Yosemite Climbing: Munginella to Selaginella
November 8, 2009
Just to the left of Yosemite Falls (the tallest waterfall in North America) lies the Five Open Books. With one of the most amazing waterfalls next door it’s somewhat surprising that the area didn’t attract climbers until the 1960′s. While initially the climbing here was full of loose rock and vegetation, today with constant travel the routes are clean and quite enjoyable.
Unlike other areas of Yosemite Valley, the rock face is not continuous all the way up the valley. Instead it is divided up into tiers by very large ledges, so large that the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail runs on top of the second tier. The first tier gets you about 400′ off of the valley floor and the top of the second tier gets you another 600′ higher. So to climb to the top of the second tier you have to link together a couple of different climbs. For the first tier we decided to head up Munginella (5.6) and then finish off the day at the top of the second tier via Selaginella (5.8).
To access the base of Munginella you park at the Lower Yosemite Falls trailhead. While gearing up and getting ready I noticed a couple ladies who were also getting ready to do some climbing. After a bit of chatting we discovered that they we were all heading in the same direction and they informed us that the climbers trail can be pretty hard to spot. So they offered to help out by showing us the way. We were quite thankful because they were right, the trail was quite hard to spot.
After a bit of 3rd class walking we arrived at the base of the climb. There was a party of three just getting started in front of us and not long after we arrived two more parties of two showed up behind us. A women in the party of three informed us that they were going to be moving pretty slowly because this would be the first lead for two of their members. Thankfully they were quite respectful and after they all managed to get to the first belay they allowed us to climb past them.
Ben took the first pitch and wasted no time in flying up the first half of the route. He setup an anchor above the first party and we made a quick changeover by swinging leads, trying not to hold them up. The second pitch flew by so fast that I barely even remember leading it. I reached the top and setup an anchor off of a few trees, trying not to spray rock and dirt down on the parties below us. With both of us at the top of Munginella we checked the time and laughed, 45 minutes to knock out the two pitches and 300′ of climbing, that’s really moving for the two of us.
In order to get over to the base of Selaginella you have to walk along the top of the first tier. It’s a very sandy and dirty climbers trail with a bit of elevation gain and a huge danger of dislodging rocks onto those below. While looking for the start of our next climb there seemed to be a number of possibilities. So we kept checking the guide book and compared the crack systems that we saw with what was drawn. After about 10 minutes of hiking we came across a location that was pretty obviously used to belay people from and sure enough, it was the start of the climb.
It was Ben’s turn to take the lead. The first pitch runs up a pretty nice dihedral and a solid 5.7 crack for hand jams and a bit of layback action. Because the route is quite vertical, there aren’t as many locations to take breaks making the climbing quite sustained. As the follower I was finding myself having to remove gear and rack it while keeping a hand in the crack at all times. The topo seems to suggest belaying just above a tree stump but if you continue on just a little bit further you’ll reach a huge ledge, queuing yourself up for being able to do the route in three pitches instead of four.
The second pitch starts out with a pretty solid 5.7 crack that requires good usage of fists. When you reach a piton you should start to traverse over to the left. The topo calls this section 5.0 and for some reason my expectation was that I’d be able to pretty much run up this part. While the climbing wasn’t hard at all, the route finding does require a bit of thinking.
While I was leading I remembered seeing a tree on the topo which I managed to sling with a double length runner so I knew I was on track at that point. But above there I was faced with a couple options. Over on the left there was a huge dihedral but it didn’t look very appealing. On the right there looked to be a squeeze chimney that I thought would be safer but I wasn’t sure if it was on route or not. I decided to take the chimney.
As I’ve mentioned in the last few posts, chimneys are kind of new to me. Unbeknown to me, this chimney is rated at 5.8 and is a very tight fit. I could get myself into it and feeling quite secure, but placing protection was a mammoth pain in the ass. The chimney was so tight that my body was just wedged into it so the movement of my arms was quite limited. But I managed to set a couple solid nuts along the way and was pretty happy when I was out of it.
Realizing that I’d done about 150′ of climbing I figured I should start looking for a place to setup an anchor and belay from. There were some good cracks around but nothing very comfortable to stand on. So I found myself looking upward, spying a place that looked good, getting to it and really not liking it that much. This cycle happened about three times until I saw what looked like a glorious ledge just a bit further. This one worked out.
I got up onto the ledge and immediately ran out of rope. I had climbed a bit over 200′ and if it wasn’t for the bolt and the piton I would have been worried that I was off route. I used the bolt and the piton for my anchor and backed it up with a big nut located in a crack between the two. After I got Ben on belay I had a moment to look around and started smiling ear to ear.
This wasn’t just any ledge I was standing on, it was a peninsula of rock jutting out of the face and just big enough for two people to stand on comfortably. It was easy to get a full 180 degree view of the valley below as well as see everything that we’d climbed so far. I yelled down to Ben that he was on belay and could watch his progress the whole way, it was very cool and I couldn’t wait for him to get up to me so we could share the experience.
I was also anxious to check the guide book and figure out where we were on the route. When looking we discovered that I had almost climbed two pitches and from here we’d be able to finish the route in one more pitch. But there was a decision to make, we could traverse left around a very wild 5.8 section or go up a 5.7 crack with a face section. Ben chose to take the 5.7 crack and I can’t blame him, the traverse looked extremely exposed.
From my vantage point, I could only see the first 20′ or so of this last pitch so outside of watching how much rope I was feeding Ben I wasn’t able to see his progress. I knew that he had to climb about 170′ to get to the top so I was rather surprised when he went off belay with 60′ of rope left (we climb with a 200ft rope). I wondered if the beta in the topo was wrong or if I was just mistaken about how much climbing we had left. Either way, I assumed that I was done leading for the day and after cleaning the route it would be in the bag.
The pitch itself was rather intense. The crack climbing off of the belay was pretty straightforward and it led up to a ledge full of large chunks of loose rock. Above that was a very tenuous traverse along a face with some under clings in a thin flake and minimal protection. After this traverse you get a bit of a reprieve with some nice 5.7 fists up to a small ledge. Taking a break here is likely a good idea because above here is some fairly strenuous 5.8 layback and stemming.
About half way through the stemming section Ben called down to me and told me that he hadn’t finished the climb. He said that I’d understand why when I got up there in a happy and almost excited way so I kind of laughed and said okay. When I reached him I found that he was standing on a big ledge about 18″ wide and 20′ long. Looking up I could see the top of the climb about 30′ above us, close enough I felt like I could just touch it.
So I asked Ben why he hadn’t finished the climb. Turns out the last pitch was pretty strenuous on lead and he wasn’t sure if we were off route or not. So he figured he’d bring me up and get my read on things. I could easily see how the climbing below would be strenuous on a leader so I completely understood and applauded him for deciding to bring me up.
We had two options to finish the route, a layback off of a detached flake on the left and a featured but difficult to protect face in front of us. The flake looked rather suspect to use as a layback so I decided that I’d lead the face section as it seemed safer. I’m going to save the details of the events that followed this decision for the next post. But as a summary, the features on the face got thinner and the places I thought I could get protection in didn’t work out as planned. As a result I had a rather bad fall. So in as far as beta for this route is concerned, I’d highly suggest not climbing the face and using the very stable fake on the left. It can be protected and is a much safer route.
I don’t enjoy leaving you dangling in regards to my fall but the details of it and the lessons learned deserve their own post. Also, the quality and enjoyment that this climb provides doesn’t deserve to be weighed down with all of that extra baggage. So I’ll leave you with a more pleasant image, a panorama taken a bit lower on the climb.