight my left toes. By the end of week one I managed to hobble along with a group of friends on a two mile hike, albeit at my own pace. It was great to get out of the house, I even crawled up in a giant hueco with my good friend Andy McDermott and sang songs to the people that hiked by.


Week 1 in the boot, banishing the cabin fever.

The second week I attempted throwing some pottery, and spent a few afternoons campusing in the gym and working out my core. I had been in the process of gaining strength to send a couple of projects before embarking on the PCT on April 25th, and I want to come out of this injury as quickly and as strong as possible. Luckily I heal fast and spend most of an average day in bed. At the end of the second week I had a followup appointment with an orthopedic specialist. He said I was healing fast and could treat my foot like a bad sprain, and didn’t need the boot or crutches anymore.


Finding my center while recovering in the second week.

My Alpacka pack raft has been my secret savior, it weighs only 6 lbs and if I can find a way to get within striking distance of the water I can use my paddle as a cane of sorts and launch the raft by myself. Once in the water I’m back in my element, my feet are forgotten under the spray deck and I can still explore. Yesterday I discovered the next big thing in Bellingham climbing that will never actually be the next big thing, due to a 30 minute approach by boat. But I’m stoked, and can’t wait to go back.


15 meter cliff near Governor’s Point with at least 5 solid lines up it, the right side is obscured by a boulder. (Click image for full size).

Each day I’m healing more, I can now walk around in just my regular shoes with one crutch for support. I can’t thank my friends enough for visiting me, spending time with me, playing Horse-opoly, Cribbage, ThinkBlot, amongst other delights. I suppose I need to give Mary Wuest a special shout-out here, especially for playing “catch the ice pack from across the house” and bringing me treats, entertainment, and delight on a daily basis. So stoked the doctor says I can still hike the PCT with you.


Climbing is an interesting activity. I actually consider it one of the safest things that I do, when done in a safe way. I’ve certainly taken bigger falls while escaping injury. My first big fall was at Owl Tor, in Santa Maria, California. I had pulled out an armload of slack to clip across my body, pulled more slack, then pumped out and pitched off, falling 25+ feet before coming to rest practically right top of my belayer.


Me punting at the Tor.

I didn’t hit anything, but was a bit shaken. I was grateful for the bolts. I also fell in love with steep climbing at that moment, for when you fall on an overhang there’s no wall to run into, you just dangle in space. On single pitch routes you simply lower off and try again from the ground. Plus the exposure is spectacular. A fall on slab (or worse yet, blocky low angle terrain) can be quite nasty. Clean falls are good falls. There’s nothing cleaner than falling through air, but skimming next to steep blank rock is a next best scenario. It’s a realization that has made me want to climb harder and harder – it’s just safer, really. An additional benefit is that the harder you climb, the easier climbing becomes. Improvement becomes harder to achieve, but in terms of difficulty what was once nerve-wracking becomes a warm-up, meaning when you want to take it easy there are more options, and more options are always a good thing.

As for trusting fixed gear:

While I’ve never broken a bolt while climbing, I no longer view them as infallible. I’ve spent too much effort researching good bolting techniques, and part of knowing what makes something good is knowing what makes another thing bad. Some bolts are just time bombs. I’ve seen my fair share of horribly rusted bolts, ones with spinning hangers, or where the bolt has hour-glassed the sandstone behind the surface of the rock. Bolts can pull out of soft stone, shear off at the hole, or hangers can break. That being said, I place a great deal of trust in them. Bolts are typically placed where no natural protection will suffice, and even a bad bolt is certainly better than nothing. Having placed my own bolts I realize that when done right you can hang a car off of them. Clipping a shiny new bolt in sound rock is a very comforting feeling, and replacing bad bolts is a truly noble endeavor.


Bolt on Mt. Erie. Is it bomber? Maybe. I clipped it.

A case of bad bolting:

A memorable evening was spent with Brian Prince as we climbed the last two pitches of a route on Queen’s Throne, a beautiful granite dome on Shuteye Ridge, located in the High Sierras. As night fell we climbed 5.8 slab by full moon and headlamp, where the only protection points were the anchors: two old Rawl buttonheads spaced a full rope length apart. The first ascensionists had run out of time to bolt the route completely and never came back to add bolts. At least granite is strong and the climbing was moderate – we didn’t want to test them and finished the climb without incident.


Old 1/4 inch Rawl buttonhead and Leeper hanger on Queen’s Throne.

Trusting personal gear:

It makes more sense to trust user placed gear than a bolt placed by a stranger. You know the history of it, and hopefully how to use it properly. It takes more skill to use, but it offers the advantage of allowing you to safely go where you otherwise couldn’t. On well protectable climbs you can place as much gear as you want. You can likewise save time and energy by running it out on easy terrain. Placing sufficient gear on routes that are not well protectable is much more difficult, as you must factor in things such as the strength and confidence of the leader. At Vantage I trusted a blind gear placement, a user error. I have luckily never had a piece of gear break on me, though I have ripped out several well placed micro cams in Joshua Tree’s crumbly quartz monzonite. Luckily, the rock quality was suspect in each instance, and I had backup gear in place so the falls were short and inconsequential. In this case I was just too close to the ground.

When I fell and fractured my foot it’s likely that if I had placed some micro brass offset nuts they might have held me. I had actually tried to get a good placement with one but opted for the offset cam instead. I guess the lesson learned is to place small gear frequently (especially near the ground), as it tends to be more finicky if the placements are sub-optimal. Giving it a sharp tug to test it out probably wouldn’t have hurt either.

The safest way to avoid injury while climbing is to simply not fall. Unfortunately, falling is a natural part of climbing, especially when near the limit of your ability. When pushing yourself it’s prudent to at least attempt climbs that are well-protectable. Another smart idea is wearing a helmet. It’s something I’m guilty of not always doing, though luckily habits can change.

Nothing is worth not being able to climb, so stay safe out there.


In No Certain Terms – Alpine Climbing in the Cascades


Gothic Basin from Del Campo, June 2014

Over the years I’ve climbed several new trad lines – it’s usually obvious when you encounter them. A single pitch route “Flake Don’t Break, 5.9+ R/X” in Pinnacles National Monument was led onsight by Maxwell Kincaid and myself in 2012. It follows a notable line up from a wash seen near the east entrance road. The experience entailed sketchy climbing and was made complete as we descended by simul-rapping off of a lone tree through heavy brush by headlamp, getting a massive snarl in our rope in the process. While we didn’t break the enormous namesake expando flake on our ascent, it may well break in the future; the route has only seen two recorded ascents since.


Max contemplating the upcoming movement on Flake don’t Break.

Fast forward two years: for my 25th birthday I wanted to climb Del Campo Peak, near Gothic Basin, WA. Last year I had hiked into Gothic Basin and fallen in love with the area (claiming it was my new favorite place on Earth), but after scrambling the castle rock towers to the west and exploring the two nearby alpine lakes I didn’t get a chance to ascend Del Campo before nightfall and instead opted for a moonlit swim and midnight hike down the five mile trail back to the car. This year I planned to hike in with David Michalove and climb an easy route to the summit.


Castle rock towers in the summer.

There are five routes on the formation outlined briefly in Fred Becky’s Cascade Climbing Guide (Section II), mostly described as third or fourth class routes with only the a variation of the West Buttress mentioning any 5th class climbing.I packed a lightweight rack consisting of slings, DMM offset nuts, cams to one inch, and the lightest 60m rope I owned.

It was mid-June, and when we arrived at the basin it was covered in snow. Luckily the sun was bursting through the fog and clouds, which made for a cheery late lunch break. We set up camp and discussed climbing. Although it was already 4:30 PM the sun wasn’t supposed to set until 8:30. We decided to push for a climb that evening instead of gambling on the weather of the following morning so we set out through the snowfield to the base of the formation.


Del Campo Peak looming over Foggy Lake.

We did a long snowy traverse to reach the base of Del Campo. Having forgotten to bring a description of any of the routes I instead settled on what I thought looked like an easy scramble up several hundred feet of climbing to a nice crack in the wide red horizontal band. From there, the plan was to ascend the ridgeline and downclimb the fourth class notch after summiting. We roped up and I headed up on lead. Although well-versed in the world of sport climbing, this climb would be David’s first outdoor trad climb, so we were shooting for something easy where I would be doing all the leads. To keep myself honest I offered to wear the pack containing our shoes and collapsible trekking poles to ensure I wouldn’t climb anything too difficult.


The natural belay stations we chose on Del Campo.

The first pitch was mostly fun low 5th class climbing on relatively sound rock (at least for having no previous traffic), though every now and then I would still toss down small chunks of debris into the snowfield below. I was attempting to take as direct a line as possible to the prominent horn on the ridge. About 80 feet up I hit a small roof, and as I began to do the opening moves I realized that I was quickly getting into 5.10+ climbing on thin or nonexistent gear.  Trying to keep it easier, I backed down and instead opted for a rightward traverse, staying below the bulge. In a sense it was more committing, as a traverse puts both the leader and follower at risk of a swinging pendulum fall.

The rock here is hard metamorphosed Swauk sandstone and gear placements are sometimes far and few between, giving the climbing a “sporty” feeling. The old adage of “the leader must not fall” echoed in the back of my mind. As I continued to the right I saw my first destination: a 10″ diameter tree on a big ledge, a perfect anchor to belay from. I brought David up to me, talking him through the climbing as he gained control over his neophytic trad nerves. Following the traverse went well, even the more technical 5.8 face climbing on small edges proved to be no issue.


David following pitch 1.

In order to regain the plumb line to the top, the second pitch cut back in the direction that we had just come from. Right off the belay I recognized the danger as I delicately picked my way around some enormous detached sandstone flakes which were precariously leaning out from the wall.

“Be careful when you climb past these things, they look like they might fall under body weight and you wouldn’t want them to take you out too; try to keep the rope from getting caught on them.”

I saw the apprehension across David’s face, but given the situation there wasn’t much to do except move carefully and stay in control – at least the climbing was quite easy. Soon I got some good gear in the rock and up next it became very fun, a steep 30 foot slab section, on small holds that were thin enough to be thought provoking but not desperate.

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I’m not quite sure how it happened, but we got a small tangle in the rope that managed to jam itself into the carabiner of the first piece of gear I had placed. Any time the rope gets stuck while climbing a small knot forms in your stomach: stuck ropes mean you are incapacitated wherever you are, and if you’re currently in the act of climbing it can be an even more challenging problem. I gently tried to pull the tangle through, but saw that the twisted rope had tied itself into an overhand knot on a bight; there was no way I would be able to get it free. Luckily I was able to reverse a couple of moves and provide enough slack that David was able to pull the knot free and deal with it on his end. Relieved, and with a heightened sense of awareness I continued up.


David pulling through the corners below the pitch 2 belay.

At the top of the slab it got steeper. There was a small corner where I was able to place some pieces of small offset gear: a cam and a nut. A couple of interesting stemming moves with a jam or two thrown in and a one scary shifting block later (I wanted to throw it to the snowfield but it was too large to do so safely), and I reached a small sloping ledge with enough gear to make a modest belay with just enough room for two. This money pitch had the most continuously good and mentally engaging climbing, but with fairly serious runouts on solid 5.9 terrain it wasn’t taken lightly.

Perched directly below the red band I smiled to myself, the rock had a beautiful red patina and was steep, with a perfect broken pathway leading back into easy low angle terrain. After placing a piece of gear or two I ran it out the last hundred feet to the top on smooth juggy holds peppered in lichen. I built an anchor from what was available: a secure yet detached block which probably weighed several thousand pounds. I attached myself to the anchor and planted my feet securely, providing David with a sound belay straight off my harness as he pulled himself onto the ridge.




Unfortunately, due to the long approach from camp followed by slow methodical climbing it was already 8:20 PM and we didn’t have enough time to truly summit the mountain. In fact, we were stopped atop the lowest horn on the ridge which continued up what looked like mostly 4th class terrain. Instead of making a mad dash summit bid in the fading light, we opted to head down the snowfield while it was still bright enough to see. With a little bit of down climbing, a lovely pine tree provided a perfect opportunity for a single rappel to the high snowfield on the northern side of the formation. If you find our cordelette  and locking carabiner, they’re yours.

The snowfield was icy and steep, we switched back into our hiking boots and I again took the lead, kicking my heels into the snow with great force and only getting an inch or two of purchase. With large rock islands poking through the snow several hundred feet below the last thing either of us wanted was to fall into a slide, since all we had to arrest our falls were trekking poles. It was a feeling of relief when we wrapped around the ridge and got onto more mellow slopes, and pretty soon it was a mad glissade dash by headlamp to get back to the tent, high visibility reflective accents gleaming in the distance.

As soon as we arrived the food ensued, and I felt glad I had packed the luxurious beers that I did. We felt accomplished with what we had done: we climbed three pitches of technical rock climbing onsight to a ridge peak that was sheer on all sides, thus providing a dramatic and logical ending point with an easy means of descent. A perfect birthday celebration.


The following morning the sky looked gloomy from our cozy tent window. After I started the Jetboil for coffee I peeked my head out, fog was oozing over the notch and subsuming the peak and lake, but I guess that’s why it’s called Foggy Lake.


Grateful that we had managed to climb yesterday when the weather was fair, we mustered up our packing skills and pretty soon there was nothing left to do but the hike out. On the hike down we reflected on our climb, musing about the difficulty, reviewing the decisions we made, and thinking about what we should call it. I wasn’t entirely sure that the climb warranted a name, as I can’t possibly see anyone else repeating it.

Traditionally, alpine climbs are named after descriptive features of the route, such as the Southeast Buttress or North Face Direct. Our route followed no prominent line up a dramatic feature, but instead followed the line of least resistance up a varied face. It was certainly not classic, unless you think that chossy horror shows are classic. Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid feeling a certain level of pride in doing something that no one else has done before, and naming a route is a way in which climbers can express this feeling.


The hike down.

Looking back, I think that “Red Flag” is a good name for the route. Del Campo Peak used to be known as Flag Peak, before it was re-named after the nearby Del Campo mining operation. Red Flag is a nod to the historical name of the peak, and a red flag has historically signified an act of aggression. I didn’t feel like we were waging war on Del Campo, but it did feel like we were playing a game against a large unidentifiable opponent where losing was not an option. In  this case, the game was both a puzzle and a maze. You start at Point A and eventually arrive at point B, but unlike a maze in which there is only one correct route, in climbing there are more options; it is a climbers vision and ability that puts the pieces together solves the puzzle. From an objective standpoint our success was certainly a victory.

As of 2015, Gothic Basin is temporarily closed to all use, as the US Forest Service embarks on a hazardous waste cleanup project targeted at removing the harmful environmental effects of the mine. Hopefully the area will be re-opened to the public soon, so that more people can reap the rewards of what nature has to offer.

Happy adventuring!


Prowling up the Prow


September 4, 2014

The crisp air and absolute lack of moisture was driving me crazing and making my mind focus on only one thing: I need to get on a wall.

But which route? I had climbed several long multi-pitch routes back in Washington, but never anything where I had spent the night. Now I was back in the golden glow of California’s Fall season and the shiny new Runout Customs double portaledge and 77L Titan haul bag I had bought that Spring were just itching to be used. So far my only exploits consisted of test bivies on a couple of lowly single pitch routes. Not exactly the eagle’s perch I had envisioned occupying when I purchased them, but the testing process was comfortable and fun nonetheless. Luckily, before I even arrived back in town I called up my good friend Brian Prince, and although he had never climbed a big wall either he was just as eager to try it out as I was. Being an enthusiastic climber from my hometown of Morro Bay with a ton of mileage in the Valley it seemed like a perfect partnership.

We spent some time deliberating, without much immediate success. I felt we should do Lurking Fear (C2F 5.7, 19 pitches) as it is one of the more moderate El Cap routes (having never climbed on El Cap before and wanting the experience).  Brian felt we should climb something on Washington Column or Leaning Tower because the routes on those formations tend to be slightly overhanging, making hauling a much more manageable chore. We began our drive to the Valley uncertain of what we would be climbing, though somewhere along the way the decision was mutually agreed upon that we would not climb Lurking Fear, as the guidebook descriptions of 7 pitches of grueling slab hauling didn’t sound nearly as glamorous as The Prow which was touted to be “spectacularly steep and exposed”, at an accessible grade of C2F 5.6 (12 pitches). First ascended by Royal Robbins in 1964, it was long considered a Valley test piece. We planned on completing the route in two days, spending one night on the wall. As we prepared for the climb we were conservative in our estimation of what to bring: 10 liters of water and 3 liters of coconut water per person, plus a handful of mandatory summit beers. Food consisted of a wide assortment of energy bars, bags of cereal, lots of chocolate, and an entire Domino’s pizza.

The day before Brian and I embarked on our trip we reached a last minute consensus to practice hauling and lowering out on P-Wall on Bishop Peak, San Luis Obispo of all places. We made a modest effort to pad the inside of my haul bag with an old Thermarest as we loaded it with about 100 lbs of jagged broken rocks and attempted to haul it with a simple 2:1 system using only a Petzl Micro Traxion. Although we were hauling over low angle slab we were luckily able to manage the weight effectively, and did not have to resort to a somewhat more complex hauling setup. Armed with a wealth of free climbing experience and now with a few basic big wall techniques under our harnesses, we were ready.

We began the four and a half hour drive to the Valley in the mid-afternoon, planning to arrive at dark and sleep outside the park. On the way out of town we had one last chore: the poop tube.

For those of you who are not well-versed in the jargon of big wall climbers, a poop tube is exactly what it sounds like: a three foot long tube made of PVC or similar material that is capped at both ends, and in some way fastened to the outside of the haul bag for ease of access. Ours was fashioned from materials found at a nearby Lowe’s Home Improvement Store in Paso Robles. After acquiring lightweight caps, a 4″ diameter corrugated PVC pipe, and some adhesive we went to work cutting the tube to length and using adhesive liberally  enough to ensure that it was not going to fall apart whilst being dragged up 1200 feet of granite. We made a keeper loop out of some 5mm static line, threw in a couple of Wag Bags (biodegradable human waste bags), and called it good. Without any more holdups we continued humming along Highway 41 North towards Yosemite in our little white Mazda as the shadows grew longer.

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We arrived inside the park in the early morning haze. We drove to the far end of the park; stopping at Lamon’s apple orchard we peered up at Washington Column amidst deer and a couple of black bears. Beginning to feel stoked, we organized our gear in the parking lot as we waited for the Yosemite Mountain Shop to open up at 9:00 AM. After buying some offset Alien cams (blue/green and green/yellow) and a set of small and medium Black Diamond beaks we were on our merry way.


Looking up from the base of Washington Column

Merry may be a slight hyperbole, as it was now reaching 10:00 AM and the sun peering over Half Dome was currently baking the rugged one mile trail from the Ahwahnee Hotel (our parking space) to the base of the route. I struggled under the weight of our water, food, and shelter in the unwieldily haul bag, as Brian carried a separate pack stuffed full of ropes and gear. Normally trying not to break a sweat, I was blinded by salt as I strained against my trekking poles which helped me pick my way through the loose talus of the climber’s trail.

As luck would have it we arrived to a deserted base, with no sign of anyone anywhere nearby. Celebrating our good fortune we drank liberally from our water supply to lighten the load, and began repacking the haul bag and racking up for the climb. We agreed to swing leads, with Brian going first in order to free climb the first half of the starting pitch.


Brian halfway up the first pitch atop Jo-Jo

Brian began up the first pitch with ease, climbing a splitter 10b thin hands crack named Jo-Jo. From the top of Jo-Jo the difficulty increased and the aiders came out, but the rock shoes stayed on – a rookie mistake we quickly learned to avoid. After standing a pair of thin nylon aiders for half an hour I’m sure that loosening the shoes at the belay was a welcome change.


Racing after the free-hanging haul bag

I finished jugging and cleaning the fixed line just as Brian secured our haul bag. After accepting the proffered rack I handed off the ascenders and began leading up my pitch, static line trailing as a big loop falling into space.

A little over halfway up the pitch I came to a fun section requiring cam hooks, a piece of gear I fell in love with while climbing Liberty Crack (5.9 C2 12 pitches) on Washington Pass in late May. I placed each cam hook confidently in the thin parallel sided crack, steel edges biting securely into the rock, barely flexing as I gently transferred my weight onto each new placement. Soon the crack petered out into the thinnest of flaring seams. I’m sure that I could have dug into my old bag of tricks and figured out a way through the nearly featureless rock, but quickly realized I had a new tool at my disposal: the Peckers!

I plugged an offset Alien into a small pod above my last cam hook, clipped my rope into it, then tentatively placed the blade of my smaller beak over a constriction in the rock. It was similar to placing a grappling hook, but into a crack instead of onto a ledge. As I weighted it my confidence grew, so much that when I saw a nearly identical placement just above it I placed another one back to back!


Bomber Beak Placements

The rest of the pitch succumbed fairly easily; punctuated with bomber fixed gear such as shiny new aluminum heads artfully pasted to nothingness – their holding power both wondrous and frightful to ponder with any serious contemplation, it finished out on a nice crack that ate up the gear placements.


Bolt ladder up deliciously steep orange and black granite

Brian set out to link pitches 3 and 4 together (possible with a 60m rope), pitch 3 being a fairly clean crack line where it was possible to leapfrog mid-sized gear, and pitch 4 starting out as a bolt ladder up blank rock which then opened up into a broken crack system. Brian managed to link up his pitches without running out of gear or rope, and I then flew up pitch 5’s “reachy bolts”. Standing at 6’4″ I thought that they were quite fairly spaced, oftentimes at a comfortable full arm-span. The bolts were in excellent condition, looking like they had been recently replaced.


Author resting on a solid hook placement

It was during a section of consecutive hook placements that pitch 6 got the better of me. I started out on a rightward traverse, leapfrogging a couple of hook moves. Transferring my weight onto my right hook it slipped off the edge, sending me into a hard fall onto my daisy chain which caught me on, you guessed it, my other hook. Looking past the slightly tipped out purple C4 a couple feet below me there was a noticeable lack of gear, making me thankful of my good fortune. Slightly shook up and surprised that it didn’t pop off as well, I climbed back up my ladder and groaned as I saw a perfect 0.75″ placement inside a corner just a foot or two above the hook that caught me – I guess I didn’t have to keep going right after all. Resolving to take it slower and be more aware of my options I finished out the pitch without incident.


Tucked in for the night

Finishing the pitch in high spirits we could have climbed more before dark, however we were at an optimally sheer and blank section of wall, and the pitches above us looked marred by strange corners and ledges which would complicate setting up a portaledge. Besides, six out of twelve pitches completed seemed like an appropriate stopping point.  From a hanging position in my harness I set up our ledge, adjusting the tensioners to achieve a flat and stable platform as Brian waited patiently below in the comfort of the belay seat. When all was ready he joined me on the ledge, as we remained tied in on long 20 foot leashes for ease of mobility. We brought out the snacks, then the pizza, then the beer. As the last alpenglow faded from the northwest face of Half Dome we found sleep.

Sleeping came easily, as it often does after a demanding day in the mountains. We had baked in the sun for hours, the physical nature of hauling gear was new to us, and we rotated our one pair of leather gloves to whoever was hauling the bag. Jugging the fixed lines barehanded was doable, but at the end of the day my hands were unusually dirty, swollen, and throbbing from hard use. Nonetheless, we were up at first light.


First light over Half Dome

In the morning we ate dry cereal and bars, and as Brian headed up the Strange Dihedral (a peculiar little left facing corner where Royal Robbins fell on the first ascent) I managed the rope from the most regal and spectacular position of my lowly belaying career. Before following the pitch I packed up the ledge, but first creating a golden arc across the sky that would have made even Midas proud.


Looking up the Strange Dihedral


Looking down the Strange Dihedral

I was surprised as a small uprooted bush caught me off guard. There were no grassy ledges to speak of anywhere nearby, and yet here it was, spinning slowly in the air right next to me, suspended six hundred feet off the valley floor by warm gusts of air butting up against the indomitable rock wall. A second later and it flew off to new heights and to who knows where.


The Prow, home to climbers, thermals, and flying shrubs

The Strange Dihedral didn’t seem so peculiar to me, but it was the first time that I ever lost a piece of gear on a climb. I’ve bootied many pieces of gear in my climbing career, but on that morning I lost a perfectly good #8 DMM offset nut (the dark blue one) to a pin scar that would simply not give it up, even after nearly 10 minutes of cajoling it with my nut tool. If we had brought along the hammer I’m sure it would have popped right out, but given the already beaten state of my hands it was all I could do to use my body weight for leverage and kick the nut tool in vain, almost snapping it in half in the process. It wouldn’t even budge. Cutting my losses I proceeded upwards, only mildly disgusted at myself but blaming no one.

After pitch 7 I made my way down to a small sloping ledge that I traversed rightwards in my approach shoes. At the end of the ledge there was a thin crack traversing back left in a grandiose arc, home of pin scars, bashies, fixed pins, and a RURP that was tied off with what looked like about four passes of 1mm spectra (a piece which I nimbly skipped over). Although the gear was thin I was able to back-clean most of the start, making it somewhat less difficult to follow. At the end of the pitch there was some mandatory 5.6 free climbing, which I did in my (you guessed it) approach shoes. It wasn’t bad at all, and as a minor joke I paused to place Brian’s number 1 Wild Country Zero cam; with a minuscule range of 5.5 – 7.8 mm and strength rating of only 3 kN, the biggest joke was that it was a bomber placement and might actually have arrested a small fall.


Pitch 8 seam with various fixed mank poking out

Brian wanted to free climb the corner on pitch 10, so we swapped our regular order and I led pitch 8 and pitch 9 back-to-back. The climbing of pitch 9 was more moderate, but the views continued to wow with the fantastic roof of the Re-Animator providing a dramatic profile to our left.


Pitch 9 of the Prow, the Re-Animator roof (A3+) visible on the left skyline.

Pitch 9 ended with a gear anchor at the base of a beautiful corner. I was thankful that Brian was such a strong free climber as he cruised directly above me on the polished feet of a 5.10+ lie back. Luckily he was able to get to a decent rest halfway up before his arms gave out, and he made the pitch look so fun that I followed it by free climbing the fixed line my Mini Traxions!


Looking down the dramatic sweep of the pitch 10 corner

Pitch 11 was the first pitch that gave us options on where to go, you could either head left via a gritty old-school 5.9 chimney (shudder) or right via a much more appealing bombay chimney/roof with a crack splitting the top. I opted for what I perceived to be harder but more secure climbing, and it ended up being totally wild with jams, drop knees and smeary stemming. I took a fall while pulling the roof, briefly hanging in space on a hand jam, a bit disappointed I had fallen. I got right back up and sent, and Brian got it first try.


Pitch 11, we chose the farthest right crack

Pitch 12 was more of a means of “topping out” than a full value pitch, as a short blocky crack section guarded the final sloping ledges of the summit ridge line. I coerced Brian into taking the 5.7 squeeze variation, and got my comeuppance when he took in too much rope, forcing my helmet to get stuck in the back of a wide crack after retrieving a deeply placed piece of gear.

We made our way up some scrambly ledges covered in high Sierra gravel interspersed with shrunken and twisted Ponderosa Pines as we man-handled our gear to the summit. At the top there was a nice circular clearing where we chose to lay down, bask in the too hot heat of the sun, and drink the coldish beers that were hiding at the bottom of our pack. It was still early in the day, but as with most climbs we knew that the crux was probably yet to come: the descent.


Summit Beers!

I explored the ridge to get better views of the valley, doing some sketchy down climbing on crumbling rock to get a good view of El Capitan and the top outs of some of the other climbs on the formation.  Pretty soon it was time to pack up and head down, but first we left several full 2L bottles of water for a less prepared party under the shade of a big rock. Since we only had one bag (the haul bag) I offered to carry it, the gentleman that I am. Brian backpacked both of our ropes, and away we went, teetering along the narrow trail, ducking branches and pulling on roots.


Author carrying haul bag down the slabby descent

Although the trail would at times spontaneously collapse out from under our feet and was at times more technical climbing than hiking (in approach shoes with a top-heavy 40 lb pack) we managed not to fall and instead sucked in the beautiful views as the colors of the rocks changed in the fading light.

I got down to flat ground a bit sooner, and headed straight to the road. Brian had to make a detour back up to the base of the climb where we had left a pack and jacket the day prior. I made use of this extra time to go to the Merced River, where I took it upon myself to strip naked out of my sweat soaked garb and jump right in by the bridge between North and Lower Pine Campgrounds.

The cold water was even better than the warm summit beer, the stillness of night was all around me as a thin sliver of moon peeked out over the blackened silhouette of Glacier Point. I grabbed a handful of sand from the river bottom and scrubbed myself with it. Fish were still rising at the surface downstream from me, someone rode across the bridge on a bicycle but didn’t stop to notice the person in the water.

After several minutes, I emerged, re-born. I felt energy that I didn’t know I had left, and finally I mustered the drive to put on my socks and underwear –  unwilling to put back on my sweat soaked pants and shirt. Saddling the haul bag on my shoulders I resumed my merry way.

As fate would have it, I ran into Brian in the final minutes before reaching the Ahwahnee. He was successful in retrieving the things we had left, and he might have been slightly envious of my evening reverie in the Merced. We walked back to the parking lot together and cracked a couple of beers as groups of patrons poured forth from the glowing entrance of the hotel, inquisitive looks cast at the person drinking beer in his underwear in the parking lot of their sophisticated wilderness experience.

That evening we ate well and slept in the dirt, and the next day we climbed some alpine routes in Tuolumne Meadows…

We never needed the poop tube.

Additional Photos:

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Hope you enjoyed reading!