Tuolumne Climbing: Preface to My First Trip

October 24, 2009

You know you’ve had a good summer when the adventures have been so huge and so tightly packed that there wasn’t time to share the details in a timely fashion.  Climbing has been the recreational focus for me this summer and has made for one of the most adventure packed, enjoyable and interesting summers I’ve ever had.  Last winter I picked up the Tuolumne Free Climbs book on a whim and kind of jokingly set a goal to do some of them by the end of the summer.  Well last September that joke turned into a reality when my buddy Ben and I decided to go on a four day climbing trip to Tuolumne Meadows.

This climbing adventure was so monumental for me that it’s hard to find words that I’m satisfied with, perhaps a photo will help.

300º view from the top of Pywiack Dome

300º view from the top of Pywiack Dome

Nope, that doesn’t quite do it either.  Everything is just too damn big.  To get a slightly better sense of things, click the above photo to see the original.  Even though it would take two 30″ displays to view the entire photo at once, it still doesn’t do the scene any justice.  Not only were the views on this trip huge, the experience as a whole was huge and one that I couldn’t even imagine doing just a year ago.

In fact, it’s too big for one blog post.  So as a warm-up I’ll give a bit of an overview of the area as well as some of my thoughts going into the trip.  Then I’ll throw up a separate post for each of the three big routes that we climbed (West Crack, Zee Tree and Hermaphrodite Flake).

Tuolumne Geology

Tuolumne Meadows is located in the northern half of Yosemite National Park and is accessible during the non-winter months via Highway 120.  Through these meadows flows the Tuolumne River which carved out Hetch Hetchy valley over millions of years and presently fills the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir providing water and electricity for San Francisco and surrounding area residents.  While there is great sadness downstream, the Tuolumne area is breathtakingly beautiful.  Situated at 8600 feet above sea level, the meadow is surprisingly large and surrounded by dozens of domes, peaks, spires, lakes, and valleys.

While the main attraction in Yosemite Valley is naturally the valley itself along with the waterfalls, Tuolumne is a bit more subtle in its beauty.  For its elevation and surrounding peaks, the meadow is very large.  Rising up around the edges are these wonderfully smooth looking domes of granite upwards of 1000 feet tall.

Around the time of the dinosaurs, what is now the Sierra Nevada mountains was deep underground and in the form of magma.  But plate tectonics started to force the area upwards and very slowly, under huge amounts of pressure from the rock overhead, that magma cooled and turned into various types of granite.  Over the next 150 million years or so, the tens of thousands of feet of rock above the granite were pushed upward and eroded, creating the fertile central valley.  Around 4 million years ago the area started to undergo massive tilting and the range that we see today was pushed upward.

As the rock above the granite eroded, pressure was reduced on the magma and it started to expand upward to form domes of solid granite without any layers.  As it expanded it formed joints along the curve of the dome, making each dome similar in structure to an onion.  As glaciers moved into the area, the lack of vertical and horizontal joints in the domes made them quite resilient to glacial plucking (pulling out large chunks of rock).  Instead the glaciers ran across the domes, slowly sanding them down and creating what is known as glacial polish.

This glacial polish is easily seen today when viewing one of these domes up close.  It isn’t too hard to find rock that has been polished as smooth as a granite counter top and reflecting the sun like a mirror.  You can also see long tiny lines in the polish, these lines indicate the direction that the glacier was traveling over the rock.  I find comfort in this humbling knowledge.  To think that water and ice could remove so much material in just 4 million years puts the earth’s 4.5 billion year history into greater perspective.

Such beauty is more than this climber can ask for.  The challenges and variety of climbing that the area offers makes the views from the top sweeter than I could have imagined.  Being able get far above the tourists and see just how rolling the domes are, how huge the meadow is and how things flow into one another is addictive enough all by itself.

Thoughts Before the Trip

I’d been climbing for 10 months before embarking on this trip, lead climbing in the gym for 4 and a handful of sport routes outside.  While I’ve put a lot of time and energy into climbing and made fast progress, in Yosemite terms, I’m far from an experienced climber.  In fact, looking back on things, the set of things I didn’t know was larger than the set of things that I did.

But Ben is a fantastic climber, extremely great guy and a good teacher.  So while this trip had a bunch of firsts for me, I had a lot of confidence that I’d get the instruction that I needed.  Even still, I was nervous and for good reason.  In trad climbing the leader places protection (nuts, cams, etc) into the rock as they go and the follower removes them.  All new to me.

On top of that, I’d never done any multi-pitch climbing either.  We were looking at doing climbs that were 700 feet tall and I wasn’t sure how I’d react both physically and mentally to that.  To quote comedian Steven Wright, “I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of widths”.  While that’s a joke, it’s actually pretty damn accurate for a lot of people.  Being high isn’t the problem, it’s the contrast between high and low and when you’re hanging off of the rock in the middle of a climb you’re a part of that contrast.  The fear of looking down at the air below you and the intimidation of what you have left to climb.

But I was excited and highly motivated.  For years I’d looked at rock faces and thought about how amazing it would be to climb it without ever believing that it would actually be possible for me.  It seemed like my dream could actually be coming true and what scared me the most was walking away from the trip having failed to achieve it.  Being forced to look at future faces without the ignorant bliss of no data but with nagging memories.  I find that I’m somewhat prone to negative stigmas and I didn’t want one surrounding such beautiful structures.

Given that I already mentioned the three big climbs that we did, you can guess that I didn’t walk away with any negative stigmas from the trip.  In fact, it was one of those trips that continued on in my mind, constantly getting better, long after we returned.

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