Pilgrimage: California and The Valley


My attitude toward climbing in a place like Yosemite Valley, and California more generally, had always been one of ambivalence. From my New Englander perspective, the culture of climbing in Yosemite fell into line with the greater culture of California: larger than life and centered around the who’s who of big names and reputations—exactly the reasons I wouldn't want to go there. California has been home to some of the greatest chapters in American climbing history and Yosemite was no doubt their epicenter. All of this went quite against my own inclinations as climbing to me holds value for the personal discovery and a focus on natural beauty, not public achievement. That said, its easy to imagine that a place like the Valley, as its universally known, might have earned a world-renown reputation for a reason, and I couldn't dissuade the idea that maybe it would prove worthwhile to overcome my aversion to crowds and hype and sample the offerings of the Mecca of American free climbing.

Upon returning from South America it took serious effort to resist driving straight to Southern Utah to join my friends in Indian Creek where desert sandstone climbing promised just the good times I knew it would deliver. But flying into Los Angeles and being received in Joshua Tree by a friend I met in Frey was all the encouragement I needed to start a cursory tour of California’s famous granite. After testing ourselves on a few classic J Tree lines and getting a taste of the old school granite of Tahquitz we headed north, first to Bishop where walls of the Eastern Sierra’s granite rise from a desert valley floor till they crest with snow atop some of the West’s most impressive peaks.

Bishop is truly a climber town of climber towns - high quality if not world class in multiple disciplines: bouldering, single pitch sport on basalt, single pitch trad on granite and alpine climbing on the jaw dropping granite peaks of the Eastern Sierra. My tour was cursory at best, with stops at the crags but no visits to the famous bouldering of the Buttermilks nor excursions into the alpine. After spending just enough time to know that I would be happy to come back for months, I took advantage of the weather and the calm before the storm of tourists to make my long awaited pilgrimage as an American trad climber: I was headed for Yosemite Valley.

Having heard from a number of climber friends and gathering all the tips I could, I can’t say that I entered the Valley with an open mind. Yosemite Valley receives over five million visitors annually, tourism on a scale that seemed me to ensure a sanitized and wholly impersonal experience of a place that had likely lost its soul long ago to the crowds. The good old days, of carefree existence and a paradise for climbers were long gone, supplanted with strict enforcement of park policy to keep the numbers of gawking tourists growing and dollars funneling into the coffers of the privatized corporate profit scheme that had exclusive rights to all that juicy business. I was already jaded to the scene, in short.

But what I was to find as I nurtured my schizoid blindness to the charade of American tourism before my eyes was another truth: all the hype was rooted in some crystalline nugget of truth. The walls were alive - with enough quality granite climbing to make your head spin and keep a climber busy for far longer than I had before me in my springtime visit. My three buddies I had met down in Argentina, two California boys and an older veteran of the climbing scene, were to accompany me for an all-star tour of granite climbs of every shape and size. OK, we didn't boulder once. But during the next three weeks we would make use of those most accessible walls to climb routes whose scale dwarfed the longest routes I had ever climbed in my life.

Cragging gave us a taste of the quality - 5.10 splitters that made me grin like a little kid. And in the Valley, anything under a half dozen pitches still feels like you're cragging off the ground. Then we went deeper. Higher Cathedral Rock. The Sentinel. And as a culmination that I hadn't been bold enough even to hope for: El Capitan, a three thousand foot granite monolith absolutely steeped in climbing history and saturated with lines any crack climber would drool over, even if the scale required aid over free climbing.

No big wall climber myself, I had been working my ambitions up to tackle some of the classic free climbing objectives in the valley, working on feeling confident on longer routes and sustained leads. But when Aaron announced his birthday, he admitted that a voyage up ‘the Big Stone’ was truly what would make for a memorable birthday week. Having climbed it before, Aaron had a far better sense than I for the logistics: what to pack and how much, what routes were manageable climbing and without prohibitive traffic, what pace we were likely to keep up, etc., not to mention access to the specialized gear like haul bags, aid gear and a portaledge. As much as some friends and family have enjoyed congratulating this as a personal achievement for me, the honest climber in me knows that I took a decided back seat on this ascent, leading far fewer than my share of the pitches and without the experience to contribute to the more crucial decision-making. That said, our four days (including descent) on the Triple Direct (we jugged fixed lines to Mammoth Ledge to start) opened a door for me and made real a prospect that would otherwise have remained far distant for a while longer.

By the end of my visit Aaron and I would enjoy a relaxing cup of coffee and watch the sun rise from our comfortable perch a pitch below the rim of the Captain, feet dangling over three thousand feet of air and savoring every delectable and jaw-droppingly beautiful moment of it. As we returned to the ground and spent days utterly fatigued from our time on the wall —climbing, jugging ropes and hauling our behemoth haul bags of gear up the face takes an impressive toll— the summer vacation crowds began to turn the valley loop into a bumper-to-bumper nightmare and it was clear that my visit had come to a close. Already I knew which routes were waiting for me whenever it would be that I returned, and despite it all, return I will.

A sunset panorama from the top of Tahquitz, a granite formation in the mountains of Idyllwild in southern California.

A view up Pratt's Crack Gully outside Bishop, CA. The massive granite corners on the left side each sport classic lines in addition to many more with a view into the alpine rock above. A playground of epic proportions that included backcountry skiers cruising down past us as we enjoyed our climbs.

The Summit of Higher Cathedral Rock in Yosemite with the boys from Frey. Somehow fitting that my trip to Patagonia would send me home with new climbing partners for a chapter in California.

Casey follows me through a demanding squeeze-chimney a few hundred feet off the ground on our way up the Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock

The view up-valley from HCR's summit betrays the scale and quantity - there's alot of granite in that valley.

A sunset view from the summit of the Sentinel.

A shot Drew took of me belaying - in the background the sharp spire on the right is the proud Sentinel.

Taking in the views from the meadow with Casey and Drew.

Drew following some classic 5.10 handcrack at Reed's Pinnacle in the Valley

One of the more unique climbs I've ever done, on Casey's recommendation we headed up for an adventurous (and yes, a bit scary) route directly to the left of the 1500' Yosemite Falls called 'Via Aqua'.

A view looking down as Aaron followed a pitch on Via Aqua, you might be able to imagine the thunderous roar of Yosemite Falls cascading next to and below us. Wild!

El Capitan, viewed from Higher Cathedral Rock. Our route started in the middle of the lighted left face and trended up and right until it joined with the Nose at the edge of the shadow in the middle below the top.

Aaron leads the famous 'Great Roof'

I really shouldn't have let Aaron get the Great Roof AND the notorious Pancake Flake, pictured here.

A pic of me on lead that Aaron snapped after I made a big traverse before joining up with the famously popular route 'The Nose' below the Great Roof.

I try not to make a point of taking selfies but this one had to happen - a view of our portaledge camp on the wall.

A short video clip I shot from our portaledge as we enjoyed the sunrise before topping out.