A 2-day mass assault on a misplaced chunk of Yosemite

I exit the CA-99 freeway at Rosedale in Bakersfield. I am to pick up Geoff Jennings in a matter of minutes, provided I can find his place. After slightly misinterpreting his directions, I find myself miles outside of the city limits, wondering if perhaps I’ve gone too far…

After a couple hours of pleasant conversation on the road, we find ourselves at an extremely crowded Starbucks on the outskirts of Fresno. The mall containing the coffe house is jam-packed with Friday-night party seekers. I’m surprised how many of these kids look like they’ve stepped out of the 70’s Disco/cocaine scene – afro’s, sideburns, and green corduroy bell-bottoms . The traffic flows slowly like blood through clogged arteries. We cop some coffee and split.

Highway CA-41 slips by like a luminous striped serpent under my headlights. Just past Oakhurst we make a right turn onto Sky Ranch Road, ascending, as we do, one more level above city life. The cool, quiet forest of firs and hemlocks is a welcome sight.

We arrive at Fresno Dome Campground at about midnight. Geoff immediately recognizes some cars, so we pull in and unpack. Within minutes, Geoff has his spot set and crashes for the night. I’ve got the pre-climb jitters and can’t sleep, so I go for a walk.

A mile and a half of moon-lit road later I am standing above a long cascade, shimmering and foaming through an open glade. A Jeep passes, and I wave. They pass and I am alone again. I continue up the road, with hopes of reaching the Dome tonight, but my plans are about to be derailed.

I pass a few snow patches, and see headlights illuminating the deep forest ahead. The Jeep has become stuck (high-centered) in a large snow patch, and the occupants are trying in vain to dig it out. I try to help for a few minutes, but without any tools the situation is utterly hopeless. I decide to break out the Big Guns.

One of the occupants of the Jeep, Kyle, volunteers to walk the 2 miles back to camp with me to fetch my truck. As we walk, we wax philosophical about “God or No” and “Gee, the World seems screwed up…”

We reach camp and I ‘wake’ Geoff to tell him I’ll be gone a few minutes. Kyle and I return to the stuck Jeep and quickly free the poor thing from it’s icy trap. The other Jeep occupant, Fletch, turns out to be a counsellor at the nearby Christian camp. This is an odd coincidence, as Geoff had mentioned on the way up that one of our group was a part-time volunteer nurse for the camp. Fletch invites me to the camp for a meal to repay my kindness. I half-decline, knowing that we are on a ‘climbers’ schedule this weekend. We part ways, and I return to camp and crash for the remainder of the wee hours.

Up too early! It’s chilly, but not overly cold out. A constant flow of laughter parallels the gurgle and murmer of the nearby stream. What could possibly be so funny?!? Oh, yeah…there are a bunch of climbers standing around that table. Just about everything they say can be construed as humor.

I head over to the table and am introduced. I’m delighted to find that we are a very mixed bunch, except (as Geoff mentioned) for the lack of lady climbers!!

We sip coffee and chat and laugh for a while, as we all make last-minute checks before the hike to the Dome. I know these guys must be alright when none of us objects to Ray ‘recycling’ the coffee grounds in his overfilled french press…

We head up the road toward the trailhead, but are stopped a few hundred yards short by more snow. Crossing the stream, we head to the top of a flat ridge behind the Dome, then set up camp at a spot with a view right past the Dome all the way down to Fresno and beyond. Nice!

Everyone is eager to hit the rock. We quickly rack and head down…yes, the approach from here is DOWN. Isn’t that nice? After about 10 minutes of hiking and 20 minutes of topo-deciphering we decide to climb a route we think is on the topo, but actually isn’t. Geoff and I are the first team, with Bob, Christian, and Renee in the second.

Geoff leads off and gardens his way up the wide, discontinuous crack. An easy, but dirty lead. I follow and, after reaching the belay, we move to the next ledge up. With perfect hindsight, I reflect that I should have bought that 60m rope on sale, rather than the new cams. The second pitch is much nicer, following face moves under a right-facing corner. As Geoff nears the end of the rope, he has to run it out a bit. He sets a belay and brings me up. I find him at a semi-hanging stance just above some blank-ish face moves. He assures me the moves aren’t so bad, and they aren’t. Definitely not 5.6! Again, we move the belay about 25 feet to a huge ledge. Geoff warns the other team not to follow us, though where they SHOULD go is not obvious to any of us.

The third pitch looks easy, except for one spot at the apex of a small, left-facing arch. The ledge we are on looks like it wraps around the Dome, and may provide an exit. We discuss it, but decide to keep going. Geoff climbs the pitch, but sounds ambivalent about the climbing. He also notes the distinct odour of rodent pee whafting up from behind a huge detached flake. Any doubs I have melt when I see him dispatch the ‘tough spot’ with ease. He puts me on belay, and I eagerly attack the flake. I find the climbing on this pitch to be quite to my liking! I can see daylight behind the detached flake, as I heel-toe up the offwidth crack between it and the main wall. Some face moves at the top of the flake put me at the excellent belay.

We are again on a huge ledge. Above is about half a pitch of crackless, boltless friction moves. We see another possible exit to the right, but both of us are into finishing. Geoff leads off again, and after wandering around and reaching a point about 40 feet above the ledge, requests that I take him off belay and spot him! WTF, I think. This isn’t a boulder problem! We’re 400 freakin’ feet off the ground! Oh, well. At least I’M tied in. I remind him of this, and ask him to reconsider, but he’s a persistent chap. He gracefully finishes the fricton and wanders left under a man-high arch to the summit. I follow the pitch, which turns out to be enjoyable friction climbing, and we rejoice in the breezy afternoon on the summit!

Geoff heads over to the southeast-ish edge of the summit to try to spot the Bob/Christian/Renee team. I snap a few pictures. Karl and his partner (I don’t remember who was on his team for that one) appear at the top of the South Pillar while we are there. We head back to camp to rest for a few minutes. Since my training regimine is primarily bicycling, my arms have tired and I decide to relax for the rest of the day. Geoff taps out another partner, and they split for another few hours. I sit in camp and snack for a while, but I am interrupted by yet another strange coincidence.

A pretty, slender blonde lady strolls into camp, children and over-sized puppy in tow, and asks if I can pull her van out of the snow. How’bou’that?!? Two rescues in less than 24 hours! I hike back to the road with Linette (I think that’s how it’s spelled) and pull her van out of the snow. She thanks me by informing me that she is a maseuse, and gives me a ‘one free massage’ card with her cell phone number scrawled on the back. Now I know where to unwind after my next climbing day at Yosemite!

Back at the Ranch…

Evening is upon us. I drink beers with Bob and Christian while we await the others. Dinner is simple…two kinds of pasta, one with veggie sauce, but the other has been tainted by something called ‘chicken powder’ that the vegitarians in the group denounce as a contaminant. The rest of us scarf it unconsciously. Some wine is consumed, but, sadly, we have no hard-core winos in the group. The remainder of the bottle is sacrificed to the Mountain Gods.

Individuals begin tol wander off at about 9:00 to get some sleep. I head off and read myself to sleep. I hear faint voices, laughter, a relaxed tone in the center of camp, then silence, then I doze…

Part 2: Our heroes find themselves adrift on a sea of powdered chicken heads

Dawn…and I’m still asleep.

Another subalpine start. The morning is warm. I realize I’m overdressed the moment I exit the tent. I seem to be holding up the party. Coffee…coffee…um…oh, yeah. The food bag, my food bag, is hung out of reach of rodents. I AM holding up the party.

We fill up on jo and hit the trail. Another round of Topo Pictionary is held at the base of a wall that looks vaguely like an area in the guide. Lessee…4 bolts, many chicken heads, 2-bolt belay…this must be it. We take turns testing what appears to be a 5.8 friction start wrongly mated to a 5.4-rated route. But, no, the topo is indeed correct…a distinctive grey patch of rock at the base of the pitch is clearly and accurately drawn on the topo…hmmm.

OK, my turn to lead. I rack up with a sparse set of quickdraws and some single-length slings, then spend a few minutes doing the twist on the tricky start. After 25 feet I reach the first bolt, now climbing scoops and knobs on what I would consider easy 5.4, if that. From then on, it gets easier, though the bolts are placed a sporty 30 feet apart. I sling one knob halfway, not sure where the next bolt will appear. About the time the knobs disappear, and with 20 feet of rope left, I reach a nice ledge beneath the anchor. Somewhat fun, but also rather easy. I belay Christian up, and then Bob and Geoff follow.

The options ahead look bleak. There is a line of bolts that diagonals up and right, leading under a huge blob of overhanging rock. That way must be the easy walk-off the book mentions, though by now we are all ready to cremate the book and give it an airial burial. The other way, up and left, wouhd have us follow a 5.9 unprotected traverse. Neither option really appeals to us, so we decide to rap and find a more interresting route.

Geoff and I decide, after some trepidation on my part, to try the South Pillar. At least I appreciate the airy nature of the line. It looks very much like a mountaineering route, not really a crag route. The thought twists it’s tendrils into my psyche, and I can no longer resist. I blurt out an enthusiastic “OK!!”

We start in a chinquapin bush at the toe of the pillar. Geoff hops onto a big ledge, clips a bolt, and continues up over varied terrain. Near the end of the pitch, he climbs out near the right edge of the pillar, closer to space. I cringe, fearing that the move he just made will be a test for me. As I follow, I see the creativity required to lead this pitch…mostly tied-off knobs, very little gear. About halfway, I get a surprise. A nice offwidth crack reminds me that I still have nerves in my skin. The rest of the pitch, though airy, is actually fun.

The belay is set among loose blocks perched atop the lower buttress of the pillar. Straight up looks tricky at best, and up-left-ish looks good but leads into the unknown. I waffle, but eventually accept the lead. The first move is easy. Stand on the tip-top loose block in the pile and crank up every nerve to sense even a micron of movement. Sprung like a cat, I ease onto the face above…and the tension subsides. More easy moves, a big horn to yard on, and onto a ledge, but no good pro yet…the wind is picking up…Gawd! that’s a long way down… …down to 1/3 of a liter of water… …WE ONLY BROUGHT ONE ROPE!

That is a smack in the face. I look above me. A broad expanse of knob-like protrusions lay spread across a 100′ by 100′ area, and looks easy to climb but extremely difficult to protect. Above that, a blank swath, 20′ high, seems to shout down “OBSTACLE!” The few moments of mental cartwheels I’ve just done fill me with an irrational dread. I can acknowledge that it is irrational, and examine the fear like an object I hold in my hand. I turn it over and over, and see it’s facets, but like a jewler fearing to destroy an exquisite stone, I cannot bring myself to chip away at my fear.

I have not begun to jabber, but Geoff senses my concern. He asks if I can bring him up from where I am. I set a quick belay – two tied-off knobs and a funky cam – and do it. We discuss things, and I waffle. The way ahead looks so interresting, and I really would like to tick this one, and I’d hate to kill Geoff’s good time. AAARRRRGGGHHHH!! I express a not-totally-committed ‘down’ vote, and I also prepare to accept a decision to go up. Let’s face it…descent would be tricky from here, especially with only one rope.

After making a brief recon, Geoff builds a belay and brings me over to the head of a class-4 chimney he’s located. He relates the plan, and I set off down the chimney, reverse-leading. I have very little gear with me, but it doesn’t matter…there aren’t many placements to be found anyway. I make a a controlled slide out of the sphincter of the chimney, onto a tilted ledge about 60 feet off the ground. Looks like a simple rap if I can just find an anchor. I build a cheesy belay – a four-cam and a three-cam – in the only convenient crack.

Geoff begins his descent. Things are flowing right along, until he hits the squeeze at the bottom of the chimney. He gets wedged in tight, and is making horrendous faces, and noises that are pretty bad, too. I cower on the ledge, whispering to myself…”Please don’t fall…Please don’t fall…Please don’t…”

He hits the ledge. He’s in pain. I try not to aggrevate him. He has crushed his rib cage trying to save our butts. I give him unlimited time to rest, but after a couple minutes, he gets up and peeks around the corner…and immediately sends back positive vibrations! He has found a small tunnel under a flake, perfectly positioned to thread a rope and make the short rap to the ground.

We’re on the ground, and I’m pulling the rope…slowly. Geoff takes over, and shows me what 50 extra pounds and lots of sailing experience can do. The rope is free, we pack up, and hit the trail.

On the way out, Geoff talks to another team about the route, and they tell him we probably stopped just before it gets easier. When I hear this, my heart sinks. I know it is good ettiquete to listen to your partner when he want’s to go down, but I feel bad for making such a choice before we really gave it the old Harvard try. Oh, well…there will be other days, other climbs.

Overall, I had a great time! Thanks for everyone being really mellow. Sorry I didn’t bring enough beers…only so much room in the pack!

And…a BIG thanks to Geoff for being a crafty, level-headed climber and teaching me a few things!!!

Tom Kenney

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