Yosemite Climbing: Church Bowl

November 1, 2009

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.

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