Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sequoias of California

Sequoias are the largest living beings, and some of the tallest trees as well. They disappeared after the ice age from everywhere except the Sierra range in California. Some sequoias still alive today are thought to be between 3 000 and 4 000 years old.

Mariposa Grove, one of the first sequoia groves visited by non-Native Americans in 1850s, is situated in the south-western part of the Yosemite National Park. This is us under the Fallen Monarch, that has supposedly capsized over 300 years ago. The remains of fallen trees can linger, if undisturbed, for unknown periods of time. Note the not that profound root system of the 1000 ton tree. This grove was one of the investigators to the creation of the National Park system in the USA.

It is a delight to wonder among these lost dinosaurs of the mainland. This is how the place looks like today - and probably looked like in 1850, when the cabin was initially built by Galen Clark:

To get to Mariposa Grove, we had to hitch hike. Hitch hiking is a very interesting activity, at least around Yosemite. Each time we tried, we always got picked up by either climbers or other strangers in the land, such as Polish, Turkish, and finally Swiss girls. Are Americans becoming less friendly in these terrorism and fear-filled years? If so it is a shame!

Last shot, an echo to Rowell's picture of a Jeffrey Pine on Taft Point that i only saw afterwards, is of this Jeffrey Pine we saw on the descent from Half Dome. Not as big as the sequoias, but certainly as beautiful!

How To: Surviving a Month in Yosemite

Having spent over five weeks in the valley, it is interesting to share our practical experience with the wanna-be wall rats. Here you go from the first hands:

1. Shelter
Lodging is probably the easiest and most attractive part of the Valley. Camp 4 (called Sunnyside Campground for some time) is considered a historic climbers campground, after the authorities tried to close it a couple of years ago, and the climbing community made itself heard to proclaim it a historic sight. Maybe a far cry, but it is rather fortunate that the campsite has remained as other accommodations in the park are rather expensive. Its main advantage is the price - $5 per night per person that is hard to beat anywhere today.

Unfortunately that comes with certain disadvantages. Camp 4 is a walk-in campground, meaning that you walk to the ranger's office in the morning, queue and get a site on first-come first-served basis. The inconveniene of the system is the queue that gets sometimes very long and slow - i had to queue from 7 in the morning to at least 10 to get a site sometimes. Another problem is the 7-day limit stay. It is only enforced during peak season, from May 1st to September 30th. From October to end of April there is no ranger and self-registration with envelopes in a box is applied, a very likeable system indeed!

When there are rules, there are always ways to circumnavigate them. First of all, there is no computer or other motorized way to keep track of the campers. Rangers rely mainly on the faces and current IDs (unfortunately IDs are required to register) to tell you to go away. After the 7th day you still have 2 days' notice, and on the 9th day only your tent gets confiscated. The usual way is to register on one person's name, spend 5-6 days in camp, get on a big wall for a couple of days to get forgotten by the ranger, come back and register on another person's name for a week, repeat ad infinitum and actually pay $5 per night for two people...Or not register at all - with 35 sights and 6 people per sight, there is little manageable way to identify the unregistered users. Use this advice at your own risk!

This is our tent at Camp 4, where we stayed registered for the whole 5 weeks without too much ado or any administrative problems:

Different lodging options are 3 other campsites ($20 per night per site) that have to be reserved in advance, Housekeeping camp and Curry Village (least expensive if not camping, $70 per night for the cabin), Yosemite Lodge (over $100 per night hotel), and the Ahwahnee Hotel (over $500 per night).

2. Food

Most of the time we would cook at our campsite, buying groceires at the Village Store - a descent size supermarket, although rather expensive. Best option is to get groceries outside the park, however you need a car for that.

There are several possibilities for eating out. Our favorite price to quality mix was degnan's deli's large pizza with peppers sausage mushrooms. For $20 it makes a perfectly full stomach for two hungry dirt bags. The Mexican place at Curry Village has great Taco salads that can be eaten comfortably by two for lunch. There is a coffee and ice cream corner at Curry as well.

3. Transport and Maintenance
There are free hybrid shuttles functioning from camp 4 to Curry Village, around other stops in the park from 7 am to 10 pm, making it very convenient to live car-less inside the valley. To get there from San Francisco we used Amtrak (take BART from the airport to Richmond, board train there) to Merced and YARTS to Yosemite. From 9 to 6 there is also a shuttle going from the Visitor Center, stop at camp 4, to Manure Pile Buttress parking area - best way to access El Cap and Cathedrals if willing to walk or hitch hike.

There are wonderful hot free showers at Curry Village, later in the season they also have a pool there. There is laundry at the Housekeeping Camp. Internet (25c a minute) is available at Yosemite Lodge and Degnan's Deli. There is also free internet at special opening hours at the girls club library (ladies room) opposite the Visitor Center, a rather secret location that takes some time to locate!

4. Rest Days and Sightseeing
There is not exactly tons to do during the rest days. Visiting Ansel Adams Gallery is an intellectual pleasure. They also have a good collection of books for sale. There is also a free movie to see at the airconditioned theatre of the Visitor Center. Not far by, there is a cemetary, and as impressive Indian Museum.

Hiking is a more interesting option, though it's not exactly rest. Exploring and photographying various falls (Ribbon, Bridal Veil, Yosemite, Vernal, Nevada...) might become a hobby in itself, especially during spring time. Mirror Lake trail makes you leave the crowds of the shops just to find the hiking crowds. Little Yosemite Valley hike is definitely worth it, especially if you do not do the Half Dome descent at any point. It is also worth driving to the Glacier Point overlook when the road is opened, the views are fantastic. Mariposa Groove also requires hitch hiking to see the Sequoias. Toulomne Meadow is further down the road, that is usually closed until end of May.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Yosemite Falls, Geek Tower

One of the landmarks of the Yosemite park is the Yosemite Falls. It is the fourth or fifth tallest falls in the world (Angel Falls in Venezuala holds the first place), falling down a total of 740 meters overall if adding its three levels together. It inspires any park visitors to become instant photographers as it is visible from many corners of the park and presents different perspectives during different times of the year or even day. This is my meager take on the subject:

We could not resist either the temptation to go up there with our ropes and try climbing something in the proximity. We first aimed at Freeblast, however after the first pitch of run out 5.10-11 climbing we quickly changed to the Center Route, an easier neighbor. It still presented a 5.10a offwidth that made both of us suffer as suffer you might only on a 50m Yosemite classic offwidth pitch. The exposure and views were definitely worth the effort though:

We made it to the top of the Geek tower, a less apparent mini-summit to the left of the Lost Arrow Spire, and had the pleasure to see double rainbows over the falls throughout the climbing day (i am also climbing in the picture below):

In love with the place, here is another perspective of the falls from the hanging bridge near our camp. Geek tower is in the middle between the falls and the Lost Arrow Spire:

Last couple of days in the valley we spent doing shorter climbs or even parts of longer climbs we did not dare to completely commit to. We thus tried the first 4 pitches of a new route on the far left side of Lower Cathedral - a beautifully-colored, bolted 5.11 face leading to a crux 12a crack, and the first 5 pitches of DNB on Middle Cathedral. Another route led us to a real summit - South by Southwest on the Lower Cathedral Spire. It has one really good 11a thin hands crack pitch worth the approach.

Our last climb has been the famed Astroman, or rather its first 5 pitches. It is an awesome line, rather strenuous Enduro Corner, something worth training for. We have a reason to come back some day to dare finish and get into the Harding Slot!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Galen Rowell Photography

While resting in Yosemite, we entered the Ansel Adams gallery, like any other tourist trap shop. However, this is one of those places worth a visit even if you do not have any pecuniary intentions. This gallery was founded in honor of a great American photographer/paysagiste Ansel Adams, his black and white shots are incredible, like this shot of Half Dome:

There are many other books on photography in this gallery, and that is how i stumbled upon Galen. He started as a climber in the Gold Rush of Yosemite (beginning of the 60ies), picked up a camera since, and never stopped exploring. He also set up the record for the oldest man to do the Nose in a day (57) ascent some time ago.

As Ansel Adams shots are speaking tons with their black and whites, Galen's pictures are inspiring by their bright colors, copied at nature's most infusing sights, during those rare seconds when it exposes itself to the eye, like a naked girl bathing under a hidden Hawaian waterfall:

It has been a pain to learn that he and his wife died in an airplane crush near Bishop coming home from Alaska in 2002. In today's incredible i-world, it is even possible to read the accident report written by NTSB about that accident online.... You can find more photographs at his Mountain Light website. Here is another one of Rowell's masterpieces:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Half Dome, Regular Route

After the Nose climb we took some Degnan's Deli pizza-filled days of rest, encircled by fattening squirrels and tourists, free hybrid $500,000 shuttles, and gluttonous camp 4 routine. We grudgingly returned to climbing, visited Church Bowl for relaxed single-pitch cragging (I loved Bishop's Terrace and Terror), ran up Pillar of Frenzy for crack training and Crest Jewel Direct's first pitches for slab experience.

While at the top of the Column up there, the view was tempting. Our short memory of the big-wall suffering switched off and the rat started chewing at our stomachs as strong as ever - if a climber, what would you want to do after a picture posing session with this baby in the background?..

The Regular route, running up the estheticly vertical NorthWest face, is considered to be another valley classic, first climbed a year before the Nose by Royal Robbins in only five days. Today it is often done in one day to train for long climbs, or more by slower parties.

Our plan was as follows - approach through the lower slabs and climb the first 11 pitches on day 1, climb to top on day 2, descend on day 3. Planning is just that - inventing a future that will eat up the plan, like Cronus ate his own children. The first screw-up happened when we walked up the Mirror lake trail, haulbag and enthusiasm well secured to our backs. Bleary-eyed, we followed the well-asphalted pass to the tourist overview and then around the lake. A problem suddenly sprang up - the Tenaya Creek. A small streak on the map, it is a waist-deep, rapidly moving water flow, carring all the awakened snow down the inexorable pass to the sea. Traversing it, with our meager forces, proved a difficult matter. After thought, exploration and Renaud's experiments in the cold water up to his arm-pits at the artificial dam, we very reasonably decided to back track and change the plan. All that pain because we started the approach on the wrong side of the river - after the Mirror Lake bus stop, just before the bridge (hint hint), there is a trail braking right from the asphalted road and taking the other bank...

Our second, updated, plan that Sunday was to relax, have a coffee and a hamburger at Curry Village, spend time sun tanning and applying our intelectual abilities to making puzzles come together at the Lodge rather than finding intricate ways to traverse a river at the peak of spring snowmelt. Slab approach was put off to the evening, we would climb all 17 pitches the next day, hopefully making it up to the Big Sandy bivy, finish the rest on day 3 and descend to the valley after.

That appeared a more feasible way of addressing our undertaking, despite the painful approach that took us all the seven out of the supposed three hours and ate up all the hidden ressources of our bodies, bushwacking, struglling through the waterfalls and landslides, going up torn fixed ropes and mangled terrain to at last reach the snow band at the base of our route.

The bivy at the base was a wonderful wilderness affair, as cliché as that sounds. The spot was great - huge wall on one side, especially bewildering when the moon shows its prow over the top and richly gives away its shine over Tesaiyac's pale tears, mysterious valley down below. A lost light over the Glacier Point warmed the eye as we contemplated that last photo flash of an invisible photographer looking through the glimmering eye straight onto us, like god supervising his children, not from above anymore, but from straight ahead. It was eventually time for the pay-off after all the sherpa carrying done on the gripping approach: the stove got out of the haul bag, and the ramen started boiling and sharing that inimitable chicken smell with the world. Nothing like eating a Pepperidge Farm soft dark chocolate brownie cookie while staring over the Toulomne canyon and counting the first stars while inhaling the primaveral snow-mud-pine potpourri.

We started climbing under very auspicious circumstances. A two-party team walked down to us, just as Ren went off leading the first pitch. As they unhappily eyed our haul bag and learnt our imposing intentions of spending two days on the wall, a cunning creature approached their bags from behind. There was a reason we saw bear tracks in the snow on the way up. A yellow-reddish adolescent bear decided to try his scare powers on us. As i yelled at him, he happily continued trashing our climbing fellows' bags. Unfortunately for him, he had not yet graduated from the bear roar school and had not taken up the imposing size of his tribe. As the two men turned down on him with stones and yelling a bit more frightening than my opera-like screams, he decided to try his fortune at some other sport, - as ultimately did the two other climbers.

On that note, a ranger told us another story about a bear at the base of Half Dome, during the Free Coffee and Climbing Ranger Speach event on a Sunday morning at camp 4 (cool idea, IMO): apparently a girl had to be rescued from the same spot as she jugged the fixed line when scared by the bear there. She could not rap back down as the line was too tightly jammed by the snow!..

Climbing itself was easier than on the Nose, first part being mainly 5.9ish, on white, big-grained granite face and manageable cracks. The surprise came at the chimneys, where the first 5.9+ offwidth made Renaud come down after a struggle, and opt for the 5.11 variation at its left...Yes, if i had time to spare, i would spend a year training chimneys and offwidths in Yosemite, just for the pain of it, - but i don't,- so i swear, sweat, and grapple for holds, and make s l o w, painful upward progress, that resembles modern-day self-imposed torture - and all that only from the second's perspective!

We did successfully arrive at Big Sandy Ledges and spend another pleasant night on a big comfy bivy ledge, - especially if compared to the living on the Nose, - despite the constant sipping streaks of sand from the top (yes, that's why there is sand on this incredible ledge in the middle of a blank, vertical wall). Next day, when i saw a tourist piss from the top exactly over the Big Sandy Ledges, i was somehow less happy about all that sand, but again, tourists are butterfly-beings that thankfully blossom only in perfect conditions of warm sunshine and blue skies.

Here is Renaud, after all the painful aiding on the Zig-Zag pitches, traversing the Thank God Ledge. First you start by walking the ledge and feeling good about how great this all is and how your second must be taking great pictures from that photo belay. However the picture below comes just after the tight spot on that long ledge, where most courageous and bold leaders are bound to descend their feet and continue traversing holding on with hands only. This pitch is the icing on the cake as far as the excitement on the route is concerned, even if playing the cowardly seconding game!

The summit is much more rewarding than El Cap. You start anticipating it after the first look at the topo, with that 'tourist applause' phrase for the last pitch sticking in the mind for the duration of the climb. When we got there, there was no applause, but enough tourists to take this classic picture:

And we fumbled around enough to find this other, less popular, spot for more photosessioning, looking to the other side of the valley:

After an hour of real summit pleasure, we started down the painful John Muir trail, 8 miles of fun - with a smile at first, like this:

And less happy after miles and miles of a gentle trail. It is very beautiful though, and becomes a painful pleasure as you hike through the Little Yosemite Canyon, passing Nevada and Vernal Falls on the way. The last surprise came while passing the Mist Trail, when we finally realized the origin of the name. The picture below, taken from the Glacier Point we visited a couple of days later, shows the Half Dome that is not really a Dome, and the picturesque hike that we followed on the way down, past the two falls in the middle of the picture.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

El Capitan, the Nose

So this is it - the moment of truth for any big-wall climber wanna-be. You have to shit. You can go around it in circles, in squares or in pyramids, but after an hour, a day, or maximum two, there is no getting around the painful truth. Princesses do not exist - we are all mortal creatures and we have basic biological needs, as smelly and putrid as they are. It's like death, the biggest of them all needs, and there is no getting away or hiding or finding a different logical issue from the dillema of the wall.

Waking up at the Boot Flake ledge and sitting up in our single portaledge (Renaud slept underneath me on the ledge itself, with around 40 cm of living space - what else would you wish for on the wall...), I knew this was the day i would have to confront the monsters of the wall - or rather my inner inhibitions from the darker side of the consciousness. It's not even the process of shitting itself, it's the image of it in our head that is the problem. It is so innately personal and supposedly repulsive to others, that doing it while strapped to a rope on a 30cm ledge couple of hundred meters up a big stone, is one of those moments of truth we do not exactly expect or plan for.

But as with all things that come to pass in this life, i grabbed the long-prepared brown paper bag (long live free bags at the Yosemite Village Store - the Moma store of them all in the Valley), squatted down as i could with harness and tie-in in the way, and made the moment of truth become a second of happiness when the ancestral pride in the accomplished feat made me sigh with uncontrolled pleasure. Here it is, nicely packed in the empty water bottle and duct taped for prolonged conservation.

As you may see, one of the most memorable moments on our first big wall, the four-day ascent of the Nose route on El Cap, has been the toilet experience. There were certainly other moments, like jugging pendulums over and over and over again - until that last one where the rope got stuck at the bolt when i was pulling it through, like setting up the portaledge in the dark on our first day, like dropping the duct tape after jugging up the first pitch, like chimneying under the portaledge at camp V when it was my turn to sleep under it in the 40 cm living space, or praying the rain gods - really praying - at the Changing Corners pitch while it thundered and rained over the Higher Cathedral on the opposite side of the valley.

The Nose route was the first daring undertaking up El Capitan, biggest wall in Yosemite, and one of the biggest world cliffs situated in such pleasant and warm surroundings. Warren Harding and team managed the feat, after many years of dreaming, trying, and climbing bits and pieces of it, in a total of 45 days, on November 12, 1958. The route goes right in the middle of the big face, more or less where the shadow meets light in the picture below. It was a daring undertaking and a courageous feet in the 50ies that created a new precedent for the generations to come. It remains an exciting challenge today - to do it in one day for some, in many for others, in dreams for some more.

We prepared thoroughly, by first getting a haul bag, many more cams, and finally even investing into a portaledge to have all the chances on our side. And so the day has come - after stashing water at the base for five days (two liters per person per day, or 20 liters, or 10 duct taped apple juice and water bottles, 4 or which we did not use...), here is Renaud on the way to the cliff, the first day of the climb.

There was a party of three Austrian girls in front of us that rapped of the Dolt Tower (50% success rate, or what do the statisticians say today?), leaving more water there and a warm Budweiser (thanks!), and two American guys, rapping off the first pitch after their main water bottle exploded. We had the climb to ourselves - a rare occurrence, even on this May 1st beginning of the season.

Renaud led off the first pitch, with plans to free most 5.10s. The aiding struck us on some unexpected places, like the 5.8 fist crack on the awesome Stoveleg cracks, or more expected, but benighted Boot Flake approach, Great Roof, and several pitches following that. Below is Ren full of fresh enthusiasm, first day, first pitch - and a seemingly endless wall for the days to come. The bizarre thing, at least for my inexperienced big-wall self, was that you could see the top from day one, and it looked so close that the mind refused to acknowledge that it would take several days to get there. It appears so impossibly close by, the heart gallops to the goal, and the emotions, unarrested, make you feel as if you were already on top. However, there is lots and lots of work to do to actually get there. Yeah, life is like that...

I jugged most of the pitches and figured out the haul bag logistics, managing the three ropes, pulling on this, freeing that, and tempering with various mechanical devices. Not that much fun in the long run, but a good way to learn the basic mechanics of the big wall climbing on the go. This is me, the Great Roof pitch - where the jugging starts to be strenuous at once and the panorama eventually manages to send the message to your brain, despite the epinephrine and fatigue raging there, - about how stupendous it is:

We slept our last night on the wall at a comfortable camp V. Our bivies kept getting more and more lush with each day: a benighted portaledge setup in the middle of nowhere, just after the ultimate pendulum into the Stoveleg cracks below the Dolt tower, a ledge - but only a 30cm one at the top of Boot Flake, a big nice ledge at camp V, and the last night on top in full sleeping conditions, with a big pine tree overhead and a moon to sing us a lullaby.

Here is another picture, in the same genre, of me following the Changing Corners pitch on the last day. My favorite pitch was the one after this one. The belay on top of Changing Corners is a hanging one, with all this incredible exposure beneath you, and a majestic layback 10d in front. That was a pleasant culmination after the rain and thunder scare i got while sitting and praying at Camp VI for those gray and humid, unsmiling rain gods to hold off and let us be.

We did get to the top and had the unique pleasure to experience the East Ledges descent with all those bags, and our shit tacked in the middle of it all. Our short memory soon made us look up El Cap again, with that stupid, fleeting feeling of big wall envy, scooping crazy people hanging there with their stuff, trying to reach some goals none understands or really cares about. But doesn't that King Swing look wonderful from below? Like David Breashears would say, it's time for the Big Wall Anonymous Club.


On a practical note, i heard this question at Camp 4, 'what do you need to train to make it up there?' and here are my two cents concerning the technical essentials:

- jugging and following pendulums on jugs (especially the first day);
- hauling systems;
- basic aid (bolt ladder, aider use, thin nut placement);
- and the most important one - moral strength and the good feeling with your partner that all the climbing is about...oh, and don't forget the off-set nuts, small sizes - it's all about the off-sets!

To finish this off, here is a picture of my climbing hands in the morning after the third bivy, inspirational, ain't it...