Spring 2021 marked the beginning of the end for COVID, as many of us (in the US) got our first and second doses of the vaccine. With that came our first somewhat normal trip since the beginning of the pandemic. Although we were careful and respectful, our tour involved a lot more friends, new and old. In hindsight, it really emphasized the importance of the relationships we make and maintain while on the road, at home, or with family. Climbing and travelling just isn't the same without the people along the way.
CITY OF ROCKS
Our trip started out with a pit stop in City of Rocks, Idaho, to see our friends Alex and Hannah. We rolled in late and Anju, who is much smarter than I, decided to set up camp and read a book while I went for a little rope solo session at a nearby crag, Electric Avenue. Unfortunately, rope stretch got the best of me on my third lap and I (not so) gently smashed my heel on the granite. Regretting my lack a patience, I hobbled back to camp that night and prayed for a swift recovery with a few hundred mg of vitamin I.
After a few days of watching everyone climb (and even belaying a few pitches), my foot did not recover and, instead, continued swelling and changing to a wonderful hue of violet. Dang. The next week marked the beginning of Anju's Rock Guide Course and I was planning to meet my close friend Fritz in Washington for a big ski trip, but we had to cancel. I was extremely disappointed, as I had been looking forward to spending time in the mountains with one of best friends for quite a while. The glass was half full, though, as Fritz was able to line up an infinitely cooler Alaska ski trip and I was able to support my lovely partner on her first AMGA course.
So began our two week stay at Smith Rock, the scene of Anju's course. We linked up with our friend Hayley, who we met in Turkey, and she climbed with Anju on the first few days. She in turn put us in touch with some local climbers and I was able to get out and top rope some fun routes (although I was still having pain walking). Eventually, I met up with a fellow Scarpa mentee, Patrick, who also kindly showed us around Smith and introduced us to many climbers. By the end of our two weeks, I was hiking with a small pack and even leading a few routes. What a treat to be injured and stuck in a place like Smith, only to meet some great people and sample classic routes. Despite the cold nights at Skull Hollow campground, I walked away from this stay truly appreciating the connections we make while on the road.
After Smith, we high tailed it down to California to visit my family. This entailed lots of local beer, great fresh food, and the frequent Prius powered missions (thanks mom) to Lovers Leap and Sugarloaf. We climbed some classic routes and some great ones that were new to me. It was wonderful spending time with family and catching the Sierra foothills while they're still lush and green.
At some point during the visit, my father noticed that the tires on our truck were wearing unevenly. I took it into a shop and they recommended I replace the lower control arms, quoting me a little too much for my budget. Why does my dad have to notice these things? The next few days, my truck sat behind the barn with the entire front end missing. We had some trouble removing a few large bolts, so after running through the selection of large hammers we resorted to the sawzall. Something I never thought I'd be doing to my car...
Back in action, we pointed the newly aligned truck down to Yosemite. Upon arrival, we racked up and jumped on a newer route beside Glacier Point, the Jericho Wall. We enjoyed the first few pitches, but the upper 3 were total junk. The crux was quite enjoyable and this made up for the final pitches in my mind. I managed to onsite all but one slip on an easier early pitch. Not the best route in Yosemite by any means, but a decent warm up!
The next day, we climbed one of my absolute favorites: Freeblast. Anju and I swung leads up the whole route, giving us both a chance to remember how to use our feet on the polished El Cap granite. That evening, we met up with our friends from Montana, Daniel and Cora. We spent the rest of the week cragging and celebrating Cora's birthday. We toured some new to me areas, including the Iota (home to JB's Phantom and RK's Crossroads), the Terrace (great sport climbing) and Hang Dog Flyer.
The first week was soon over and we felt adequately warmed up. In fact, we needed to cool down with a break already, so we high tailed it to the coast and stayed at a friend's house in Mill Valley for two nights (thanks Carl!). We got sunburned on the beach, ate nice Italian food, and even spent an entire day surfing (not so restful). Although I don't always recognize it in the moment, breaks from being surrounded by climbing always seem to help our bodies and our psych for when we return.
With plans for me and Dan to climb Half Dome while Anju and Cora climbed Washington Column, we drove into the valley at 4 pm so that Dan and I could start hiking to Half Dome by 5 pm. It was wishful thinking, but we somehow managed to be on the trail by 5:30. The hike up was as usual: crowded but absolutely stunning. Since we were headed to the South Face of Half Dome, we hiked up the Mist Trail to the Snake Dike approach eventually breaking off towards the large dihedrals in the middle of the massive S Face.
With heavy overnight bags and good upbeat music, we crushed the initial part of the trail and did not fill up any water. Once we were almost at the South Face, we noted our timing, less than 2 hours, and patted ourselves on the back. All smiles, we veered off the path and started the most epic bushwhack of my life. It was a similar amount of struggle as the Harding Slot, just it lasted for an hour and left my arms and legs with hundreds of small and large cuts. Absolutely exhausted and completely void of psych, we got to the bivy in twilight with pollen filled throats and extremities that looked like they just went through a paper shredder. All we could think of was water. A friend had described a spring "just 100' uphill of the route", so we immediately dropped our bags, grabbed our bottles and headlamps, and took off for water.
It's worth noting that we were both pretty crushed, dehydrated, and lacked any forethought at this point. Daniel's phone was still playing upbeat jam music on the Bluetooth speaker, so we carried on. After 30 minutes of extreme bushwhacking, sometimes in fifth class terrain, our headlamps came across a wet streak and we started sucking on some saturated moss. I remember sucking on some of the moss, closing my eyes to savor the moisture, and opening them to see a frog just inches in front of me. Both the frog and I unfazed at our unusual meeting, I voiced my opinion that we should give up on the spring and settle into a very dry night and a swift bail in the morning. Daniel's headlamp, however, was already lighting up dry black streaks 100 yards above us in the sea of Manzanita and White Thorn. "I think there is a spring just around the corner!" Some 90 minutes later, we reached the base of the Subdome, well marked by the hundreds of destroyed water bottles and GoPros. At this point, I was fulling advocating for the bail, but Daniel carried on, motivated by the phantom wet streaks. He rounded corner after corner, eventually screaming out in what seemed like joy.
I don't know what I expected to find, but it sounded worth continuing. When I got to him, he shared a nearly full 1 gallon water bottle beside a small 1 drop per second spring, feeding into an old tarp that collected water in a dark green, film coated, frog strewn cesspool. We drank, finally saturating our pollen coated lungs. I cannot describe fully how this pool looked or smelled, so use your imagination. Caught between bailing and continuing with the poor odds of drinking the water, we decided to fill up our four gallons and decide in the morning.
Music still playing, we cradled our water like babies down the "career ending" technical bushwhack. At some point, Dan screamed and I heard some bushes crack. I immediately called out to hear if he is okay, but no response. I continue down to find him crawling out of a pile of branches beneath a small cliff. A quick assessment shows a few significant scratches and a minor concussion, but treatment will have to wait as our first aid kit (and everything else) was still at least an hour away. We start down again, but make it only a few feet before the music stops. "Oh shit, I lost my phone". Doubling back to the scene of the fall, the music starts up again, taunting us for the lost phone. The next half an hour found us listening to music and crawling around in the bushes we despised so much, only to come away empty handed. Giving up without a phone, we carried on with severely cut and scratched egos to camp. Confused and delirious, we saw reflectors on our packs in the night and thought it was a bear's eyes. Yelling and throwing rocks at our gear, we couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. At some point well past midnight, we finally laid to rest...
The next morning, as it typically does, came way too fast. In the first few moments, it was hard to discern whether last night was a terrible dream or a minor epic. The fresh cuts on my legs and the yellow-green water bottles behind us confirmed the latter. We got up well after sun rise and surveyed our options. We were destroyed, but bailing seemed out of the question given what we had been through. We opted to boil all the water, producing the most putrid stench, so that we could feel somewhat comfortable drinking it. We then used all of our hydration tabs to at least attempt concealing the flavor.
Finally starting up the route, our bodies slowly warmed up to enjoy what we came for: climbing. Pitch 13 was our goal for the day, and it could not have been more perfect. We ended up climbing in the shade most of the day, alternating between pants, shorts, jackets, and shirts. Left facing layback after left facing layback, we climbed 9 beautiful pitches in the corner before executing a wild traverse. The day included one A0 pitch, two 5.11 pitches, one 5.10, seven 5.12 pitches, and one 5.13. Somehow I stuck on for all but two pitches. It was a wonderful day of hard crack climbing on bullet stone with great company. Not much more to ask for and wonderfully rewarding considering the night before and our low expectations just hours before.
The next morning we enjoyed a South Face specialty; some frog water with a hint of coffee at first light. Our lower backs and forearms were sore, but our calves remained strong for the tour of excellent featured slab climbing that lay above. Leaving our haul bags and rack, we climbed light with just 20 quickdraws and a liter of frog water for the epic (and sustained) sport climbing that characterizes the entire upper half of the route. We both had our moments of hesitation, but managed to literally squeak our way up to the summit without any falls (besides pulling through the A0 bolt ladder). It was truly world class climbing in a world class setting. We topped out in the early afternoon, snagged a summit selfie, and rapped down the route with only a few minor mishaps. On the raps, we scoped a less bushy descent and it payed off as our hike down resulted in far fewer cuts. Amazingly, we made it back to camp in time to enjoy an icy It's It and take a dip in the Merced before the sun got too low.
Anju and Cora had gotten off of the Column at a similar time and were tired as well, so the following few days resulted in some cragging and well needed resting. Before the week was over, however, Anju and I launched back up the mist trail with my good friend Jesse for a lap up the Snake Dike. It was a clear day and we cruised up the approach in perfect weather, only to wait on party for the majority of the route. Although they held us up, the father/son duo gave us some good laughs with their unusual banter. After a few more pics on top, we continued down the cables and made it to our cars well before the 11 hour mark. My fastest ascent of Half Dome!
During this time, our friends Jeanie, Leslie and Jonah had arrived and Cora had left. Anju began to partner up with Jeanie and Leslie, while I joined Dan and Jonah. Continuing our Sean Jones theme, the next route we set our eyes on was Mama near Bridal Veil Falls. Naturally, the only other party gearing up for the route were some friends from Bozeman. They saw our excitement and graciously let us take off first, despite our team of three. This worked out well as Dan, our offwidth specialist cruised through the first crux of the day. I took over for the money pitches; an absolutely wild stem and an insane bomb bay chimney. Jonah then quested upward on the runout and loose pitches (he had to warm up to Yosemite somehow!), before Dan styled the finale: a wild boulder problem to a free hanging move on a giant detached block. All in all, it was a cool and unique climb with a fun mix techniques and a touch of choss to top it all off.
The following day, Anju was anxious to climb Voyager so she enlisted me to help hold the rope. We cruised up and down in a few hours, with Anju's only fall being during the mega Incinerator pitch. It was fun and rewarding to support her on another great route!
With rain on the forecast, Dan Jonah and I set off on Gates of Delirium the next day. The high was to be in the 60s, so we went for a "sunny" route and started early. Our third Sean Jones route of the trip, this climb was an absolute blast. Although we actually nearly froze at every belay, the climbing was splitter and fun for the first 8 pitches. The ninth pitch provided some scary chockstones and we considered bailing, but we carried on and were rewarded with an amazing final pitch that hung over the rainbows beneath us. Perhaps one of the best positions I've climbed in Yosemite and a bonding experience in the cold temperatures.
Fittingly, my friend Fritz showed up just in time for the rain (the last time he flew out for climbing, we were rained out for an entire week in Squamish). We made lemonade from our lemons and enjoyed some damp cragging, campfire time with the whole crew, no hands bouldering, and even a few drinks beside a fire in the Ahwahnee.
Right as the storm broke, I met up with Carl for an ascent of the Nose. We checked in with the ranger to test out the new permit system, only to be notified of the 8+ parties starting with us! We strategized for the slow program and a late (10 am) start, as its impossible to beat crowds on a route like the Nose. At the base in the mid morning, we encountered 4 parties converging on the first pitch. As their ropes criss-crossed above and below us, I managed to link pitch 0 and pitch 1, securing our spot in front of the junk show beneath and behind the gong show that lay above. After waiting for each pitch, we arrived at Sickle to discover that our plan might work actually out. We were soon first in line with almost every party before and after us bailing that night or early the next morning!
The second day we cruised up the Stove Legs, passing more bailing parties, only to find the route clear of traffic as far as we could see. Eating lunch at El Cap Tower, we tossed the 4 day ascent aside and opted for a 3 day, launching to Camp IV just beneath the Great Roof. Setting up at a reasonable hour, we enjoyed dinner with a beautiful sunset and not a soul in sight. That night, we woke up to the Great Roof illuminated in an ominous red and a raging (but controlled) fire beneath us on the valley floor. Needless to say, it was quite spectacular.
The final day, we cruised with light bags and no parties. At Camp VI, we stopped for an early lunch and I dropped my sunglasses deep into a crack, making our only obligatory El Cap fumble. We waited on one party for the last pitch, summiting around 4:30 pm. After a quick gear sort, we realized the store closes at 8 pm and literally ran down to get cold beer. Making record time, we even had a chance for a Merced dip before refreshments and a reunion with our friends Dan and Jonah at Camp 4, who had just finished Half Dome.
The next day was a full on rest day and we took advantage of Jonah's father's scope to view Anju, Jeanie, and Leslie on Lurking Fear. They were moving steadily and made it to Thanksgiving that evening, so I prepped to hike up the next day and help ferry loads down.
The next morning, we received a vague text that Anju had injured herself and might require assistance. We rallied the troops and soon four of us were jumaring up the East Ledges. By the top, only Dan and I were left and we hiked briskly over the summit to the top of Lurking Fear. We greeted Jeanie with excitement, but received a more serious look. She directed us to Anju and Leslie, just a few hundred feet below and we met them moments later. Relieved to see their smiles, we immediately helped haul their remaining bags up to flat ground and helped Anju hobble up. Assessing the situation, we found out that Anju couldn't bare weight on her leg, Leslie had a significant cut, and Jeanie had a potential back injury. All of this happened from an epic 60' factor 2 fall on the last pitch!
We repacked and took off down the mountain very slowly. It was epic and took about four times longer than normal, but we made it. Tears were shed, pain killers were consumed, YOSAR was called, more friends arrived, but that's their story to share. It was a spectacular natural ending to our trip and we high tailed it back to Placerville the next morning. Later medical assessments revealed that Anju's leg was fractured, Leslie's cut was stitched up and Jeanie was miraculously back on rock within a week.
Anju flew to Bozeman after a down day in Placerville and I drove up to Washington for three days of guiding. Before we knew it, we were both back in Bozeman looking for housing and beginning our season of work. Back in town, life was fully back to normal: no masks indoors, full bars, and tourons rampant on Main Street... In some respect, I guess I had appreciated the quietness that came at the height of the pandemic, but all in all I was happy to see the town thriving and excited to make up for lost time with friends.