After a week of rain in City of Rocks, Amir was driving south to leave Portland behind him for good. Our excitement to return to the Yosemite Valley after our 2001 introduction was obvious as we hurried down I-5 in the Previa (aka Blue Bullet aka Stealthy Grocery Getter), swapping driving responsibility the way we were about to swap leads on some of the most famous routes in the world.
We were awed once again by the images in front of us as we dropped into one of nature’s most amazing gifts, the Yosemite valley, of which John Muir had this to say:
The most famous of the canon valleys, and also the one that presents their most striking and sublime features on the grandest scale, is the Yosemite. The walls are made up of rocks, mountains in size, that are so sheer in front, and so compactly and harmoniously arranged on a level floor, that the Valley, comprehensively seen, looks like an immense hall or temple lighted from above. But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitude, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly aware, yet heedless, of everything going on about them. Awful in stern, immovable majesty, how softly these rocks are adorned, and how fine among beautiful groves and meadows, their brows in the sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their feet, bathed in floods of water, floods of light, while the snow and waterfalls, the winds and avalanches and clouds shine and sing and wreathe about them as the years go by, and myriads of small winged creatures – birds, bees, butterflies – give glad animation and help to make all the air into music. Down through the middle of the valley flows the crystal Merced, River of Mercy, peacefully quiet, reflecting lilies and trees and the onlooking rocks; things frail and fleeting and types of endurance meeting here and blending in countless forms, as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.
The one thing we knew we were looking for in Yosemite was a day on the most famous of 5.9 routes: the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral (EB). Trusted friends and climbing literature alike have warned us to not leave the valley without experiencing this stunning line. This was the one objective we were determined to accomplish in our 8 days in the valley, a determination that was bordering on obsession. All other routes were warm ups to prepare us for this journey.
Day 1 – Sat: We successfully navigated the 45 second approach through the picnicking tourists to gain the base of the Church Bowl crag. Less busy than we would expect, we quickly jumped on Church Bowl Lieback (5.8) before being especially blessed to find the 5 star classic Bishop’s Terrace (5.8) open for business. My rock crushed his scissors (though apparently scissors are statistically favored) so I had the extreme fortune of leading this fine hand crack. To say we were very satisfied upon reaching the belay ledge would be an understatement. Though tired from the drive, we ended the day by stemming up the Church Bowl chimney – the most strenuous 5.6 in the entire world (as far as I know).
Day 2 – Sun: Not yet ready to launch ourselves into an all day affair on EB, we elected to attack another portion of the same formation – the Central Pillar of Frenzy. However, apparently the early bird gets up before 7:00 at Camp 4… we arrived at the route to see a party of 3 starting it and another party of three behind them in line. One of the climbers mentioned Kor Beck (5.9) just around the corner, and serendipity offered us an extremely pleasurable cruise up 6 pitches of stout offwidths and chimneys. The route seemed to be more than worthy of its 3 (of 5) stars.
Day 3 – Mon: Today is the day we are ready for EB. Knowing 7:00 was too late, but unfortunately being under the allusion that 4:30 would be sufficient, we were late enough to meet 2 parties at the base. As fate would have it, Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9, 5 pitches) was open and we ticked another 5 star classic. The most memorable series on this route was the 4 foot overhanging roof with a perfect splitter hand crack that continued on for 60 feet… awesome!
Day 4 – Tue: Up at 4:15 again this morning, but Amir’s cell phone, including all his contacts for the road trip, is missing. After deciding to move forward with EB despite the interruption in mental clarity, we then discover the topos are missing. We decide to cancel all climbing for the day and explore the Hetch Hetchy area- in the end a great way to spend a day.
So far we had missed two chances on the EB and hadn’t yet laid hands on (er, in) the route that was seeming to elude us. Talk about fate and things being “meant to be” started to slip into conversations.
Day 5 – Wed: Up again at 4:15 – today was the day we finally had everything right – we found the phone (fellow camper mistakenly grabbed my backpack), had the topo, and most important had a great attitude thanks to our day off. We got to the route and noone was there – it was all too good to be true, until the first droplets of rain came down as we pulled out our ropes! We waited it out for an hour before deciding that the rain was sticking around.
The rain was light so we headed to Reid’s Pinnacle and cruised a fun 5.8 (Ejesta).
We had been contemplating a foray into Yosemite 5.10 climbing, a scary proposition that neither of us seemed to be jumping all over… but if we went for it, this was the area to do it. I “won” the Rocha beau and quickly consumed the short 5.9 pitch of Reid’s Pinnacle Direct. Amir then reluctantly started up the 5.10a section. After yelling “I didn’t sign up for no fucking off-width” he made it up the as-of-yet biggest challenge of our trip.
For whatever reason, I had been especially adverse to breaking out of our comfortable 5.9 precedent. As we sat at the base of Lunatic Fringe (5.10c), Amir gave the pep talk of the trip, quoting and yelling and spitting brimstone and fire so that I could fire up for the culmination of all the skills I had acquired to this point in my climbing life. I quickly transformed from a retiring, sheepish climber to feeling as if 10c was going down like a cheap whore on Burnside. I tied into the sharp end of the rope and confidently solved 125 feet of lieback, jam, and finger lock problems until I reached the last 15 feet of face climbing. As I slowly moved across the stone I kept repeating to myself “Jason you’re a Smith climber, you can do this”. Upon reaching the anchor, the energy that had been so intensely focused over the past 20 minutes was released in every direction with a roar that carried down into the Valley and was talked about that night with curiosity around the Camp 4 fire rings.
Something happened inside of me after Lunatic Fringe – that drug climbers crave was injected directly into my soul. I was now not only ready, but hungry, for more Valley 10s. By putting everything I had into it, the route brought the best out of me.
Day 6 – Thu: Smart enough to learn our lesson the second time, we checked the forecast – rain was assured so EB was off again. This was a mixed blessing, since we were too tired to get up at 4:15 for a 4th day in a row. With our new found confidence, we eyed Moratorium, a three pitch 11b that was mostly 10a, some 10d, and one short section of 11b we could pull through on gear if necessary. The new grades we were attempting improved our chances of smaller lines, and the 45 minute boulder and talus approach practically guaranteed an open route. The bold and intimidating lieback finger crack was in the end too bold and intimidating, and I took twice before completing the pitch. In fact at one point, stretched across with feet left and one arm holding me horizontal, 5 feet above a poorly placed size 0 cam, I barely slammed in a #1 before crying “take” like a scared baby.
Amir cruised up to the belay just in time for the rain to send us packing. 11b might have been a little too big for these britches anyway. Though we didn’t get the onsite, nor the other two pitches, we left with a great satisfaction that our day was well spent.
Day 7 – Fri: The forecast now called for 2 days of sun, so we decided to let EB dry out as much as possible – the descent is sketchy third/fourth class mud and rock hopping best attempted with as much soil purchase as possible. And so we began to contemplate the route everyone suggested but we initially doubted…the Serenity Crack to Suns of Yesterday link up (10d). All 5.10 climbers coming to Yosemite put this coveted route high on their tick list, and in fact a trusted, long time climber told us it was his most favorite of all routes done in his lifetime. As we stared out the Awahanee lodge at this proud line, we began to see the path this trip was leading us toward.
Up at 4:15 again (our bodies were starting to naturally wake up at this time now), we wished the 10 minute approach took more time than it did. For such a popular route, we were fortunate to find it available for us to immediately swallow our fear and start our ascent. No Rocha beau this time, this was Amir’s chance to cruise the crux and steal the glory of our highest rated attempt. The first 30 feet of pin scars were barely protectable, so as the taller climber I volunteered to get us past this heady section. After achieving the first bolt, we swapped leads up to the crux pitch – a burly unrelenting 10d finger crack with zero features on the face to support an attempt at foot placement. As I yelled up encouragement, Amir fired through the crux with a cool head and steady feet. He’s now a valley 10d climber, and in Valley lore they would come to call him Maverick.
The second to last pitch of Sons of Yesterday was one of the best hand cracks anywhere. And the last pitch involved delicately stepping along a one inch offset crack with 900 feet of airy exposure to tickle the tummy… definitely one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in this lifetime. The sun was glowing, the valley was rapturous, and the satisfaction of sending this route was next to nothing else.
Day 8 – Sat: Serenity to Suns was the capstone of the trip – there wouldn’t be another attempt at EB. Our bodies were worn out, swollen, and bloody from 6 of 7 days throwing ourselves at some of the finest routes anywhere. Without a doubt, we still ended up finding what we were looking for, and a few things we weren’t.
Final Thoughts - We’ve spent a week attempting to take advantage of any subtle weaknesses in these relentlessly tenacious granite walls… finding solutions to nature’s problems: pull through an intimidating roof, ascend an exposed arête, slide over a slabby face, step across a thin ledge, crawl through a chimney, and pull up a crack. I can’t help but draw obvious parallels to the situations I return to as I leave the valley – I am inspired to find new approaches to life’s problems while appreciating the grandeur of the peaks and valleys that make up our own personal vistas.
I’m sure John Muir would agree that one can’t help but leave this place affected by it’s magnificence. I can’t think of a better way for you to start your journey southward, Amir. Enjoy the rest of your trip, my friend. I hope you continue to find what you are looking for, and some things that you aren’t.
Seems that perhaps both everything, and nothing, is meant to be ;-)