Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Yosemite Day One: Swan Slabs Prepares Us In More Ways Than One

We awoke on east-coast time, a good three hours before any sane person on west-coast time should have been slapping the alarm clock off. "PBR" and "Ratherbe" had slept well, as did I, but they had the advantage of brains that allowed them to sleep right up until the point when we all rolled out of bed. The chill in the air was surprising to me. I knew we were up in the mountains, but I didn't expect it to be this cold.

Camp Curry, if one ever decides to stay there, should be saved for the last few days of any trip to The Valley. While we didn't have the expensive tents, we certainly felt as if we were sleeping in camping luxury. Trust me, this place is pretty sweet and you won't want to go anywhere else after staying here (a quick tip - they don't call you on paying for showers if you aren't staying there. In fact, they won't even question you taking a towel. So if you're staying at Camp 4, the chances of getting a free shower at Curry are pretty good). Because we had hoped to add a fourth person, we were spread across the white-canvassed "cabin" in three of the four beds with our overnight gear plopped comfortably on the fourth. "PBR" and "Ratherbe", probably not being as well versed with the hospitality business as I am, chose to not trust the free sheets and blankets and instead snuggle into their down sleeping bags while I pirated the spare wool blankets and zonked after a long day of travelling. And then, for me anyway, the unexpected happened - it got cold.

Let's be clear, I'm living only slightly better than check-to-check these days, so when the weather starts warm up in New England, I turn the thermostat off and put more clothes on when it gets colder than normal. I do the same in autumn; I even went until late November this past winter before turning the heat on (OK, that was less toughness than it was stubbornness. I was trying to get the people on the second floor to get cold first so they'd heat me up instead of the other way around. It turns out that my landlord, who lives on the first floor, turned his heat on first and that heat didn't filter up to the third floor. Second Floor = 1, Greg = 0). Ordinarily, I watch the news and get an idea for how cool it is going to be overnight. If we're in a cold stretch, I wear pants and long-sleeves and maybe throw an extra blanket on. If it's warm, I go with shorts and kick off the unnecessary covers (and if it's hot...wink, wink). So imagine how I felt without having watched the weather report and walking around comfortably in the early evening with jeans and a short-sleeved shirt on. Now imagine how I felt at around 3am the next morning, and at 4am, and at 415am, and at 420am, and at "Jesus, are these guys ever going to get up?" am. I will rarely get out of bed until it's time to get up and start my day. That goes for being cold, being hot, having to use the bathroom, the phone, and whatever else that could get in the way of my personal time to rejuvenate, so I just stayed there suffering and shivering in the cold. Finally, at about 530am I opened my eyes and saw my two partners just crawling out of bed for the first time. I was relieved that I could finally put some clothes on, and I decided to ditch the blankets from then on out in favor of my trusty sleeping bag.

Before I get to the climbing, though, I want to make one more point about my noting of west-coaster's sanity this early in the morning. Upon getting dressed, I livened my spirits a bit by noting that we would be the only fools up this early in the morning, and that likely meant we'd be the first at the crag. So, after completely opening my eyes (a talent I don't often employ first thing in the morning at my own place because why does anyone need to actually open one's eyes to go to the bathroom? We all know it's four steps to the end of the bed, three to the door, four to the living room, and three past the junk table to the toilet don't we?) I took a casual stroll out into the crisp, morning air and across the pine-needle floor to the nearest crapper I could find. And upon entering, I discovered this:

- "Johnny, not that sink, this sink."
- "Dad, can you help me with my toothpaste."
- "Excuse me, but the line for the third urinal starts here. That's the line for the second urinal and / or the first sink, depending on which direction you're going in."
- "Water's only cold in that sink, and only warm in this one."
- "Both work on this one."
- FLUSH..."Uh, dad?"
- "Where y'all hiking to today?"
- "Shit, I forgot my floss."
- "Blue Light Special on aisle sixteen."
- "Dude, my pen doesn't write on these walls."
- "I'll only be a few more minutes, just have to shave this six-inch-growth beard before heading back to the wifey."

The place was an absolute zoo! I guess that was my first lesson about Yosemite Valley: where there should be tourists, there will be tourists.

Sunday - Swan Slabs

Approach: Swan Slabs are a great, small crag for introduction into Yosemite climbing. There are a handful of fun cracks to play on, and one can follow the shade once the sun starts to get warm about mid-morning. If you have a parking pass that is given to you when you stay inside the park, then park across the street in the Yosemite Lodge parking lot. If not, there is day-use parking on either side of the street near the Yosemite Falls Bus Stop. Parking is limited here, as it is not a real lot but more parallel parking along the side of the road, instead. The SuperTopo guidebook says to park at Camp 4, but Camp 4 has a separate parking pass for Camp 4 only, so don't do that unless you're staying there. However, for direction's sake, if you're heading from Camp 4, walk toward Yosemite Falls and you'll see the slabs in less than two minutes. The Yosemite Falls area on the other side of Swan Slabs from Camp 4 is on the same side of the street, and the Lodge's parking lot spans the distance for each location (Falls and Camp 4) but is across the street. If coming from Camp 4, one of the first climbs you'll see is:

Oak Tree Flake (5.6) - Trad - 65 feet - Webbing Anchors at the upper, small tree - Greg Led

This was my first ever Yosemite climb, and my suggestion is pretty much to skip the damn thing. I guess it has a couple of moves that technically make it a 5.6, but it's quite a bit easier than that. But, to be more objective, this climb protects well and requires larger cams through the middle and upper part of the flake. Lieback the right-facing flake to the ledge and then head up right to the next tree where the anchors are. The upper section requires smaller gear and is the more difficult section of the climb. Technically, this upper section is the finish of Grant's Crack (5.9 - see below) and the SuperTopo guide shows the anchors for Oak Tree Flake at the ledge (making the route only 50 feet by their calculation). However, unless I'm totally blind, those anchors are no longer there. The upper anchors will work just fine, even if you rap and clean the route yourself, which I did.

Because a few events happened out of sequence in how I write my reports, I will make two notes here for the sake of reference later on. The first is that if you climb at Swan Slabs and don't know where the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is, you will within the first 15 minutes after you've arrived. Apparently the trail starts at the Yosemite Falls area and heads past Swan Slabs, but there is no signage between the start of Swan Slabs and the end. Many, many, many people will stop and ask this question. Only half will ask how the rope got up there.

The second point is that we met a girl on a round-the-world trip for the summer who I will nickname "Yorkshire" (or maybe "Yorky" for short, because we shortened her real name in this fashion after getting to know her a bit). This is important because, as I noted above, we had tried to establish a fourth partner before flying west and were not succesful. To find her seemed to be a steal, even if we didn't have all of our ropes so that we could climb as two pairs.

Grant's Crack (5.9) - Trad - 65 feet - webbing anchors at the upper, small tree - Greg and "PBR" led

Grant's Crack is the thin finger crack that runs above a split boulder that is leaning against the cliff. Climb the boulder to the bottom of the crack (not the top of the boulder) and climb the crack to the ledge. The anchors are above the ledge at the small tree about 15 feet up. The start is about 15 feet right from Oak Tree Flake.

As soon as we walked up to the slab, "PBR" immediately threw his finger at this crack and stated that would be his first climb. When the question was asked to me if Oak Tree Flake was worth climbing, and when I noted that it wasn't, "PBR" racked up and jumped on the first few face moves like a dog that's been awake for hours and is happy to see it's owner finally wake up, grab the collar, and walk outside for that oh-so-nice piss that's been settling all night long. And then he went and kicked the crap out of it. My understanding is that he rarely jumps on 5.9 first thing in the morning, and to do so on crack, a style that many New Englanders (such as myself) have little opportunity to perfect, and to do it cleanly, was a strong personal accomplishment on his part. He tried to downplay it by noting on his way down that he placed too much gear (which he also noted is normally the case upon cleaning and not upon climbing), but I couldn't disagree more. "Ratherbe" and I needed a bit of a warm up before jumping on this jumbo climb, so we each led Penelope's Problem (5.7 - see below) first and came back to Grant's Crack after that. To be short, "Ratherbe" toproped the route and ran up it as if she had set it. "Yorky" also TR'd it as well and managed to make it to the top with only a couple of falls. I led it and this is kind of how the climb went:

- "Ratherbe" upon racking up after climbing Penelope's Problem: "I think those guys are going to get on your route."
- Me: "Oh, hey guys, sorry, I was just about to jump on this. We were waiting for "Yorky" to come down and it just took a bit of time due to another party going up her descent line."
- Random Guy: "Hey, no problem man. It's kind of warm and I was going get a TR set up for a bunch of people anyway. Take your time. I'd rather stay out of the sun."
- Me: "Thanks, it'll only be a couple of minutes. I won't be quick, but not long, either."

And so began my climb: up the face to the small ledge. Plop first gear in. Check the rock out a bit. Plop second gear in a little higher than the first. Feel the crack, test the feet, come back down to the ledge. Pose for picture. Tug on second piece of gear and stand up in crack. Feel a bit stressed and down climb. Breathe a bit. Talk to "Ratherbe" and feel the sun getting warmer. Make a move past the first piece of gear, set a third, down climb. Get a pep talk from "PBR" about how to "just go for it." Climb up a bit and down climb. Talk to "Ratherbe" again and chalk up. Feel the heat getting warmer. Climb up and commit to moves past third piece of gear, slip, catch myself, warn "Ratherbe" of failure to recommit, fall. Rest. Chalk up. Listen to more pep talk. Receive beta from "Random Guy" (all beta and pep talks welcomed, of course). Place fourth piece of gear from sitting position, make moves past third gear again, get a little higher this time and immediately find the crux. Fall. Make move again. Fall. Make move again. Fall. Place fifth gear from hanging position. Make move again. Fall. Swear. Feel the sun getting progressively warmer. Move, fall, swear. Look for holds on the face. Try face holds, move, fall, swear. Hear "Random Guy" say, "He's working it, let's do Penelope's Problem." Swear under breath (at myself, of course). Try crack a few more times and face just as many times. Fall each time. Wipe swear off forehead, neck, arms, hands, legs. Get beta from "Random Guy" about how it is actually easier to climb the whole crack from the bottom of the crack rather than from the top of the boulder with a traverse into the crack. Down climb. Get in crack from the beginning and find it joyfully easier. Move freely and easily. Find crux. Fall. Swear. Finally, through pure brute stubbornness, dig iron claws into the face and crack each and move past the crux and onto the bulge above the crack. Get down. Drink water. Seriously begin to wonder about climbing in Yosemite. Apologise to "Random Guy" for making him wait.

Penelope's Problem (5.7) - Trad - 65 feet - make your own anchor - Greg and "Ratherbe" led

This is a left-facing flake on an arrete that starts to the left of a gully with a large tree above the gully. It is about 30 feet to the right of Grant's Crack and has another large tree near the base (as well as a log to sit on). There are a few small boulders on the ground to the left with some medium boulders leaning against the left side of the arrete. Climb the flake to the top, then fade right and up to the large tree. It is slightly run-out at the top, but very easy climbing at this point.

Because "Ratherbe" and I weren't at death-defying strength just yet, we chose to lead this before climbing Grant's Crack. This was "Ratherbe"'s first Yosemite climb, and she did rather well with it. The bottom provided some slick challenges before any gear could be placed, but once past that the route climbed nicely. Her initial slip did put her in a bit of a foul mood, but that was short-lived once we moved into the shade. Our biggest issue was when "Yorky" climbed it and subsequently found a party of five climbing the gully right below her descent. She had to wait for the first three to finish that pitch (they were doing a multi-pitch) before she could descend (probably a good 20 minutes). Considering the fact that we only had one set of ropes, this made the wait in the sun a bit discouraging. What also made this wait unfortunate was that we were just beginning to realize that climbing in the middle of the day was not going to be optimal. We had heard it was going to be hot, but we weren't prepared for what that was going to do to our climbing schedule. I think that "PBR" also climbed this route, but he may also have climbed the gully itself. If so, that route is Swan Slab Gully (5.6).

Descent: We were rather surprised to find that the the large tree at the top did not have the anchors that the SuperTopo said were there. As we were climbing in that area, a guide with a group of clients noted to us that when he sees webbing left up there he takes it down out of the fear of it being unsafe (what would this guy do at the 'Gunks, have a seizure?). We mooched off his anchor to lower, but if you're the only party there then you'll need to either leave gear or rap off the tree itself.

And then it was time to find shade. Seriously, it was only about 10am or so (maybe a bit later), but "PBR" was already drained and pushing for an afternoon swim in the Merced River (even though it was only morning and we had only two / three climbs under our belts). I don't blame him, though, as the sun was hot. The good thing about the weather in New England is that we never get extreme weather. Sure, we get our fair share of 90-degree days with 80% and above humidity and enough snow to make us miserable. But we don't get cold weather (not like Minnesota), hot-humid weather (not like Georgia), hot-dry weather (not like Arizona - and apparently Northern California, too), rain (not like Seattle), snow (not like Buffalo), hurricanes (they're always too weak by the time they get to us), tornadoes (the weathermen think there was one in Worcester last year), floods (not like the Mississippi), or any thing else. We have Nor'easters, where the weather comes out of the northeast instead of the southwest, which are our trade winds, and those do wreak havoc. But those are just storms, not extreme weather. I've certainly felt a 30-degree difference in temperature in a 24-hour period before, but I've never felt the temps go from me-being-cold to me-being-hot in less than six hours. Even when I lived in Hawaii when I was a kid the temps were pretty consistent (boringly so, in fact). Scotland? The same as Hawaii with cooler temps. Greece? The only temp changes there occur at different elevations (try hiking Mt. Olympus when it's 100 degrees at the base and 70 two hours uphill, it's FANTASTIC!). Yosemite Valley went from me freezing my nuts off to me wishing I was naked and floating in the sea, and all that between breakfast and lunch. No, I'm not sure I could handle that dramatic of a change on a regular basis.

Claude's Delight (5.7) - Trad - 80 feet - bolted anchors - Greg and "Ratherbe" led

Walk all the way to the far right of Swan Slabs to a left-facing corner that splits in two / three directions about 30 / 40 feet up. Climb to the right at the split for Claude's Delight, the left for Lena's Lieback (5.9), and up a bit to the left and then traverse right onto the face in between Claude's and Lena's to Goat For It (5.10a). The base of this route gets all-day shade while the climb gets some afternoon shade. Either way, because of the shade at the bottom, this climb is bearable when it is in the sun. It also offers a great view of Half Dome at the top. Climb to the top of the corner and find the anchors up left of the large undercling / lieback at the very top. It is possible to climb this route and not use the tree that is mid-way up the route, though everyone else may stick their tongue out at me for being a lonely braggart. (HAHA!)

"Ratherbe" had the first shot on this and it turned her earlier poor spirits completely around. This was probably her favorite climb of the day, as we heard her "woo-hoo" several times on the way up.

Lena's Lieback (5.9) - Trad - 80 feet - bolted anchors - all four toproped

Climb the left-facing corner at the far right of the crag and head left at the split. Follow the lieback all the way to the top, and exit right to the anchors.

This was a fun clim to finish the day on. In fact, "PBR" did laps on it. Because it has the same anchors as Claude's Delight, and because the anchors are directly above Lena's Lieback, this makes for a good toprope. There is also good gear on this route for leading, too.

Goat For It (5.10a) - Mixed - 80 feet - bolted anchors - Greg regrets not climbing this

Climb the left-facing corner at the far right of the crag and head left at the split. Once through the initial lieback section (about 15 past the split), traverse right onto the face. There is a bolt to protect the traverse if leading. If toproping, the SuperTopo guide says to set a directional in the large undercling at the top that is to the right of the anchors and directly above Claude's Delight. A fall at the top without the directional would most definitely result in a swing onto Lena's Lieback where the lieback corner is large enough to prevent one from getting back onto the 5.10 face.

I really wanted to climb this, but I fell to the pressure of climbing Lena's instead. I did enjoy Lena's, even though my three geatest climbing dislikes from worse to best are: Cracks, Liebacks, Roofs. I'm slowly becoming accostomed to roofs, but only just. Someday I'd like to go back and do this route. I feel that it is in my homerun range.

At the end of the day the four of us headed to the Church Bowl area and had dinner. Well, the three of us had dinner while "Yorky" helped us snack on our guacamole chips and salsa. "Yorky" had to leave at some point to catch the shuttle back to her hostel, and we noted that we were going to try to come back to Church Bowl the next day. Unfortunately, after "Yorky" left, "Ratherbe" and I scouted the area and couldn't find for certain any of the climbs at Church Bowl. Frustrated by this, we decided to head to Five-Open-Books the next morning instead. That meant that we wouldn't see "Yorky" the next morning, which was had tentatively discussed. I do feel badly about that, but I also realize that she was travelling on around the world and picking up climbing partners as she went along. I'm sure we weren't the first or the last to do that.

I feel that the next post may be an essay. I hope that I get it out in a reasonable amount of time.

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Jeremiah said...

Hey, sounds like the start of the trip was pretty eventful. I will show you the way of the cracks. That and runout slab climbing. Someday I'll get out there.

GB said...

I don't mind the runout slab stuff, just keep me away from the protectable cracks!