Yosemite: Sunshine Winter Climbing Trip Report

(by John Duignan, December 2011)
Climbing at Yosemite … “there is enough to keep you coming back year after year. A great antidote to the Wintertime Blues!”

“Never go back to a place that has great memories for you”

The thought struck me as we travelled Highway 120 to Yosemite National Park, California, late last year. Half a lifetime ago I’d hiked the wilderness John Muir trail through the Park. Late September 2010, I’m back to climb some of the famous Yosemite granite routes with Hugh Reynolds, my IMC climbing partner. Twenty-six hours travel from Dublin, we set up tent amongst the pine trees, the fresh pine smell and the warm air a great change from the cold of a Dublin autumn.

Camp Four, a first-come-first-served campsite with a strict length of stay, is a Mecca for climbers from all over the world, many for the Big Wall aid-climbing that makes the Valley famous.

The busy tourist period is over, so it’s easy to move around the park. Day number one and a bear cub is ambling by searching for food – so cute. I follow it until I recall that mother bear may not be as friendly. Later in a neighbouring tent, a climber having a midnight snack gets his face swiped by a bear clawing at the food.

Routes such as Snakedike on Half Dome …

… and Royal Arches in Yosemite Valley …

… attract us here – moderate multipitch climbing on excellent rock at around VS level. The granite, we hear, needs its own style of climbing and the crack and chimneys will be difficult for us to appreciate as the grading system alone does not capture the challenge.

Royal Arches – polished chimney start

We explore the start of Royal Arches, a five-star 5.7 route with its pendulum aid move in the middle of its 1600 feet – 16 pitches of superb granite climbing. I’m spat out of the polished chimney start. Hugh succeeds but gets a shoulder injury that nags him for the trip. We abseil off and go in search of easier routes to start our trip.

Curry Village: Spend your energy climbing and avail of the cheap laidback dining with pizza and beer in an all-American atmosphere. Most evenings after a day climbing we kick back and enjoy the display. The friendly natives’ optimism is infectious.

Glacier Point Apron – climbs in the shade

Glacier Point Apron next day offers relaxed slab climbing and time to appreciate the feel of Yosemite granite. Monday Morning Slabs and The Goblet offer friction climbing on multipitch routes at an easy level. A great confidence boost.

We next choose the route Munginella, a four-star 5.6 multipitch climb in the Five Open Books area of the valley. The climb is shared with one other climbing pair and has a great view over Half Dome and the Valley. In the afternoon we go for another four-star climb, After Six on Manure Pile Buttress (Nutcracker, our original plan, is busy and dauntingly polished).

After Six – a 6-pitch climb on Manure Pile Buttress

In all we get in over a thousand feet of valley granite climbing at two crags. We descend the trail in the dark. The climbing has been challenging at times with polish on some of the pitches but the overall feeling is sheer joy at the quality granite and the views.

Looking up the valley from belay on After Six, Manure Pile Buttress

Glacier Point Apron again next day to enjoy a five-star 5.6 multipitch, The Grack – a stunning crack climb in the shade as the temperature is still in the high 20s. We are using less energy now in finding the routes and getting more confident.

South-east Buttress on Cathedral Peak, Tuolumne Meadows

At sunup the following day, we escape the heat of Yosemite valley and drive the 1.5-hour 60-mile trip to Tuolomne Meadows. Our goal is the South-east Buttress of Cathedral Peak, another five-star route – some 6500 feet above Yosemite. The drive takes us through pine groves and opens onto a view of mountains stretching to the horizon. The walk- in takes two hours. It is cold but beautiful. The 700-foot route is very different to the valley routes – large chickenhead knobs abound on the granite, with flake and chimneys on an ever-changing route under clear blue skies, looking down on a lake. It is a popular route and we meet eight climbers spread out on it. The rich accents of Donegal and Yorkshire mix with Argentina and California. We walk out as the light fades, well satisfied.

Belay, Cathedral Peak, with mountain views

Next day we get a wilderness permit allowing us to go to the Little Yosemite campsite 3.5 hours trek up from Yosemite Valley. This backcountry camp is near Half Dome – we plan to climb the 800-feet five-star 5.7 route Snakedike.

Half Dome in the early morning light

The climbing is at times run out with little protection – what will the knobbly dike entail? In the morning, the heat haze burns off as Half Dome – like a whale’s back – rises above us. It is the most popular climb we have been on and are soon chatting to the other climbers queuing in the dawn light.

The Snakedike on Half Dome

The crux pitch contains scary friction moves. You just don’t want this climb to end it gets so enjoyable. We bought new 60-metre ropes for this climb in the excellent climbing shop in the valley – 50-metre ropes would have made the belays much more difficult. Soon we unrope and scramble the final 800 feet to the summit and chill out on the nine-mile descent to the valley. The views from the summit of Half Dome take in the full of Yosemite valley and as far as Tuolomne. “Awesome” is right!

Next day, back in the valley we hike to the base of El Capitan and view the climbers on the 3000-feet Nose above on aid-climbing routes. We choose a single-pitch 5.7 route Pine Line – you can’t come to Yosemite and not do a climb on El Cap! Faint echoes from the climbers above reach us across the vast granite sea.

Climbing on El Capitan

In the afternoon, we visit Knob Hill, just outside the National Park – a renowned site for short interesting routes at VS level. Anti Ego crack gives Hugh some great jamming and I enjoy the amazing knobs on Sloth Wall after the polished crux lowdown.

Cracks and large chickenheads on Knob Hill

The pace of the last few days is taking its toll on me. I had forgotten how lumpy the ground feels when camping and my sleep is broken. Hugh’s early-morning enthusiasm keeps the fuse lit. We have one final objective.

October starts and we are back at Royal Arches in the early morning. The chimney start goes well – our recce has paid off. The easy pitches are a joy as we ascend out of the valley along the cliff line. There are some amazing flakes and corners to climb on and the granite is excellent throughout. On the easy pitches we climb together. We are aware that often the Pendulum pitch is wet – but thankfully we find it dry.

Hugh makes the pendulum move on Pitch 8 of Royal Arches

The sky darkens as I race across the easy ground of the last pitch .As the rain starts, I take a bruising fall. Later I will have time to think of the possible consequence of a solitary placement on a 60-metre pitch. An abseil down our ascent route is our best option. By the time we have finished the ten abseils, the skies have changed to blue again. Grinning like schoolkids, we hurry off to celebrate.

Still talking to one another after a day’s climbing!

On our final day the rains arrive. It is time to go and we feel fortunate with the weather which shapes so much of what is possible in climbing here. In a short trip, so much is up to Fate but the advice from IMC members Terry O’Neill and Gerry Moss was a great help. Climbing late in the year avoids the heat and the crowds. This is not an expensive destination. The famous climbs on immaculate granite lived up to their reputation – the bonus was the fantastic routes at many other enormous crags offering superb unpolished clean rock. There is enough to keep you coming back year after year. A great antidote to the Wintertime Blues!