It finally happened. After six months of dedicated training for three specific goals, I kissed the wife and kids goodbye and headed for California. We had two weeks to do three things: Romantic Warrior in the Needles, Half Dome, and El Cap. On paper, it seemed reasonable but in reality we knew things were going to be tight.
Despite all the lead-time on our trip, we overlooked one key detail – accommodations. Dan and I both forgot to make camping reservations so we were forced to fight for a spot in Camp 4. We both had stayed there before, and if you never have, it’s worth experiencing. But my memories of the place were more about agro rangers with a police state mentality, waking me up in the middle of the night to verify I wasn’t “hiding” unpaid people in my tent. Fortunately that has changed and the rangers were much more professional and unobtrusive. What hasn’t changed is the wait. We got inline for a first-come-first-serve spot just before six in the morning with only 11 people in front of us. It took until 10:30 to finally make camp and by 11am it was time to climb. But here’s the thing about Yosemite – it’s big. All the formations and iconic routes are huge. So what do you do when you start at 11am? Super mellow climbing at the Manure Pile? Classic cragging at the Cookie Cliff? No, Dan was too excited and pretty set on something much bigger. “How about Astro Man?” So away we went.
I will probably be shunned by all my trad climbing friends, but I didn’t like the route that much. OK, let’s be fair – I just didn’t like the Harding Slot. The climbing up to it was phenomenal, but once you pull into the slot, it all changes. It took us under two hours to get up to the sixth pitch squeeze and then that’s where I stayed for about the next hour and a half. Imagine trying to wiggle up a household chimney. Now squish it so it’s deformed and a bit tighter in one spot. It’s tighter than heel-toes and you cannot turn your head or inflate your chest at all. At a certain point, with anchors in view, I could not move. Literally. It was a vertical coffin and I was going to die a slow, boring, embarrassing death. It became an all-out primal fight to move in any direction – I couldn’t inch up, I couldn’t fall down, and I couldn’t slither to the side. Three weeks later, that’s all I remember. The classic jamming pitches will fade but that memory will stay. Ugh.
The next day we packed for Half Dome and hiked up to the base. The plan was to bivy at the base and then start climbing around sunrise. But when we got out to the route, five other parties were queued up, with another three midway up the wall. One major annoyance of climbing in the Valley is that everyone sizes you up. Are you faster than me? Slower? Stronger? More experienced? Team epic? I get it. There’s a lot of people jockeying for position and pretty much everyone is here on vacation, so they want to make the most of their trip and don’t want to have to bail off a route because of some other climbers. As polite as possible, everyone started talking about start times and experience levels. One team was leaving at midnight. Another at 3am, then 3:45, then 4:30, and on and on until we’d be screwed.
We could hear other parties on the wall late into the night, which is probably why the first group decided to start at 11 instead of midnight. They had fixed the first three pitches the day before but were now trying to figure out how to jug (and it wasn’t going well). Then one of the parties from the day before finally topped out, hiked down, and nearly kicked me around 1am when they returned to the base. People were talking and moving on the wall and on the ground; I looked at Dan and it was clear we both had the same thought, “sleep isn’t happening so we might as well climb.” We ate some food, racked up, and set off by 2am. We were three pitches up by the time the next party started and six pitches up before the sun hit us and we passed the first party. The climbing was good but had a surprising “mountain” feel to it – big loose blocks and vegetation in quite a few places.
Dan chose the 5.10 finger crack finish that began above an exit hole in a chimney rather than a 5.11 corner off to the right. As the second, I was carrying the pack, which got stuck in the exit hole. Legs pressed, arms straining as if trying to lift a car off a baby, I leaned out into space, 1,000 feet of air below me. It gave me a good view of the cluster of the other parties below us, all smushed together on the same ledge. The pack popped like a cork, I reeled in off balance, and continued up to the belay. For inadvertent payback, I linked the three chimney pitches higher up into one, forcing Dan to deal with the pack for one rope-stretching, 70meter pitch. Hey, I just climbed to the next comfy ledge; how was I to know it was three pitches higher? We caught another party at the Zigzags and ate some food, then pressed on to the top, getting hit with several sandbags along the way. We topped out, enjoyed the view, and hiked down, encountering a bear cub with a broken leg along the way.
The next day Dan, being the aid ninja that he is, wanted to go pull on some gear, and me, being the painfully slow, inept aid climber that I am, wanted to go get better under the mentorship of the master. We headed up a route called Ten Years After on Washington’s Column. I was determined to improve my aid game so I C1-ed the 5.10 start and linked a couple pitches in the aiders. Eventually I was forced to short fix and continued up sketchy, skeetery offset Alien placements in blown out pin scars. Fortunately Dan quickly caught me and put me back on “normal” belay. The pitch traversed 15 feet to the side and then headed up, creating a bit of an “L” in the rope. I shifted my weight to a blue/green offset with only two lobes engaged and as I bent over, head down to clip the rope into the piece I was leaving, the piece I was on blew, along with several pieces below me. I fell 20+ feet to a ledge, my arms shooting straight up as my armpit caught the horizontal rope. Dan said it looked like a perfectly executed gymnastic dismount. I looked at him, expressionless, for about two seconds, all the while him expecting me to start screaming “my ankles!” The ankles were fine thanks to the approach shoes but unfortunately I got a nasty rope burn and tweaked my shoulder pretty bad. Since I was basically standing back at the belay, I hung out there for a minute, assessing how bad the damage was. I couldn’t really use my left arm but I knew if I didn’t get back up there, I’d be scared the next time I had to do some A3 pitch. I climbed halfway up the pitch, got a solid piece in, and lowered back to the belay, satisfied but in a lot of pain. Dan finished the pitch and we rappelled off in search of medical attention. Good thing we did too as it thunder stormed shortly after we reached the ground.
With a nice rope burn, a tweaked tendon, and a sprained rotator cuff, we looked for an easier “rest day” activity the next day so we decided to run up Nutcracker and was surprised at all the piton scars (not to mention fixed pin) found on the route. I pictured the old timers patting Royal Robbins on the back, saying “great job, you climbed it all on nuts. I mean, we’re not going to do it that way, but good job silly boy.” We topped out with thunder clapping all around. We raced down the descent and then tried to sprint up another route, only to get caught in a torrential downpour 250 feet up, forcing us to downclimb a full pitch to a tree rappel. The weather looked terrible - .66 inches of rain or worse for the foreseeable future, so we decided to head to the Needles and return for The Captain later if the rain ever stopped and my shoulder healed properly. We did end up climbing Ron Kauk’s traverse on Middle Cathedral listed in 50 Favorite Climbs of North America, which turned out to be quite enjoyable and memorable despite first appearances/impressions.
The Needles are a photographer’s dream – beautiful streaks of brilliant green lichen, laser-cut cracks, and formations right next to each other to allow easy yet beautiful action shots from across the way without a lot of rigging. The guidebook was a touch difficult to use (that’s even if you can find the out of print guide), and without stars or descriptions to point us towards the classics, we chose whatever looked good, and honestly, we couldn’t have picked better. Every pitch was better than the last and we literally laughed with glee as we ran up route after route. Some standout routes from the first day included Airy Interlude, Thin Ice, Trade Winds, Sorrocco, and Ankles Away (although the latter is quite scary on lead – I recommend toproping it).
The next day we set off for the main objective – Romantic Warrior, which climbed perhaps even better than it looked in photographs – which is breathtaking. However, with all the sustained, technical, and insecure 5.12 climbing on it, all we could think about was Michael Reardon up there onsight free soloing the thing. It’s mindboggling to think about. You get three warm up pitches, 5.10a, 5.7, 5.10d, and then you make two or three moves above the anchor on the next pitch and you’re committed. Seriously. I don’t think you could downclimb those insecure stemming sequences through 5.12 terrain. While the climbing lived up to its reputation and is bucket list worthy, I was surprised by how there was some crumbly rock on it (especially since Reardon soloed it) and how technical and difficult the gear was to place. In this day and age, most trad climbers prefer to slam a cam into the crack over a nut and I am no exception, but on this route, we probably used three or four nuts to every one cam we placed on the harder pitches. Small offsets were crucial.
The next few days we did a bunch of other routes and kept a watchful eye on the weather in Yosemite. It rained for nine straight days in the Valley and we were running out of time. Plus my shoulder didn’t feel great for free climbing on The Captain honestly. We debated doing a NIAD (Nose In A Day) ascent of the Nose but figured with nine days of rain, that thing would be crazy busy. We looked at a few other things, briefly contemplated trying the Salathe anyway and just seeing how it went, but in the end, we were too in love with the climbing in the Needles to leave. We decided to focus on the true goal of the trip which was to have a phenomenal time and come back with some really legendary memories. Plus we ticked two of the three “other” goals.
On our last climbing day we decided to go for a big enchainment of the main formations that run north-south - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Wizard, The Sorcerer, and The Charlton. And it may have been the best day of the trip (ignoring the fact that I got off route on the first pitch of the day and was essentially soloing 5.10/5.11 terrain that I then had to reverse to get back on route). After that small detour, the day was phenomenal, including the best 5.7 pitch I’ve ever done – a knifeblade ridge/arête to a small summit, several hundred feet off the ground. Seventy feet out from Dan with no gear (but super secure), a fighter jet from the nearby air force base rocketed right towards us, then pulled straight up into a barrel roll at the very last second and turned on the afterburners. I will admit it was a little scary with the whole rock shaking and me so far runout, but it was also so cool! We had seen the jets all week and they had spotted us on the south face – directly facing them as they flew through the tight canyon – and apparently decided to give us a little extra show on one of the passes. The day continued to grow in fun – pitch after varied pitch of jamming, offwidthing, face climbing, delicate stemming, and so on over four unique and beautiful summits. There was no better way to end the trip. As we topped out and looked over to the metal skeleton remains of the burned-down fire watch tower, our eyes continued to roll down the ridgeline, following the rock to its base. Like any climber, I said to Dan, “It’d be cool if there was a route going all the way up that thing.”
Dan nodded and gave out a soft “yeah” as if lost in his own thoughts. He thumbed the book for a second and then snapped out of his daze “There is! It’s 12 pitches and only 5.8! Oh man, we can do it really quick tomorrow before we leave! We can pack most of the car tonight, blitz up the route before tomorrow’s thunder storm, and then drive towards home.”
We toyed with the idea even though we hadn’t rested in what felt like forever and were pretty trashed, but then again, when would we be back? Maybe we should do another classic. We hiked back to camp, sorted gear and packed for the morning. As the sun came up the next day, we got an alpine start of a different sort – rain pitter-pattering on our tents and we knew it was time to head home. But we also knew we’d be back.
- Jason Haas