Royal Arches to North Dome to Tuolumne

September 6, 2011

For all of you who love statistics, I won’t make you wait for them:

  • 4000′ of elevation gain
  • 26 pitches climbed
  • 16 miles of hitchhiking
  • 13 hours of almost non-stop work
  • 8 literes of water per person
  • 6.3 miles of hiking
  • 2 routes completed
  • 1 more of the 50 classics ticked

Okay, now for all of you who don’t have ADD or Aspergers.

Almost two years ago on my first climbing trip to Yosemite Valley Ben and I shared a Camp 4 site with a couple guys named Hector and Doug. One night at camp we were all talking about what we had climbed that day, Hector and Doug mentioned that they had climbed the South Face of North Dome (5.8). I looked in the SuperTopo climbing book to get a better feel for how they spent their day and was immediately impressed.

North Dome is 8 pitches long and features just over 1100′ of climbing. At a rating of 5.8 the route is quite moderate, but when the approach is factored into the climb it becomes substantially harder. Typically the first step is to hike all the way out of Yosemite Valley, for most Americans this step alone is beyond comprehension and ability. The approach is so much work that SuperTopo suggests that it can take up to 6 hours. That’s 6 hours of hard work for a fairly fit person before starting on a climb that takes roughly another 6 hours to complete. I must be getting old because this didn’t seem too appealing to me at the time.

But then at the beginning of this season Ben and I were talking about how we really need to do Royal Arches, especially given that it’s one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America. But the thought of doing the legendarily epic-inducing descent was rather unappealing. Then it hit me… why not make the descent worth it by climbing North Dome while we were up there! Then an even better idea struck me… climb Royal Arches, hike over to and climb North Dome and then walk off the backside into Tuolumne! By walking off the backside of North Dome into Tuolumne we could avoid the descent completely and life would be grand.

So we had a… complicated dream. The general problem is that we’d end our day many miles away from where we started and therefore could use a little bit of outside help to make it happen. Here’s the plan we came up with.

On Thursday August 25th Ben and I drove up to Yosemite and camped for the night in the forest service land just outside of the park on Evergreen Road. On Friday we’d wake up at 5am, pack up our stuff, grab some food and head into the park. We’d leave my car at a pullout near Crane Flat (point A on the map below). Later in the day Ben’s wife Linda along with our friends Marzena and Jill would pick up my car at Crane Flat and then we’d meet them along highway 120 before enjoying a weekend of climbing in Tuolumne. To span the 16 miles that separated my car and the start of Royal Arches (roughly point B on the map below) we needed to hitch a ride into the valley. If that proved successful, we’d climb Royal Arches, hike a mile over to the base of North Dome, climb South Face on North Dome and lastly hike from the top of North Dome back to highway 120 to meet the ladies at the Porcupine Creek trailhead (marked with the green arrow on the map). Our plan was to meet at 8 but Ben and I figured that 9 was a bit more likely.

Map showing the logistics of our plan

Point A is where we left my car, point B is where we needed a ride to and the green arrow is where we were to be picked up (click to enlarge)

So at 6am, while listening to a dog either having sex or being eaten by a bear, Ben and I started to realize that there wasn’t too many people going to the valley at this time of day. But sure enough, the very first car to drive by gave us a lift. We couldn’t believe how easy it was.

The car that picked us up had three Bay Area folks that were planning on hiking Half Dome that day. Two of them had never been to Yosemite and the third had only been once. It’s always fantastic to see the reaction that people have when entering Yosemite Valley for the first time. The contrast between their first time in the park and the adventure that we were about to embark on really set a fantastic tone for the day. Sharing some knowledge about the valley, answering questions that they had, giving directions and even telling them where to park. It simply felt good to think about when I was in their shoes vs where I’m at now, to help them have a successful adventure just as they were helping us.

We parted ways at the parking lot, each of us heading to a different side of the valley. Before getting on the route Ben and I stopped in the Ahwahnee to use the bathroom and grab a small second breakfast. When we got to the base of the route and racked up it was 8am, exactly the time we had hoped to begin.

The start of the route was rather jarring. We had hoped to be able to simul climb the majority of Royal Arches but the route begins with a very slick chimney so we figured that we’d play it safe and start the simul climbing after the first pitch. After three pitches of easy 3rd and 4th class we got to the start of the 5th pitch and found a party of three going up the 5.7 fingers section. We didn’t have time to get stuck behind another party so I picked another line and proceeded to take us up, skirting around them.

Another 5 pitches of simul climbing and we were at the well known pendulum swing. Royal Arches is rated at 5.10b because of the moves to get across this fairly blank but short section of rock. But instead of freeing the route, most parties use the fixed rope that’s at this point to swing past it, making the route a 5.7 A0. I had intended to do the same, but when I got there something inside me wanted to do the moves and free the route. With a touch of trepidation I started to move away from the security of the cracks and onto the face. I had found some very small edges (about the thickness of a nickel), one for my left foot and a couple for my fingernails. I slowly moved onto them, easing my weight onto my left foot and hoping that it would stay put. Found a nicer left hand further out, stepped through with my right foot, stood up and bam, I was hanging onto the ledge on the other side. Ben followed in good form and we both laughed somewhat uncontrollably, proud of ourselves for being bold enough to try and confident enough to execute.

Ben on the 10b crux of Royal Arches

Ben on the 10b crux of Royal Arches

After this section the climbing turned easy again for a pitch. I then made a bit of a mistake. Instead of continuing along this ledge to the very leftmost side, I went up what appeared to be a well worn gully. It wasn’t. Turns out that it wasn’t climbers that had made the rock look worn, it was water. After two pitches climbing up this mungy and hard to protect gully I decided that we should rap down to the ledge and get ourselves back on route.

Back down on the ledge I figured out where I went wrong and got us back on track. Another 6 pitches of simul climbing and we reached the end of the route. Our little off route adventure ended up costing us about an hour so when we sat down for some food it was right about noon. At the top of the route there is thankfully a fantastic little spring. It was so incredibly hot that both Ben and I had burned the two liters that we each had with us. We had planned on refilling our water here but hadn’t planned on being so thirsty. Given the nature of the spring, we decided to chance it and put down a couple more liters each without treating it. It was a risk, but we needed the water pretty badly.

After about an hour of hydrating, eating and cooling off we started the hike up to North Dome. We had expected this part of the day to go by pretty easily, but it ended up being a lot of work. SuperTopo claimed that it was just under a mile of hiking and gained 500 feet, no big deal. Turns out that the distance was about right but it gains about twice as much elevation. We had anticipated this part to take us about a half hour but it ended up being double that. This put us at the start of South Face at around 2pm.

Given that the climb on North Dome was far more sustained with an overall harder rating and that we’d already done a good amount of climbing, we decided to pitch the climb out. I took the first pitch and when I setup the anchor after a full 200 feet of climbing (I actually linked the first and second pitch together) I felt exhausted. The entire time I was belaying Ben I was thinking about how nice it was going to be to have him lead the next pitch. But then when he got up to the belay said that he thought we should lead in blocks. Shit. But I couldn’t fight him, we were both feeling tired so leading in blocks made sense. So I took the next pitch, a choice I would not regret.

The third pitch of the route was truly spectacular. The route takes you up a left facing corner but after 20-30′ from the belay you must move right along the face of the dihedral and onto the higher face, avoiding a large overhanging section. When climbing I knew that I had to make this move at some point, I just wasn’t sure when. I spotted a line that looked like it could work but I really wasn’t sure. Feeling as though it was my best option, I proceeded to give it a try. As I approached the arrêt on my right I started to wonder if there would be anything on the face for me to use. Pressing on the wind was screaming and I had a tiny flashback to the Overhanging Bypass route in Joshua Tree. As I got past the arrêt and onto the face, I smiled at how wild the section was and felt kind of bad that Ben wouldn’t experience it in quite the same way.

After the high of the third pitch, I told Ben that I’d take the fourth as well. In all honesty, I was happy to lead these lower pitches in order to avoid the 5.8 laybacking at the top of the route. So Ben took pitch 5 and wrestled with the chimney while wearing a small pack, not fun. After 22 pitches of leading I was so ecstatic to actually follow a pitch that I couldn’t contain myself and just raced up it. Given that Ben was going to lead the next two pithes as well I figured that I had nothing to lose.

After another awkward chimney on pitch 6, the climbing turned to polished laybacking. This is the section that I’d been working to avoid. I’m a pretty smart guy. At this time of day, the climbing here was tough. Near the top of the pitch Ben took a small fall, his first fall onto trad gear. I’m not proud of the fact that I’ve fallen four times onto trad gear, but given that I’ve experienced such things before I had a feeling that it would shake him up a bit.

Ben asked if I wanted to give the section a try, which I knew was more of a request than a question. I told him no. That was a hard thing for me to do, but I knew that there was another difficult section above us and that I was going to have to lead it. Because Ben is a stronger climber than I am, I didn’t want to deal with the mental challenge of reconciling how I was going to get through a section on lead that gave him troubles. So I made him finish the pitch, which he did without complaint. This is what makes Ben a great climbing partner.

After seconding him on pitch 6 and getting up to the belay, I was actually feeling pretty good. I knew that the next pitch was going to be my responsibility and that it likely contained the crux of the route. I also knew that we were on the verge of having a very pleasant day of climbing turn into a pain to finish and that getting through the next section was absolutely critical to staying on schedule. Thankfully it went down without issue and I felt a ton of pressure evaporate.

Ben and I talk a lot about how important it is to operate as a team while climbing these types of routes. Having two capable leaders not only allows you to mitigate situations like this, it shares the responsibility, shares the enjoyment and perhaps most importantly makes it easier to be empathetic with the person at the other end of the rope. Ben has come through for me more times than I can count so it felt good to be able to come through for him. But the lasting joy comes from seeing how strong we’ve become as a climbing team.

Royal Arches and North Dome Overview

Our route up Royal Arches and North Dome

After another pitch of climbing we topped out to a truly amazing sunset. It was 7pm and we’d been moving for the last 11 hours. I had run out of water three pitches ago and Ben was out as well. We still had five miles of uphill hiking left and we were suppose to meet the ladies in an hour. So we ended up being an hour behind schedule, but overall I’m pretty amazed at how well we did. We took a moment to enjoy the beauty of where we were and what we’d done. Looking at Half Dome across the valley we couldn’t help but wonder how the day went for the group of three that gave us a ride.

Sunset on Half Dome from North Dome

Compared to the intensity of the climb, the hike back doesn’t really stand out much in my mind. I remember it being uphill. I remember it being easier than I had expected. I remember that my only source of refreshment came from some chapstick. At one point I told Ben that if I was presented with the choice of water or a desirable woman, I’d choose the water. After about three miles into the hike we ran across a stream. We tanked up with another two literes each and couldn’t resist having a few sips before the treatment finished doing it’s duty.

At around 9pm we got to the road and wondered if we’d see my car. Alas, it wasn’t there and we proceeded to sit down and wait. In the proces it started to sprinkle a bit and I once again ran out of water, my eighth liter since we started climbing 13 hours prior. At around 10pm, just as I told Ben I was going to take a nap, two cars started slowing down and pulled into the parking lot. Big hugs were exchanged. It’s a day that I’ll never forget.

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