I blame Bill Wright and Greg Opland. Bill for giving Evan the beta and Greg for asking about the descent. Would you guys please stop encouraging this man?
It's the usual Friday evening join the dots, Bay Area, Oakdale, Camp 4. Tonights excitement is is to be obtained from sitting in an Arco station in Oakdale watching some guy spend 10 minutes cleaning his windshield and then driving off with the filler hose still stuck in his gas tank, twangggg. Despite noticeably heavier traffic the drive up is quick. A big difference between Camp 4 three weeks ago and Camp 4 tonight. Were did all these people come from? We park in the lodge lot and walk back to squeeze ourselves into the corner of some site that doesn't look too crowded. Wanting an early start we sort gear and rack up before knocking back a couple of beers, going over the topo one more time and then crashing. Either the beer worked or I'm getting used to camping again, I actually get more than a couple of hours sleep.
Not as much sleep as I want because at 5.45 Evan's watch starts bleeping. As far as I can tell it's just as dark outside as it was six hours ago. Still we did say we wanted an early start. I pull on what seems like too much polypro and crawl out of the tent. OK, so it's not quite that dark.
We do as we are told by the Reid guide and park in the turnout 1.3 miles from the junction of 140 and 41. Welcome to Middle Cathedral, East Buttress here we come. The route starts on top of a pedestal on the left (i.e. east) side of Middle, rather an obvious place to put the East Buttress route. The hike to the base of the pedestal is straightforward. We have studiously ignored the topo directions and now attempt the right side of the pedestal rather than the gully hike round the left. The left way has got to be easier, for instance it probably doesn't have snow, ice and wet moss. Chances are that you can do it without resorting to hook placements and a lot of grunting.
On top of the pedestal we watch as the sun beams in across the valley and strikes El Cap. Not a bad place to be at 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning. Like refugee sport climbers we tape our fingers as the sun finds it's way round to us. Evan takes the first couple of pitches which are short and simple. I realize about now that we forgot the headlamps. I mention this to Evan who takes it as a criticism of his lead speed. As I follow the first pitches it becomes very clear that we have "Way Too Much Crap" in the pack. Most of it is polartec we needed for the approach but not now that the sun is on the route. With the pack on I can't tilt my head back to look up.
I take the third pitch which is the first of the days 5.7 liebacks and is also much shorter than I was expecting. Much cursing as the quality of the tape we used becomes apparent. It's sliding off my fingers at the most inopportune moments. We leave the first few pitches littered with tape jammed in the backs of cracks where it worked loose. Evan follows and makes the "Way Too Much Crap" discovery about the pack. We decide to haul it.
The next pitch is more 5.7 liebacking and leads up to the headwall and the bolt ladder. I fire off while following this pitch but it's no big deal. What is sobering is to realization that this is as far as the first ascent party got on day one. The belay here is a reasonably spacious broken ledge system. We catch our breath and check out the scenery, watching the birds swoop about below us, twittering. The traffic is building up on the valley floor and we can clearly hear the tour bus commentary.
The next pitch goes at A1 or 10c. Evan goes up to look at the 10c. He says that it looks climbable but the bolts are off to the side of the free line and now is maybe not the best time to score more hardman points at the risk of crashing into these ledges. Time to break out the slings. Off the ladder there is a 5.9 move up and over an edge. Evan takes some time trying to protect it, he mentions a couple of fixed cams up under there and I have booty visions. Soon Evan is over and it's my turn.
I've never done a bolt ladder before. I rig some slings and have at it. It is not a pretty sight. I get to the 5.9 move and the cams. All booty visions are quickly dispelled. These pieces are so trashed I wouldn't even clip them. I have to rest on the rope before pulling through the move but I make it eventually. The pitch felt strenuous rather than technically difficult but I'm no expert.
Part way up one of the earlier pitches we heard voices below us. We keep checking but see no signs of another party. Indeed we see no one else all day. Hardly the crowded climb we were expecting.
It's at this point that the route forks. The classic line goes right which means so do we. The traverse is supposedly 5.7 but the first part doesn't look very protectable. In the end there are a couple of fixed pins and only really one difficult move. Evan takes the pitch, has a gnarly bout of sewing machine leg trying to fiddle a small nut into a horizontal flare but other than that he makes light work of it. I don't realize just how far he has traversed until I cut the pack free for the haul. All those horror stories about the importance of lowering bags out come to mind. As I let go the pack swings across the face, picking up speed and bouncing madly. I have visions of the whole thing exploding and showering our gear like confetti down the climb. Evan gets a better view, he hears a skittering crescendo as the bag accelerates into view, skips across the face and then flies out of his view on the other side. He's still laughing about it when I get up to him.
I follow the traverse without any real problems except possibly in my head. The climbing hasn't been too steep nor the exposure very noticeable but something is reminding me that we are quite a ways up. Too many conflicting emotions to analyze right now, it's my lead.
All this 5.7 liebacking is starting to get repetitive. I also have very limited crack technique (i.e. none to speak of) so I'm jamming available body parts into things and muscling up as best I can. On this pitch I compound my flailing by making two mistakes. The first comes when I commit to a move over a rounded bulge with nothing to really hold on to and nowhere to put my feet. I slither off the bulge and grab the rope. I make it the second time, barely. The second mistake is that I get us off route. At one point there is a choice of two left facing cracks. The left one isn't much to look at so I head off up the right one. A short traverse left at the top of this puts me in what I assumed was the 5.7 flared groove on the topo. Looking at the topo later I may be as much as a whole pitch higher than I should be and quite a bit further right. I'm also about as far out on lead as I've ever been, I'm more than a little tense and as far as I'm concerned, this is as far as I'm going for the moment. I have a problem. This is not the best belay stance I've ever seen. Actually it's not the stance that's marginal, it's the pro. The back of the groove is a very thin crack with one fixed pin. I rig an anchor consisting of three nuts, none bigger than a #4 stopper. Oh yes, I do use that #4 Camalot with good contact on possibly 2 cams. Large parts of my brain are out to lunch and I can't accomplish simple things like a clove hitch. Getting things rigged takes five times longer than it should. This whole setup sucks.
Evan has to stop on the top of a flake ten feet below the belay so that I can lower the pack down to him in order to make space at the stance. When he gets up to me we swap the rack. Evan climbs off the belay with great difficulty because I have gear stuck in anything that resembles a hold. Just short of half a rope length out Evan realizes what has happened, we should be further left of where we are. Faced with backing off, which looks tricky, we elect to push on. Following this pitch I take another fall just as I'm cleaning a piece. As a result I wedge my hand between the draw and the rope leaving me hanging rather awkwardly. I struggle out of that and finish the pitch.
At this point we are right of, and a little above, an equivalent belay on the actual route. Unfortunately there's no obvious traverse and a pendulum is pretty much out of the question. On the other hand the line up from where we are looks possible and Evan decides to try it. Off the belay he gets a couple of pieces in before things get sketchy. Stemmed out in the crack system he comes unstuck. We go into fall montage mode. As the rope comes tight it burns through my left hand, I see a piece pull and brace to be landed on but no impact. Back in real time I'm saying "A piece pulled" over and over again. Evan is fine, it was the lower of the two pieces that got jerked out. Evan catches his breath, I check out the interesting white marks on my hand. Relief drowns out the background silence of the day.
A change of tack is called for and Evan traverses right about four feet into another crack system. He makes it quite a way up this putting in a nut which pops out as soon as he gets above it. Further up he gets in another nut and then traverses left back into the original crack. I don't like the idea of having to traverse out to clean that nut but hey no problem, a couple of moves later it pops out too. By now Evan has more gear in and he has broken out the aid slings again. The next thirty or forty feet of the line is directly above me and every piece of crap that gets kicked loose lands in my face. Most of it is just dirt but I'm occasionally surprised by a small rock.
Evan's crack technique relies on a lot of stemming which viewed from below always looks sketchy. I get so tense watching this pitch that I think I would have been better off trying to lead it myself. The line finally breaks left over a slight bulge and I loose sight of him. Not long after that Evan's off belay and hauling, again I get showered with crap. Following this pitch turns out to be as hard as watching it led. Somehow I get up without resting on the rope but I certainly call "take" a significant number of times.
The next pitch looks easy and I lead off up it. There's a fifteen or twenty foot traverse left and then up into minor vegetation. It's pretty much a cruise but rather loose and dirty, ample evidence that it's not the real line. At the top it looks like we are in 3rd & 4th class heaven so I anchor to a tree and bring Evan up. He's just started off when I realize there are quite a lot of ants where I'm sat. Evan's up in no time so I get the chance to move.
Some discussion of our options results in Evan racing off up the 3rd and 4th class stuff to see what he can find. I belay him through a lot of trees. When I get up to him some things start to become clear:
Evan does some exploring involving me lowering him a long way from a very uncomfortable stance. When he gets back we are none the wiser and have less daylight remaining. It's looking bleak until we scout right and round an improbably corner. Here we hit pay dirt and what is probably the Kat Walk. I say probably because Evan still doesn't think this is where we are. His point is that there appears to be no obvious connection from here out right to the DNB area. I understand his position but maybe we aren't looking in the right place.
At this point we are in a hurry, I stuff things into the pack, stick both ropes in the rope bag and chase after Evan. We work up and left. We come to a very cush looking bivy sight, talk about it for a moment then press on. Keeping left and moving down slightly we eventually run out of ideas, ground and then light. The last clear vision of the day is of Evan stood at the end of the trail we were following looking at hundreds of feet of sheer drop. You can't always get what you want and tonight it seems we aren't even going to get what we need. Consensus is, we are in for a long night. We find a patch of level ground at the base of a small cliff and settle down. Time for another power bar and the last of the water. It's 8.30 and we've been on this rock 13 hours.
The tension that had built up over the last two or three hours slides away. We sit watching the stars emerge as we unwind. All that polypro which seemed excessive this morning starts to feel like a much better idea. The after glow of the climbing effort carries me through the first hour and into sleep. At least it would if the dreams hadn't started. It's odd, not a problem I've ever had before. As soon as I start to doze off I have vivid dreams of rolling from bivy ledges, grabbing rotten spikes and peeling off rocks into oblivion. No need for a direct call to Mr Freud for that little lot. Evan has dream problems too. He's having a dream in which he's dreaming that he's stuck on a rock after a climb. In the dream within a dream he's thinking "Hey, no problem, all's I need to do is wakeup and there I'll be, warm and snug in bed with Christi". Problem is, when he does wake up, there's just the hard ground, the rock and my faint resentment at his snoring.
Somewhere around 10.30 or 11 the warmth of the day is burned off and I start to get chilly. Now I'm discovering that two one quart Nalgene bottles don't make a good pillow and that we shouldn't have passed up that cush bivy site. The night passes as a series of tableau. No position seems comfortable for more than half an hour, I'm not cold enough to shiver but I'm too cool to sleep much. The ropes make damn poor blankets but we use them all the same. In actual fact we are very lucky with the weather, only a slight modification in the conditions and this bivy could easily have been an order of magnitude worse. Every so often we stamp around and remind ourselves of this fact. At one point I wake up to find Evan towering over me with the exciting news that he has found a great offwidth crack. I am so overcome by this revelation that I roll over and go back to sleep.
Not long after dark I hear something that I at first mistake for a distant crowd cheering. It quickly becomes clear that it's the not so distant sound of rock and ice tearing off Higher Cathedral and ricochetting down the Cathedral Chimney. It's one of those horrifyingly beautiful sounds that serves as a good reminder of how much worse things could be, or might get. The falls continue at intervals throughout the night.
The moon appears a couple of hours before first light and an occasional breeze drifts through to remind us how lucky we are that it's been still. Night gives way to day with exquisite slowness, sunlight filtering in to replace the glow of the moon, gradually bringing us back to a place we can recognize. We pack and rack gear in the last of the gloom and then plot our next adventure. We make a mistake here by not further scouting out the area we looked at in the last light of Saturday. Instead we set off back up and left, looking for the 4th class down climbing we are expecting. In reality we must already be well left of that.
Some scrambling up dirty gullies brings us out onto open low angle slabs directly across from Higher Cathedral. At this point I think we are too far left, Evan thinks we are not far enough left. We talk about it. There is some possibility that we can get down into the Chimney from closer to the junction of Middle and Higher. We work up and left towards that point. While the slabs here are largely 3rd class they are wet and icy in places and I know that it's a hell of a long way down over the edge, I let that get to me. This is about as uncomfortable as I've been since we started. In a couple of places we break out a rope as we keep moving left. When we get to the bushes we were aiming for it's clear that we are again significantly out of luck. The descent into the Chimney would require us to climb up even higher before setting off down. The raps would leave us in no mans lands with a lot of wet, low angled slabs, snow, ice and all that crap that's still peeling off Higher and firing down into the Chimney every five minutes. Maybe it's more reasonable in summer, maybe we could wait, maybe pig will fly.
Looking back the way we came things look more attractive and now possibly even more realistic. A solitary tree can be seen projecting over the cliff where we stopped the night before. From below, out of our previous view, a buttress rises up to join that a couple of hundred feet beneath the tree. Before we set off back across the slabs I ask for a five minute break to choke down a power bar. In reality I'm psyched and need to get a grip. We don't reverse our entire path, only part of it and then start rapping to get to a prominent tree. From that we rap back into our bivy site. This is not the most rewarding experience of the weekend. The rope gets stuck on this rap but it only takes me a couple of minutes to walk round to the tree, free the rope and then scramble back down to the bivy. While I'm away Evan has found a tree with slings on. Not a guarantee of correctness but as close as we've come so far.
It isn't difficult to see why we had missed this tree the previous evening, it looks highly unlikely. None the less we scramble and hand over hand rap down to it and add another sling to the nest. We are both tense, rapping into the unknown isn't a huge grin and I recognize that I'm putting a lot of responsibility on Evan. As he slips over the edge to deal with the unknown, I'm left to deal with my own fears and inadequacies. So begins the longest, steepest and most "interesting" set of raps of my short climbing career.
The rap route probably goes with a single rope but we are using doubles (i.e. "Way Too Much Crap") which allows us to skip the 3rd station. Not a bad idea given that it appears to be a lot of slingage wrapped around a weed. Below this things are rather blank and Evan is getting uncomfortably close to the end of the ropes before he comes over a roof and lands face first in relief writ large in the form of a tree. This station turns out to be a really neat place, no ledge, just the horizontal trunk of the tree to sit in. All well and good until I get the pack hung up on a branch as I try to leave.
The first set of raps puts us into a notch between Middle and a spire in the gully. Approaching this notch I think we are down at last. No such luck. Perhaps braver souls would try down climbing from here, we are back in rap mode. We find slings on the up gully side of the notch. Closer examination of the rap station reveals that it is alive with ants. At this point we've used all of the spare webbing we brought and we start cutting up a cordalette as alternative material. From this point it looks possible to rap left into the gully or right into a grim looking slot. We choose left and find our doubled ropes (one 55m and one 50m) leave us 20' short of the ground. A short rap puts us down into a virgin bush (no slings, a good indication that everyone else goes right) and from here a long rap puts us into the gully and we are down. With more than a little releaf I pull the ropes for the last time and we pack for the hike out. It's 10.30.
There is snow in the gully which actually makes the first part of the hike out slightly easier. Especially as I send Evan out ahead to do all the postholing. The guy just didn't get a break today. Once we are into talus its more hoping and slogging. It takes about an hour to get to the car from the bottom of the last rap. By the time we get to the road we're running a little low on gas. I'm sweating so I can't be too dehydrated. We are both thirsty enough to choke down some vile ersatz fruit punch from that Arco station in Oakdale.
It's too late for breakfast in the 4 Seasons so we have to slum it in the cafeteria. There we shovel down food and slurp liquids and start to dial back the intensity level we've been keeping up. We pick over the remains of the food and the experiences of the last day. So, lets see, we had "Way Too Much Crap", we were slow, we were off route, we hadn't planned to bivy, we didn't find the descent we were looking for. But then again, the weather was great, the climbing good (probably cleaner and drier than the Nutcracker had been three weeks earlier), the bivy was the right thing to do, we found a descent, I didn't beat Evan to death with a big stick for getting me into all of this and I found a great way of giving my pack that "lived in" look.
In light of our general condition, our plans for further climbing this weekend quietly evaporate. We doze in the warm tent before leaving for home. In the meadows we stop and look across at Middle, point, laugh and snap photos while El Cap radiates it's usual mute challenge at our backs.