Yosemite

For years, I told myself that I wasn’t going to visit Yosemite until I was a solid 5.11 climber. The idea was loosely based on something that I’d heard about free vs. aid climbing one of the most iconic climbs in the world: The Nose on El Capitan. The more you can free climb, the faster you can move, the more parties you can pass on the congested route, etc., etc.

Here to say: that was dumb. If you’re thinking like this because you have yet to visit Yosemite, don’t be dumb like me. Just go.

Yosemite for me is a full-on, head-to-toe body rush of dopamine. I gasped aloud the fist time I saw Half Dome. I first visited the park from the east entrance, passing through the boundless alpine playground that is Tuolumne. Everywhere you look, granite domes erupt from the ground surrounded piney forests and serene alpine lakes. I have a visceral memory of the first time I drove beneath the hulking mass of El Capitan.

Tuolumne

I spent my first day climbing at Yosemite in Tuolumne (too-all-uh-mee) with a partner I’d met through Mountain Project since I was visiting on a solo trip. His name was Ben and we’d discussed climbing a four-pitch route called Cooke Book on Daff Dome. When we met in the morning, he mentioned that he’d like to get on another route called Crescent Arch nearby too. He seemed confident and knowledgable, so I agreed to it.

Turns out, I hit the Mountain Project partner jackpot that day since Ben was an incredibly solid partner, fun to be around and a fast climber. Ben lead the crux pitches of Crescent Arch which gave me a nice top rope introduction to source of the Yosemite Decimal System and climbing grades that are now generalized to all of American climbing. Yosemite has a reputation for hard climbing. I was concerned about getting in over my head on a route that I’d deemed easy based on the grade, only to be surprised by the Yosemite sandbag. Happy to report that this wasn’t the case. In my experience, Yosemite grades were spot on.

Back to Ben, though. Once we’d topped out Daff Dome by Crescent Arch, we started up Cooke Book. I remember this climb having a really cool traversing mini roof bit on the first pitch, up through a progressively wider crack that flares into almost-offwidth which gave me some difficulty. Ben was super cool and encouraging about it. Once we topped that route out, we decided that we might as well climb the ultra-classic 5.9 route West Crack to really round out our day, 12 pitches later.

I showed up to Yosemite with little in the way of plans. No camping reservations. No partners. Just me, my rack and the new Tuolumne guidebook I’d purchased in Mammoth the night before. Ben and I ended up sticking together and making dinner that night. Over my Jetboiled Annie’s Mac & Cheese (plus pesto and sun-dried tomatoes, yum) I told him that I’d love to cruise a bunch of moderate pitches the following day. That’s how we ended up on the Tenaya-Mathes-Cathedral Traverse.

Tenaya-Mathes-Cathedral Traverse

I think we left the car sometime around 7am that morning. I see that I have photos of the guidebook taken at my car at 6:45am. Close enough, right?

We left his car at the trailhead to Cathedral and took my car to the base of Tenaya. (If this is something that appeals to you, check out Steph Abegg’s ultra-detailed & dialed beta here.)

Tenaya was a pretty cruiser 5.5 romp. It took us a moment to locate the approach, but we didn’t have to burn much time on it. I just remember having to go further left around some boulders and slabs than we’d anticipated. It starts out as a slab that gets progressively steeper. Since Ben had planned on eventually soloing the whole route, I made the call to introduce the rope once a fall would result in serious consequences. But even then, we simuled the route and topped out by 8:45am. Once on top, we looked out to Mathes and began the cross-country trek to our next climb.

The next photo I have is timestamped 11:02am on Mathes Crest. We arrived to a gaggle of climbers piled up waiting to climb the first pitch. To their dismay, Ben announced: we’ll be going around the backside of the crest. I’ve done it before. I remember it being OK.

Aforementioned 11:02am photo on Mathes Crest. Such gorgeous alpine granite. That’s Ben in blue ahead of me.

Funny story: one of the parties we passed would be someone I would run into weeks later on the other side of the country for my rock guide course. Sorry about that, Jordan! (I think I vaguely remember a micro-interaction with you and your partner and you guys being really cool about it.)

Ben and I simuled the entirety of Mathes Crest with the exception of some spicy 5.8 down-climbing where I got us off route, which kind of felt more like 5.10 down-climbing. This was the only time when Ben was visibly not stoked. Can’t say I blame him. But we got back on route and carried on truckin’. Since there was spicy down-climbing, this means we did the entirety of the ridge instead of the earlier opt-out that you can do to shorten the day.

All I really have to say about Mathes is that it was a cool experience getting up and onto the ridge and then walking along it. Just fun, alpine exposure. Not your typical feature. It’s basically a forever, sidewalk-width knife ridge.

Once we hopped off the ridge, we carried on to Cathedral. Cathedral has been on my list since I accidentally discovered it while I was searching for the Northwest version of Cathedral, which ranks among Blake Herrington’s favorite 5.9 multipitch climbs in the Cascades.

Cathedral Peak. We climbed some variation of the Southeast Buttress (5.6) through a memorable chimney.

This photo was taken from afar and I have another closer, crappier photo from the base timestamped 3:35pm. At this point, we’d climbed two peaks and walked a couple miles all at or above 10,000′. I was psyched to continue, but noticed myself starting to slow down a bit. We simuled the beginning of the Southeast Buttress route through some easier terrain, but once things got a little steeper and slightly more challenging, I decided that it was time for me to start pitching things out to increase our safety margins. I didn’t want to be responsible for pulling Ben off the wall if I had a stupid slip that turned into a fall. I know that Ben would have been fine to continue simuling — but I couldn’t take that chance.

Cathedral definitely offered the most challenging and sustained climbing of the day. While it was never incredibly difficult or dangerous, it definitely felt challenging given our elevation and the ground we’d covered leading up to it. Start to finish, the climbing on Cathedral was excellent. If you had the opportunity to climb just one of the three peaks, Cathedral would have my hands-down recommendation. But if you have the opportunity to do them all, you absolutely should.

My next timestamped photo has us back on the ground at 6:20pm. I’m not sure what time we got back to the car, but I do know that Ben’s time was slightly faster than mine since he bounded off and ran the last quarter-or-so mile. Me? I chose to walk. We drank celebratory beers and that was that. Such a good day and adventure.

My First Big Wall: Washington Column – The Prow

I guess the guys weren’t feeling it, or something. Clearly, I was stoked.

Climb a big wall, they said. It will be fun, they said. Aid climbing is easy, you’re just standing on gear. Right?

Wrong.

You know what’s way easier than aid climbing? Free climbing. Not hauling all of your shit up a wall (literally and figuratively.) Not spending hours painstakingly inching your way up small stretches of granite that somehow (miraculously) add up to be big walls.

But you know what’s really rewarding? Getting wigged out of your mind, getting through it, dragging all of your shit up a goddamn wall and standing on top of it. That, and waking up on a portaledge.

Waking up on a portaledge after aiding 8 pitches on The Prow (5.8, C2) on Washington Column the day before with James.

Aid climbing was the absolute definition of type two fun for me. It was fun after we were absolutely done climbing, eating pizza and drinking beer. It was even more fun after we’d slept on the solid ground and had about 24-hours of distance from the whole ordeal.

First, I have to acknowledge how goddamn hard it was. Besides the climbing, dragging the portaledge to the base of the route was sweaty, huffy and puffy. I’m not even going to include the details about dragging it up each of the 12 total pitches (this work was also shared disproportionately with my partner James. Thanks, James.) But walking the damn thing off the exposed top was downright scary. Since I had to walk with it slung over my shoulder like a bazooka, I felt constantly off balance and unable to use both of my hands in the event of a fall. Meanwhile, James was lugging most of our shit around in a 70L haulbag. It’s heavy and slow and not sexy.

Then, there’s the climbing part. I didn’t expect to get so scared standing on gear. I’ve been trad climbing for about 5 years now. I know how to place good, trustworthy gear. But I rarely test my placements, since I’m often free climbing where the goal is to avoid falling and weighting pieces of protection. While aid climbing, you trust your bodyweight to each piece, no matter how dismally small. Sometimes, you’re using a GODDAMN HOOK. Like you’re some kind of wall climbing pirate, or something.

Photo credit: Mountain Project. Not sure wtf kind of boogers are on this hook or what, but I legitimately had hook placements like this that made me want to cry. Some that did make me cry… But only a little. I guess that’s standard fare in aid climbing. Source link: https://bit.ly/36ZMcNK

In my caption above, I mention crying. Gather ’round, children, and listen to salty Mal wax on about how absolutely terrifying aid climbing is:

So there I was, in the middle of a sea of granite, halfway up my second lead of the day. Beneath me, just air. So much air. In fact, so much air that it’s blowing my stupid aid ladders over my head. My hair is being blown into my mouth. At the beach, this might have felt like a slight breeze. In the middle of a giant granite wall, your brain registers this wind as WTF WHY AM I SO EXPOSED AND WHAT AM I DOING UP HERE THIS IS DUMB AND I HATE THIS WHY PLEASE GOD JUST LET ME HAVE ONE MORE SOLID PLACEMENT – NO? – OK GOD DAMN IT THIS IS HORRIBLE. It’s pretty much just a stream of constant expletives. Or maybe that’s just my brain. I do want to note that I normally love exposure. But when I was feeling kind of runout over a series of very, very small nuts that I trusted with bodyweight only — if that — you could also say that I wasn’t feeling particularly confident. Far from sasha fierce.

At this point, I’m now standing on one of those godawful hooks that I mentioned before. It’s somehow clasping what looks like a single granite crystal. What in the actual fuck. (Excuse my language, but I feel it’s entirely appropriate in this context.) So that’s when I saw my would-be .3 placement. A .3 cam has never seemed so big and inviting in my lifetime.

I plugged that sucker in and gingerly stepped on one of the rungs of my aid ladders.

Oh lord Jesus the thing just springs out of the wall as if the rock had spat it out. Cool. Cue minor scream and swearing building into a crescendo in my mind. Maybe a little bit out loud. I can’t be sure. I cry a little bit but then realize that I can’t cry because I have to deal with this mess I’ve gotten myself into.

I think my partner James was trying to encourage and talk me down at this point, not literally of course, but just down from the absolute and utter state of panic I was in, standing on my precarious little hook. And no, of course none of it was registering. It was just me. My stupid hook. And that .3 cam out there. Maybe Jesus was present, but honestly, I can’t be sure. Didn’t feel like it.

So in my mind, I’m like: what the faaaaaack. If I were a cartoon character, sweat beads would be visibly seeping from my disproportionately large forehead. There would be single tear in one of my eyes. And then there would be an anime-level ridiculous scream, because I threw one of the more impressive heel-hooks of my lifetime onto the ledge where my desperate little hook was chillin’, and pulled like hell to stand up on it. No damsel in distress here, folks. Just a goddamn heroine.

At this point, I’m now two body lengths above a questionable micronut. Above a series of questionable micronuts. No, the wind definitely hasn’t stopped. My aid ladders are fluttering furiously. But you know what happens? I got a good piece of gear in. I scream my minor victory down to my partner James who’s probably maxed out at this point by the emotional rollercoaster that we’re now riding together at 80+ mph.

And you know what happens next? A series of more scary moves. None as scary as the stupid hook move above shitty micronuts. But it sure ain’t over til it’s over, in this case. But no more tears. I battle through it.

I got to the top of that pitch and hollered down to James: OFF BELAY. I proceeded to drag all of our water, all of our camping gear, the portaledge, our layers, our food for two days, all of the everything up to the next belay. As I’m hauling, I slump over a few times and lean against the wall, wrecked, but careful not to touch it with my bare skin. There’s a stale, ambient smell of piss in the air since there’s nowhere else to go while you’re climbing this fairly popular route. But I got to feel this tremendous sensation of depth.

The way I imagine it, it’s like we’re each a wooden block. When something makes you dig deep, you get to experience what you’re made of at your core. And most days, that core is filled in with the stuff of normal life, like little wood shavings or sawdust. But every once in a while, you reveal this deep, dark, seldom-seen stuff that you’re made of. It’s pretty cool in there. I’ve been saying that waking up to Half Dome on a portaledge was what made this experience worth it, but actually, it was that raw and humbling experience on the wall.

There were times when I hated aid climbing while I was doing it. But you only hate what you don’t understand, right? Given that my 4th-ever aid lead was the 6th pitch of a big wall at C2F, I feel pretty good about what happened out there. I could be talked into giving it another go sometime… in the distant future… Maybe.

The Valley

After my first big wall, I ran off to go climb Mount Whitney. Things didn’t exactly pan out as planned and I had my first not-so-great Mountain Project partner experience. Since I’ve thoroughly vented that situation, we don’t need to get into it. But I will say that I clambered up the Mountaineers Route on Whitney and walked myself right back out of there and was eager to get back to the splitter-splitter-splitters in the Valley.

I climbed a handfull of random routes during my time in the valley. Most notably, Royal Arches, Central Pillar of Frenzy and the first pitch of Freeblast on El Cap. Central Pillar of Frenzy was my favorite route that I climbed in that time.

This trip was mostly a recon mission, in my mind. That, and I wanted to prep for my rock guide course (it totally worked.) Like I mentioned before, this was a solo trip with no plans and no big goals. But I got a lot out of my time there.

I discovered the importance of partnership > objective. I got a lot of good days in with my friends Eva and Raven.

In the Valley, there’s this pervasive hard-woman/hard-man culture, but not in a vain or egotistical way. It’s just an inspiring place. Think about Lynn Hill freeing The Nose: “It goes, boys.” Soloing is normal — it’s not just Alex Honnold. The routes are huge. The grades are fair, trending hard. The rock just demands your best performance and it feels right.

I love it there and I can’t wait to get back. Next fall, for sure. I’ll be there.

Published by mallorie estenson

Mallorie is an alpine guide, writer and climber based in Seattle, WA.

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