Climbing and Falling

November 12, 2009

Over the last month I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this post.  Thinking about how to share this story, this experience, this accident and what it all means to me.  After a month I still don’t quite know how to convey all of those things and sorting out how events impact me is always an ongoing process that I hope writing about will further.

Just so you know the gist of this story: I climbed, I fell, I broke my back… literally.  But I’m okay.

I live a pretty adventurous lifestyle.  Outside of this latest accident and a torn ACL 9 years ago, I’ve managed to get through a dozen years of activities like mountain and road biking, wilderness hiking, downhill skiing, backcountry snowshoeing, rock climbing and simply being a male in his 20’s without much health drama.  While the average American might look at my lifestyle as dangerous or crazy, to me it’s a lifestyle of being alive and one that I’m perfectly comfortable with.

What you are comfortable with is an important thing to always keep in mind.  Knowing when you can push that comfort zone and when you should stay in it.  Comfort and confidence are strongly tied together and we mostly limit our lives to what we’re confident doing because well, it’s comfortable.  But to continue growing as a person we need to expand what we’re comfortable with and increase our confidence in new dimensions.  We all do this by learning new things, meeting new people, starting new relationships and many other ways.  It just happens that one of my dimensions is exploring myself in nature and over the years I’ve become very confident  in this area.

I mention this because I don’t want the lessons I’ve learned to be lost via dismissive thoughts like “he’s crazy” or “he was asking for it”.  The reality is that we’re all crazy, we’re all asking for it and every now and then it catches up with us.  So here’s the latest story of how I was asking for it and how it caught up with me.

“We did it because it’s fun and mainly it was fun… every now and then it went wildly wrong”Joe Simpson, Touching the Void

The Stage

If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you’ll know all about the events leading up to my fall so this section will be a bit repetitive.  For those that haven’t, I was in Yosemite Valley for a 6 day climbing trip and on a route called Selaginella (5.8).  The entire trip was going fantastically and the climbing couldn’t have been better.  We were making great time, the weather was awesome, both Ben and I had done some great leads and the views were beyond spectacular.  Everything was so fantastic that even the fall that I’m about to describe can’t tarnish those experiences.

I had just finished leading a 200′ rope stretching pitch to one of the coolest rock formations and belay stations I’d ever seen.  From this location it was about 800′ straight down to the valley floor and about 170′ to the top of our climb.  So with Ben taking the next lead I was assuming that once he reached the top I’d just have to follow up behind him and clean the gear along the way, piece of cake.

I couldn’t see Ben’s progress on most of the route so I was judging how things were going by monitoring the amount of rope I was letting out.  Knowing that it was 170′ to the top I was surprised when Ben went off of belay with 60′ of rope left.  I couldn’t hear him at this point so I wondered if I was mistaken about how much climbing we had left or if the beta in the topo was just wrong.  Either way I started climbing up to him.

About 50′ from him he informed me that he hadn’t reached the top and that I’d understand why when I got there.  I was curious what was going on but Ben didn’t sound remotely worried so I wasn’t either.  He had stopped on this 20′ long ledge that was about 18″ wide and about 30′ from the top.  He didn’t finish it off because the climbing below was pretty strenuous and he wasn’t sure if we were still on route or not.  That was cool with me.

The Fall

So we looked at our options, we had two of them.  Over to the left was a large flake that was totally separated from the wall and looked like you could just push it over.  In front of us was a face section with some very thin and detached flake and what appeared to be a small crack.  The face looked quite featured and I thought I’d be able to get a piece of protection in 10′ off of the belay.

So I used these very thin flakes as foot holds while walking my hands up this seam in the rock that I thought turned into more of a crack.  These flakes were about 1/8th of an inch thick and I could feel them moving a bit when I stepped on them.  Needless to say I wasn’t looking to hang out on them for too long.  When I got up to where I thought I’d be able to get a small nut in I realized that it wasn’t going to work out as I expected.  This didn’t concern me too much because while the rock was sketchy, the climbing was easy and I wasn’t worried about falling.

Looking up at what I had left to climb I spied a nice pocket in the rock about 4 inches tall and 3/4 of an inch wide making it big enough to fit a solid cam into.  I became a bit fixated on this pocket and when I reached it I discovered that I had run out of solid footholds on my right side.  So instead of resting on the rock my foot was mostly holding on with friction.  My left foot was on the sloping section of this seam in the rocks so it didn’t have a great amount of purchase either.  I had a solid right hand in the pocket that I noticed below and a good left hand on the seam.

In order to place the cam into the pocket I had to remove my right hand from it, select an appropriate sized cam from the rack of gear, place it into the rock and clip my rope into it.  The first cam I selected turned out to be a bit too small and the lobes on the cam were tipped out.  What this means is that the cam was fully extended in the rock and it’s holding power would be drastically reduced.  So I removed the cam to replace it with a larger one.

At this point I found myself starting to get nervous.  My right foot started to Elvis (shake uncontrollably) which isn’t a good thing when it’s gripping the rock with friction.  I managed to get myself to calm down and my foot stopped shaking.  So I went back to looking for the right size cam and was having real trouble finding one that I liked.  The nerves kicked up again and this time the shaking in my foot caused it to slip.  Because my left foot was on an even worse hold and I only had one hand gripping the rock, I couldn’t hold on and fell.

At the time that I fell I was about 20′ above the belay and about 5′ from the top of this climb without a single piece of protection between me and Ben.  This is called a factor 2 fall and it is the worst type of fall that a climber can take.  When you fall on lead you fall twice as far as you are above your last piece of protection plus a bit for rope stretch.  When your last piece of protection is the belay itself, that means you’re going to fall twice as far as you have climbed plus some rope stretch.  For me this translated into what we are estimating as a 50′ fall.

At 190 lbs, I’m not the lightest climber and after 50′ of gravity doing it’s thing it takes a good amount of force to stop such a moving mass.  When the rope started to come tight Ben initially couldn’t stop the fall and the rope started running through his right hand.  Being an extremely good belayer he quickly found where the rope was leaving the ledge and stepped on it.  Outside of being a fantastic person, this is reason I climb with Ben.  Without his quick thinking my fall could have been 220′, I can’t thank and praise him enough.

The Aftermath

The rock I was climbing wasn’t quite vertical, it was sloping just a little bit.  So when I fell I slid down the first 20′ which wouldn’t have been bad except for that 18″ ledge.  When I hit that Ben said that I just crumbled onto it and then off of it, this is what caused most of my injuries.  This sent me tumbling down the remaining 30′ of my fall.  When the rope came tight I found myself upside down and a bit disoriented, kind of like the scrambler amusement park ride if it were to end with you inverted and hanging by your waist.

Ben shouted down, “are you okay?!”  I replied very quickly with “yeah, I’m fine”.  He didn’t believe me and proclaimed that he saw my fall and that there is no way I could be fine after something like that.  I felt pretty beat up but I didn’t feel broken and quickly swung over to the route we had climbed up and told Ben that I was going to start climbing up to him.  He shouted down for me to hold on because he was “dealing with some pretty bad rope burn”.  My heart sunk and I felt incredibly guilty about the injuries I caused him.

But in no time he told me that I could start climbing up to him and while doing so I noticed that my left heel was hurting a bit as well as my right knee and my lower back.  But I honestly didn’t think too much about it at the time.  I made my way back to Ben pretty quickly and got myself secure into the anchor that was now proven to be very bomber.

We hung out there for at least a half an hour.  In that time my injuries were starting to become quite noticeable and I was growing anxious for a plan of what we were going to do.  Our options were to rappel down the route leaving behind an enormous amount of gear and probably taking a least a couple hours to do so, have one of us try once again to finish the climb or wait for a party far below us to catch up and have them help us out.

With how slow the party below us was moving it would be at least a couple hours until we got to the top if we waited for them.  Rappelling the route was not only unappealing for the massive amount of gear we would leave behind, it was also pretty dangerous.  So we decided to get the guide book out and see what it suggested for our route.

Turns out we were suppose to go up the large flake over to our left.  After thinking and talking it through, Ben said that he’d be willing to lead it and I could follow up behind him.  Even with very severe burns he managed to climb up the flake and finish the route without any troubles.  The adrenaline was starting to leave my body by the time I started climbing so it proved to be pretty painful.  But even in my state I managed to finish it off without weighting the rope.

The Descent

At the top Ben asked if I wanted to take a moment to at least enjoy the view, I said “nope”.  The pain in my knee was excruciating and while I was happy to be at the top and next to a very popular hiking trail, I was pretty worried about the mile of hiking and the 1000′ of descending that was now in front of me.  I couldn’t put any weight on the heel of my left foot and the pain in my right knee kept me from stepping down with that leg so the many sand covered steps of the trail were bound to make things interesting.

So I set myself little goals.  I’d focus on getting to a landmark that I knew of or to a specified elevation.  Along the way we ran into a couple of hikers that warned us that there was a bear just off of the trail in front of us.  I thought about how ironic it would be to survive the fall but be eaten by a bear.  So we approached the area slowly and made a bunch of racket.  We noticed the bear above us and it seemed pretty content to mind its own business so we continued on our way chatting with the couple that warned us of the situation.

They, like almost everyone else that a climber runs into, was very curious about how we climb such things.  I left the explanations and demonstrations of how the gear worked to Ben.  While I was very worried that I had torn a ligament in my knee, I was very pleased with my ability to keep up with two hikers who were injury free.  Plus the conversation helped keep my mind off of things and we were back at camp in no time.

At camp we got out the first aid kit.  Ben cleaned up his burns and threw on some tape while I put an ace bandage on my knee with some ice.  After hanging out a bit and sharing what happened with Dustin and Katie we walked back to the trailhead to pick up my car and went to the grocery store for some food.  When we got back to camp I was still very sore but feeling surprisingly well.  Well enough to make us some breakfast burritos for dinner and then hang out by the fire for a couple hours before heading to bed.

I was tempted to visit the medical staff in Yosemite but figured if the swelling in my knee and heel didn’t get any worse I could wait until I got back to the Bay Area.  The next morning I woke up very stiff but was mobile.  We packed up the car and started the drive home.  Along the way we chatted about what had happened and bigger picture stuff around our climbing futures.

The Hospital

When I got home I didn’t want the doctors to be repulsed by my smell so I took a shower and headed to Stanford Hospital.  I tried to get an appointment with a sports medicine doctor but none were available so I headed over to the ER.  They admitted me and by 3pm I was in a room getting checked out and having some X-rays taken of my heel, knee and back.  Around 5pm they decided that they wanted more info about my heel so they ordered a CT scan of it, fine by me.  Around 7:30 they said that they couldn’t see anything wrong with my heel and started to discharge me.

L2 Fracture

Cross section of my L2 vertebrae

Just before signing my discharge papers the doctor came in and put an end to the fun.  He said that a more senior radiologist looked at the X-ray of my back and spotted a compression fracture in my L2 vertebrae.  My response: “you’re shitting me”.  Just like that I went from being a beat up guy to the most interesting person in the hospital and while everyone loves some attention, you don’t want it from doctors.

So I asked what this meant.  They said that they needed to get a CT scan of my spine to determine if it was a stable or an unstable fracture.  If it was unstable I’d have to go in for surgery and get my vertebrae fused and if it was stable they’d put me in a back brace for a month and I’d be on my way.  What a contrast that is, I could be fine in a month or my entire outdoor life could be over.  I started freaking out a bit.

So I called Ben and told him what was going on and asked if he could keep me company, he said that he’d be on his way.  After getting of the phone I went in for my CT scan and was very nervous about it.  I was so nervous that my entire body was shaking and all of the techniques I knew to calm myself weren’t doing the trick.  This continued for another 20 minutes until Ben showed up.

Not only was it nice to have Ben around to keep me laughing and distracted, he was a better witness to what happened to me than I was and could tell a side of the story that I couldn’t.  It also gave me a chance to hear about his struggle to find an burn specialist for his hand that his insurance company approved of.  After a series of “recommended” doctors that no longer existed, he thankfully managed to find one that was truly interested in taking care of him and he needed it.  With bandages covering the severe third degree burns on his palm and finger tips, it was pretty obvious to the staff that he was there to see me.

It was about 9pm the parade of doctors was just about to begin.  Seems like everyone that was on staff that night came to check me out and hear my story.  Each one of them performing their favorite barrage of neurological tests on my body, one of them even wanted to check the “tone” of my rectum, fun for everyone.  I kept hoping that one of them would be as attractive as Elliot Reid from Scrubs, but alas that was not the case.  As a reward for going through all of this they ordered me a dinner but the kitchen was closed so instead I was treated to a few packages of graham crackers.

The hours past and I got no conclusive information from the doctors.  They seemed to be debating about how bad my fracture was and nobody wanted to make a call so they kept bringing in people with more experience hoping to clarify the situation.  It seemed like some doctors just stopped by because they wanted to hear the story in person, one guy was even a rock climber.  But at 4am they seemed to acknowledge the fact that a decision was not going to be made and they’d have to wait for their senior spinal guy to show up in the morning.

Not wanting to admit me into the hospital and not being able to send me home they decided to stick me over in a corner of the hospital where I could spend the night.  I affectionately referred to this area as purgatory.  I don’t care what the religious folks say, purgatory was really pretty nice, they had food, comfortable beds and some pain meds which allowed me to get to sleep.  They even offered to let Ben stay in a room next door if he wanted!  While a gracious offer, home has a pretty strong pull over a hospital, especially after 8 hours and there was really no point in sticking around.  I was out shortly after Ben left.

In the morning the spinal guy checked me out and kind of laughed at me still being there, that made me feel good.  It was clear to him that my fracture was stable and they threw me in a brace and shoved me out the door.  I was to wear this brace for the next month or so and even though it was pretty annoying I was just thrilled to not need any surgery.

The Lessons

Like almost every other accident, there isn’t just one thing that went wrong in this one.  Nothing in life is black or white, safe or unsafe and this is why textbook rules are impossible to apply to all situations.

Some climbers my criticize me for not following the best practices and getting some protection in sooner but anyone who has done a good amount of living knows that things don’t always work out that nicely and trad climbing is no different.  I could have possibly clipped the rope to one of the pieces of the anchor but even that practice seems to be subjective and would not have changed my personal outcome in this case.

I could have and should have taken a look at the topo before setting off on this lead.  It would have been obvious that the face was not the way to go and would have likely avoided the whole accident.  I think about this one a lot and it frustrates me that I had this information and did not use it.

I could list off a number of other things that would have made a difference and kept us safer.  But I feel like doing so would be like telling someone that 2×2 is 4 instead of telling them why 2×2 is 4.  You could spend your life learning lessons about specific climbing situations and never know how to climb safely.  So instead I did a little 5 whys exercise to see if I could find a deeper lesson.

What I came up with is the feeling like this accident was brewing for a while.  So even if I had avoided the accident in this specific case, the risk of a similar accident would not have been removed.  I’m not saying that I got injured because it was fate and I’m not saying that I deserved this because of the activity I was doing.  What I’m saying is that the way I was escalating my climbing made a preventable accident inevitable.

In less than one year I’ve gone from no climbing experience to leading routes that 60 years ago were considered to be almost at the limits of human ability.  I spent a lot of time measuring my success and gauging when to move up in difficulty based off of being able to complete a climb at some level.  That’s a totally reasonable and safe approach to take in a climbing gym where things are predictable and you don’t need much margin for error.  Trad climbing has a different set of requirements.

So instead of some blanket rules that every climber has heard, what I have come up with is the more abstract realization that I should have been paying more attention to what was fueling my confidence.  I was comfortable leading a section that I shouldn’t have been because I had confidence in my abilities to do it.  But that confidence was founded more on ego than reality and when things didn’t go just right it caught up with me.

If you’ve done something long enough that it becomes second nature, that’s a solid thing to be confident about, that’s what I’m calling reality driven confidence.  Talking yourself up and increasing your ego driven confidence is fine, that’s a good way to push the envelope, but you should recognize when you’re doing that and avoid doing it when you’re betting the farm.

I continue to find that rock climbing closely parallels life and I think that’s why I love it so much.  You have confidence you climb, you loose confidence or find that the confidence was misplaced and you fall.  I don’t care if it’s rock climbing, building a relationship, running a company, the stock market, the housing market or anything else that involves humans, the same rule seems to apply.  The more reality based confidence in the system, the safer the climbing.

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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.

Looking down the Selaginella route

Looking below from my belay on Selaginella

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.

Panorama from Selaginella

Prior to starting this trip Ben had gone through the guide book and marked the areas that he thought would be fun to check out.  Given the level of climbing that we were interested/capable of, there were a few must hit areas.  But with six days of climbing we didn’t want to chew through all of our best climbs right away so we went searching for climbs that we glossed over before.

Some of our campmates had done some climbing on the Glacier Point Apron the day before and spoke pretty highly of the experience.  So we checked out what the area had to offer and it turns out that there were a number of options that looked interesting.  The Grack, Center (5.6) is touted as the best 5.6 climb in Yosemite but we were looking for something a bit longer than three pitches.  What we found was Goodrich Pinnacle.

Panorama From Goodrich Pinnacle

Panorama from Goodrich Pinnacle

Goodrich Pinnacle (5.9R) was first climbed by Royal Robins, Liz Robins and TM Herbert in 1964.  They put up the route in honor of Don Goodrich who died while attempting the first ascent of the west face of Mount Conness.  The guide book described the route as one of the better climbs of its length in the Valley and gave it a five star rating.  Featuring some cracks, a lot of face climbing and even a 5.6 chimney section, we were pretty excited to give it a go.

It was a Saturday and the perfect temperatures were not ignored by the climbing community so we were expecting to deal with some crowds.  To our surprise what we found was complete and total solitude.  On the approach to the climb we didn’t see a single person, on the route itself we didn’t see any parties, we seemed to have the entire crag to ourselves.  Perhaps folks were sleeping in or perhaps the relatively recent (1998) and deadly rockfall in the area was still a deterrent.  I’m not sure about the reason but I was thankful.

At the base of the climb the guide book shows about 60′ of 4th class climbing and in order to link together some pitches we decided to belay from the top of the 4th class.  While getting to the top of the “4th” class was fairly easy, it was much closer to 5.0 climbing so I’d suggest roping up if you aren’t comfortable free soloing easy stuff.

When I studied the route beta I decided that I wanted to lead the first pitch.  Doing so would allow me to follow on the crux as well as avoid leading the 5.6 chimney at the top.  After Ben’s quick ascent of the 5.6 chimney a couple days earlier I had decided that he should lead them from now on.  Plus with only 5.4 and 5.5 moves, the first pitch was quite easy and a good warmup.

We were already 200′ off the ground when Ben started the second pitch of 5.7 hand jams.  Above this pitch the cracks run out and the route transitions into face climbing until last pitch.  The beginning of the third pitch features this very cool arching crack that goes up and left towards a bolt at the end.  Above this crack lies the psychological crux of the climb, 30′ of 5.8 climbing without any protection.  Psychological crux eh?  With a little reluctance I decided that I would lead it.

I used the arched crack as footholds and really zippered it up with a lot of cams and nuts because I knew that I wouldn’t need them above.  At the end of the crack there is a very nice resting place and a solid bolt.  With all of the runout 5.8 above this point, I took my time and got a feel for what was ahead.  Royal Robbins worked the first ascent on this section and said, “for half an hour I made repeated starts here, carefully backing down each time until I had the combination worked out.”  So I don’t feel too bad about taking my time either and it paid off because I climbed the pitch cleanly.

Taking a Break Before the Traverse

Ben taking a break before the traverse

The next pitch was back in the hands of Ben and it featured the crux of the climb.  At a piton 30′ above the belay the climb has “a traverse as delicate as any I have seen” (Royal Robins) for 30′ over to a small flake.  Once at the flake you climb up for another 30′ on very smooth 5.9 glacial polish.  You can fit at best two creative pieces of protection into the flake on the right (a small nut and a .5 cam).  While I was climbing towards him, just before reaching the crux, Ben tells me that right above me he had to palm the rock with both hands and could feel himself sliding down while trying to move up.  Even as a follower, that pitch really kept my attention.

The guide book made the next pitch look rather innocent.  It had three very closely spaced bolts early on and a 5.7 runout section at the end of the pitch.  Thinking that Ben got us through the crux of the climb I was feeling like the worst was behind us.  Incorrect.  I got to the first bolt with relative ease and the second bolt was just a few feet above with the third bolt just a few feet further, it’s like we were at the gym.  But alas, it was not the gym and these bolts were there for a reason, the climbing is tough.

Above the second bolt there is not a single hand or foot hold in sight for 10′.  Climbing shoes are made with a very sticky rubber that is able to flow into the rock for more friction and in general is really amazing stuff.  In this case it wasn’t amazing enough.  The rock was smooth as glass and when I would step up and apply pressure my foot would not only slide down, it would make squeaking sounds in the process!  I didn’t think that was possible with climbing shoes and after a bunch of experimentation I decided to be lowered back to the belay and have Ben give it a try.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Ben was able to figure out a way to make it up this section, but he wasn’t having much better luck than I was.  Perhaps this is why Royal claims that Glacier Point has some of the “severest friction climbing in the country”.  Wanting to complete the climb, we spied a section of rock over to the left that was much more featured but would be a sketchy traverse.  So with a bit of shame we decided to weight the rope and pendulum over to it.  The rock in this section was much nicer but with 60′ of runout Ben stayed focused and got us through the section.

We were down to the last pitch and because I was suppose to lead the last one that meant that I would get to finish the climb.  But like I mentioned earlier, the top of the route features a 5.6 chimney and my last experience with a chimney of that rating was pretty slow going.  So while I had confidence in being able to do the moves, I wasn’t really looking forward to them.  At least there was plenty of protection in this section so I really didn’t have anything to complain about.

To my surprise and joy the chimney was extremely easy.  I’m quite aware of the subjective nature of rating climbs but there is absolutely no way that I can see calling this chimney and Church Bowl Chimney a 5.6, there is no comparison.  But after six pitches and 800′ of climbing we were now over 1000′ off of the valley floor and quite proud of our accomplishment.  This was the longest climb that I had completed and our first experience with 5.9 face climbing in Yosemite.

But all good things must come to an end and while rappelling down the route they did exactly that.  We decided to rappel down the right side of the pinnacle and on the way down Ben noticed that there was no way our ropes wouldn’t get stuck.  When we started pulling them they did exactly that and we needed to figure out a way to get them unstuck.  We decided that Ben would climb back up the route to where the knot got stuck.  I had remembered there being a piton somewhere up there and was hoping that it was close to the trouble spot.  Turns out that the rope was stuck about 10′ above the piton so Ben climbed up, got it unstuck, down climbed back to the piton and then rappelled off of it.  Just in case the piton blew, I kept him on belay.

After getting that unstuck we thought the rest of the rappel would be pretty straightforward but it wasn’t.  Below our third rappel the ropes ran over an area with a bunch of cracks.  We tie knots into the end of our ropes just to make sure we don’t rappel off of the ends.  As we started to pull the rope through the anchor, one of these knots got stuck in a crack below us.  So I tied the longer end off to an anchor and single rope rappelled down to where it was stuck.

After two stuck ropes it was taking us between one and two hours to get off of the route.  The guide book claimed that from the second belay station it’s 200′ to the ground so we figured we’d be able to get down from there, but the ground looked pretty far away.  I was the guinea pig and went first.  With two generous 60m ropes and rope stretch it still wasn’t quite enough.  I found myself about 10′ off of the ground but close enough to get onto the 4th class and get myself off rappel.

Even with the problem prone rappel, I’d highly recommend the climb.  The views are amazing and the climbing has a good amount of variety on a clean route.  However, I would suggest being a rather confident 5.9 leader with some experience on Yosemite slabs.  I’d also keep my mind open about using some aid on the 5.9 sections of the climb.  If you finish the route, it sounds like rappelling off the left side of the pinnacle is less painful and on the lower pitches consider relying on a backup prusik knot when rappelling and skip the knots at the ends.

Even a name like Manure Pile Buttress doesn’t deter the crowds from this crag and for good reason, it’s a fantastic place to climb.  Not only is it a fantastic place to climb, it features one of the most historic and ground breaking routes in climbing history.

Manure Pile got its name not because the rock is crap or because it looked like crap but because people used to dump crap at its base.  More specifically, in the mid 1960’s the stable owners in the valley would dump their horseshit here which actually did deter some climbers.  It wasn’t until 1965 that the first known route was completed and by none other than Yvon Chouinard (founder of Black Diamond and Patagonia).  That route was called After 6 and it was given that name because he and his partner started the climb at 6 o’clock… in the evening.  With an impressive 6 pitches in length, starting this first ascent at 6pm shows how skillful of a climber Chouinard was.

Being that After 6 (5.7) was the first established climb at this crag, it’s coincidentally appropriate that it was our first climb on it as well.  If it was June maybe we could have started it at 6pm but seeing that it gets dark around 7pm in October, we set out for a 10am start.  After a very short walk from the car to the base of the climb we found that there was one party in front of us.  The leader was already about a third of the way through the first pitch so we hustled to get ready to go.  Turns out our hustling wasn’t really needed.

The party in front of us was comprised of a guy and his girlfriend.  He managed to complete the first pitch (which is the hardest of them all) without too much trouble and at a fairly good pace, however she was not feeling so comfortable following and it took her quite a while to complete the pitch.  We gave them a bit to get started on their next pitch before Ben took off on lead.

Apparently when Ben reached the top of the pitch the couple was still there and having a bit of an argument.  He seemed upset at her for not being comfortable and moving slowly.  On top of that he was demanding that if they were to continue that she lead at least one of the pitches.  Ben suggested to her that she should lead the second pitch because it’s just 3rd and 4th class walking.  Apparently that wouldn’t do, it needed to be “a real pitch”.  This just baffles me.  If you’re on a climb and your partner is sketched out the last thing you should do is demand that they do some leading, especially when it’s your significant other.  Thankfully the coupled bailed and rappelled down the route before getting themselves into real trouble.

The first pitch is without a doubt the physical crux of the climb.  With a good amount of 5.7 layback moves it’s a fairly sustained 130′.  One section about a third of the way up even features about 10′ of polished granite which can be a bit tricky to get through if you aren’t a confident 5.7 leader.  I had planed on leading the second pitch but when we got there we discovered that it really was very easy 4th class climbing and not worth putting me on belay for.

At the base of our second pitch it was now my turn to take the lead.  Wouldn’t you know it, the first section of the pitch featured a small chimney.  Higher up the chimney turned into a wide crack with nice foot holds on the left side but was a little difficult to protect.  At the top of the crack is the next official belay station before a section of face climbing.

I had forgotten that this pitch was so short and continued up and past the easy face climbing section.  Above this there was a nice ledge to belay from and I contemplated stopping there but the next 40′ of climbing featured a wonderful hand crack and I really wanted to lead it.  So I shouted down to Ben for an estimate of how much rope I had left.  He couldn’t give me a very accurate answer so I took that as enough to get to the next ledge.

At 200′ of climbing rope drag can get to be a real issue.  I had just reached the ledge that I wanted to get to but I was feeling so much drag that I thought I had run out of rope.  Wanting to build an anchor about three feet away from my fingertips I debated what I should do.  I decided to give the rope a good pull and see if I could get any slack.  I managed to get just enough to throw some pro in the wall and bring Ben up, a perfect rope stretching pitch.

Our third pitch (traditionally the fifth) was back in Ben’s hands.  Physically it was pretty easy but route finding was fairly challenging.  There were trees galore mixed in with many different route options.  The trees made it hard to look ahead to see where you should be and created some rope management issues as well.  But after finishing this pitch we only had another 100′ of climbing left and we’d be at the top.

At 600′ above the valley floor it was starting to get a bit windy.  I knocked out the last pitch without any troubles but at the top there wasn’t anything close to the ledge to setup an anchor on.  Closest thing I could find was a couple cracks 30′ off of the lip.  When I setup the anchor and tied myself into it I could no longer see down to Ben and the wind made vocal communications impossible.  The rope drag was also making it hard to communicate via the rope as well.  But eventually we got it sorted out and finished off the climb.

Once back down at the base we realized that we had enough time and energy to do some more climbing.  We pondered a couple sport(ish) routes but neither one of us really wanted to lead them.  So we went searching for the start of Nutcracker (5.8).

Nutcracker is the climb that really changed everything.  In 1966 Royal Robbins (also a maker of excellent outdoor clothing) had done a couple climbs in the UK and found that they were starting to jam machine nuts into constrictions in the rock and use them for protection.  Recognizing the long term effects of placing and removing pitons, Royal was conscious enough to realize that using nuts was a more sustainable style of climbing.

So when he came back to Yosemite he decided to put up a first ascent using noting but removable nuts.  He called this route Nutcracker Sweet, a wonderful pun that was lost on some climbers and the name was eventually shortened to just Nutcracker.  As others started to see how viable removable nuts were, this new style of climbing swept through the valley very rapidly and forever changing the climbing world.

I’m not sure if it was conscious or not, but on the first pitch of the climb Ben managed to set nothing but nuts for every placement except one.  Along the way he even found a small Buddha statue resting on a shelf that looked like it was once fastened to a climbers harness.  I followed him up on the first pitch and when reaching the belay we discovered that we had taken an alternate route, oops.

This wasn’t too big of a deal but it did mean that my pitch would have to start with a 20′ long 5.8 runout traverse.  The first part of the traverse was a piece of cake, walking along the top of a flake.  But the second part was pure face and I very gingerly took my time finding the best foot holds that I could and getting the sequence of my feet just right.  With a few minutes of time and a moment of talking myself out of just jumping for a huge hold off to my right I made it.  The rest of the pitch involved moving along this huge shelf and was so easy that it’s not worth mentioning.

Two Pitches up Nutcracker

Getting ready to rappel down Nutcracker

It was getting fairly late in the day and we hadn’t intended on doing the entire climb, but I think if there wasn’t a party in front of us we would have considered it.  Seeing that they were taking their time (and dropping some gear) we decided to stick to plan and rappel back to the ground.  Finishing this climb off will have to wait for another day, one that I look forward to.

That Friday night we enjoyed some spaghetti with homemade marinara sauce and once again pondered what the adventure for the next day should be.  After hearing about some good climbing over on the Glacier Point Apron, we settled on Goodrich Pinnacle.

Yosemite Valley has a huge variety of climbing.  It’s got the full range of cracks (finger, jams, off-width, chimney), all different kinds of laybacks, face climbing, stemming, you name it and it’s there.  On a number of routes (especially longer ones) you’re likely to encounter all of the above types which makes it important to have a good set of skills in your toolbox.  So Ben and I decided that we’d spend our first day expanding our toolbox by exploring chimneys and Church Bowl is a perfect place to do this.

In the early days of developing climbing techniques, Church Bowl was a popular proving ground.  The large number of short and moderate climbs coupled with a good amount of variety still make it a great personal proving ground.  Neither Ben or I have much experience with climbing chimneys but wanted to do some bigger climbs where we’d run into them.  The extent of my experience was this perfect 60′ tall chimney in Arches National Park that I had free soloed about 7 years earlier.  This was a fact that I would regret sharing with Ben as he rather enjoyed giving me a hard time about it.

Armed with our lack of experience, we followed the recommendation of our guide book and decided to give Uncle Fanny (5.7) a try.  The description of the climb called it “a good introduction to chimney climbing”, excellent.  Also in the description they suggested we use the “heel/toe technique”.  Having never used this technique, we could pretty well guess what it was but weren’t so sure on the details.  Oh well, we were fairly sure we’d figure something out and looking at the route from the ground it looked very manageable.

Before taking on the climb, I felt the need to shed some weight in the form of  a #2.  There was a line of portable toilets right next to the parking lot and we heard them being emptied out a bit earlier so I figured they would be nice and clean.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The smell was manageable at first but by the time I was finishing up I found myself gagging and on the verge of throwing up.  I’d never smelled anything that bad in my life and I needed to exit quickly, very quickly.  I didn’t have time to put my harness back on or my chalk bag.  In fact, I didn’t even have time to pull my pants up.  I opened the door and practically jumped out of there with everything at my knees.  This wouldn’t have been a issue, but I was also cursing and that drew the attention of a small group of students walking by.  I didn’t hear anyone say anything in response to the sight of a grown man running and yelling out of a bathroom with his ass on display so maybe nobody saw anything.  Or more likely they were just too shocked, such is life in the woods.

After telling Ben this story and getting ourselves together he took the lead on Uncle Fanny and I watched as he made his way through this squeeze chimney.  This really isn’t what comes to my mind when I think about chimney climbs.  Ben has a slightly smaller stature than I do and it seemed like he was having to time his breathing to get through the smallest sections so I wasn’t sure how smoothly it would go down for me.  The chimney section is really only 15′ long or so and as the follower it didn’t give me to many challenges but did make me think a bit.

When we got down to the ground we both agreed that the climb was not what we were expecting.  It doesn’t help that the aesthetics of the route leave something to be desired as well.  While we got what we wanted, some more experience with chimneys, we were thinking that a fun climb was in order.  So we started to make our way over to Bishop’s Terrace.

Along the way we ran into a group of four climbers just arriving from the parking lot.  They asked us what route we were heading towards and we said that we were going to check out Bishop’s Terrace.  They wanted to do the same climb and while we all arrived at the start at the same time, they seemed to feel like they got there first.  It’s not a huge deal, but it kind of annoyed me a little bit being that they were a large group.  So we wondered around a bit trying to find something else that looked fun.

We wanted to do some more chimney climbing and it was my turn to lead.  After taking a good survey of the route, I decided on Church Bowl Chimney (5.6).  This was the first route ever ascended at this crag and done so in the 1950’s.  It’s a huge flaring chimney that is wide enough to apply pressure with your heels and back.  The back of the chimney sits at least 20′ in from the face and there are numerous ledges to take breaks on.  Regarded as the next step up from Uncle Fanny, it seemed like the logical thing to try.

I began inching my way up the chimney, applying pressure with my back and feet.  While there were a number of options for setting protection, all of the ledges made being truly safe much more difficult.  As soon as you’d get 15 to 20 feet above one ledge you’d reach another one, so a fall on the route would almost certainly result in landing on one of the ledges.  This made for a more stressful lead and as a result I took a number of long breaks to keep myself fresh.

Near the top of this 120′ tall beast, the moves transitioned into doing kind of a layback inside of the chimney but it wasn’t quite wide enough to truly layback.  With a small roof at the bottom of this section, I found myself resting using a knee bar between the two opposing walls.  While the comfort level on my knee was not high, it was a great trade off for the rest and security that it offered while placing gear.  By the time I got to the top about 45 minutes had passed.  I was excited to see how Ben would manage with the climb and was secretly hoping he would struggle just a little bit.  He didn’t, he’s just too good of a climber.  I think he managed to complete it in less than a fourth of the time that I did.  I then informed him that he would be leading our chimney pitches from now on.

After that adventure I was feeling pretty proud of us.  We rested a bit and had some food before heading over to see if there was a line on Bishop’s Terrace (5.8), seeing none we got ourselves ready for this two pitch classic.  This was the second route to be climbed in this area and was done so by Steve Roper in December of 1959.  The second pitch of the climb features a fantastic jam crack, viewed as one of the best 5.8 cracks in the valley.  In the guide book Roper talks of how scared he was leading the second pitch and the shame of using two pitons for aid.

Because I led the last climb it was Ben’s turn on this one.  We decided that we’d do the climb in two pitches so each of us could have some fun on the sharp end.  The first pitch is mostly layback climbing and is quite pleasurable.  The very beginning features some nice undercling holds and plenty of chalk from other climbers to highlight the route.

The second pitch was all mine and I had a bit of nervous excitement in me.  For the lower half of the pitch the crack is very wide at the face but also very deep with pretty good hand jams 6-12″ into the crack.  I hadn’t climbed a crack quite like this one before and while different, it wasn’t too challenging.  Up higher the crack gets shallower and eventually runs out.  Thankfully a few feet to the right another crack appears, also with amazing hand jams.  This section also features one usable and one unusable piton right around the crux of the climb.  I can’t help but wonder if these are the two pitons that Roper used as aid when first climbing the route, pretty cool if they are.

Top of Bishop's Terrace

Top of Bishop's Terrace

The rest of the climb went off as smoothly as the earlier parts.  After struggling on some chimneys earlier in the day we were very glad to finish on a high note.  We hung out at the base of the climb for a while and chatted with these two cute girls that were getting ready to give it a go.  Both of them worked in the park and climbed when they had the time.  During the conversation they informed us that they had a group of about 30 women that were all climbers and worked in the park.  Awesome.

Heading back to camp we started to drool in excitement for our dinner that night, sausages cooked over the camp fire, wrapped in tortillas with mozzarella cheese and chile paste.  While relaxing we contemplated what to do the next day and concluded that the delightfully sounding Manure Pile Buttress was the place to go.