Tuolumne Climbing: West Crack

October 25, 2009

Day 1: West Crack (5.9) on Daff Dome

As excited as both of us were, we had some things to attend to before we could start climbing.  Little things like, paying for our campground and getting enough cash to do so.  Then there was the bigger thing of teaching me some trad climbing skills.  As I mentioned in the last post, I started top roping last January and have been lead climbing since June but trad climbing was something that I hadn’t done before but was about to embark on.  On top of that, I’d also never done any multi-pitch climbing so some quick lessons close to the ground were very much in need.  We found a short 5.6 crack that I could get some practice on and right after placing my first piece of protection, I fell.

Talk about a humbling experience.  How could I fall on something so easy?  This question was so humbling that it really shook me up a bit and I wondered what I was getting myself into.  This crack was 15′ high and about as easy as they come.  I found myself looking up at the 800′ tall domes that surrounded me and all of a sudden the meadow didn’t feel quite so open anymore.  Massive feelings of doubt washed over me as I questioned my climbing skills more than I did when I didn’t even have any.  But I finished the “climb” and we packed up our gear and headed off to our actual destination for the day, Daff Dome.

Base of West Crack

Base of West Crack

We found the trail head and from the road we could actually see the route called West Crack that we were intending to climb.  I looked up at this mountain of granite above me with this sliver of a crack running up it and couldn’t help but almost laugh.  So I was pretty nervous but also incredibly motivated and really curious to know if I could do the climb.  So we headed off to the base of the route with me mostly keeping my doubts and emotions to myself at this point.  When we got to the base we found that there were two parties in front of us.

Having a bit of time to look at the route, I started to feel pretty anxious for the climb to begin.  I wanted the feeling of some success to build up my confidence a bit more.  When it was our turn to head up, Ben took the lead and made the pitch look pretty easy.  Once he finished with the pitch it was my turn to climb up behind him, clean the protection that he had placed and join up with him at the belay.  The length of the first pitch was 165′ and by the top of it I was breathing pretty damn heavily.

I distinctly remember two things while standing at that first belay station with Ben, the length of time it took me to put all of my weight the anchor (minutes) and Ben asking me if I wanted to keep going.  This was a very good question of Ben to ask because after this point the climb gets pretty committing and if we continued on, there would be a lot of pressure to get to the top.  I didn’t share with him the fact that I was questioning if I was cut out for this.  Instead I replied with “you bet I want to keep going!” which yielded a response of “I knew you’d want to”.  What Ben didn’t tell me was that his question was kind of a leading one and that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue.  But my enthusiasm kept him going.  So when you boil that down, the experienced guy was kind of motivated by the enthusiasm of the newbie who was questioning himself.  What a pair of climbers we are :).

So Ben took off on the second pitch with me once again cleaning behind him.  This pitch intimidated me because the guide book labeled sections of it as being off-width.  Off-width climbing is not one of strongest skills but it actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.  The beginning of the pitch also featured a slightly overhanging section which was quite awkward with the backpack on.  Thankfully there were huge jugs on the left hand side and while awkward, it wasn’t too difficult.  Ben ended up loving the pitch and it was clear from the smile on his face that he was glad we kept on climbing.  While I was happy to have completed almost 300 feet of climbing, what I saw ahead of me made me swallow pretty hard.

Third Pitch of West Crack

Third Pitch of West Crack

Looking up at our third pitch I saw nothing but and endlessly long (about 200′) finger crack.  While it was an amazing and beautiful sight, I was having a hard time imagining myself being able to climb it cleanly.  So when Ben asked me if I wanted to lead it, I laughed and said hell no.  So Ben took off again and after about 40 feet of climbing he paused for a moment, looked down at me and said “it’s harder than it looks”.

Shit.  Without even touching the rock I was thinking that it looked pretty hard and Ben’s telling me that my eyes are fooling me. Given the fact that Ben is a much better climber than I, the possibility of having to ascend the rope with prusik loops seemed almost like a certainty to me.

By the time Ben finished the pitch I managed to get the thoughts of failure out of my head and instead focused on taking it one step at a time.  In reality I really didn’t have anything to fear because if I came off of the rock I’d only fall a few feet.  But I was trying to put myself in the position of the leader and gauge if I’d be able to safely lead the pitch.  My conclusion?  Nope.  While I didn’t fall, I wasn’t comfortable enough physically or mentally to have pulled it off.  When I reached Ben I congratulated him on a superb lead.

We hung out at the third belay station for a good while.  There was a great ledge that I took a seat on and finally had a moment to absorb my surroundings.  Up until that point I was so fixated on doing the work that there was no space left for observation.  Ben once again asked if I wanted to lead the final pitch and once again I declined.  While the climbing looked easy, my mind was not in the right place to be on the sharp end.

While the climbing on the last pitch was easy, there were few places for protection.  I think over the last 200′ of climbing Ben was able to place maybe 4 or 5 pieces with sections of at least 50′ of runout.  But we both reached the top without any incident leaving me exceptionally relieved.  Great sections of the climb were kind of a blur to me, overshadowed by the questions running through my head.  But I had answers to some of the questions, answers I was very satisfied with.  I was able to do the moves, stay safe, not get freaked out and finish the climb (a hard one at that).

There were still many questions left in my head but the next two days of climbing would continue to answer more of them.  Next up, Zee Tree (5.7) on Pywiack Dome.

Looking towards Hetch Hetchy from the top of Daff Dome

Looking towards Hetch Hetchy from the top of Daff Dome

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