Through the dust left by the previous day's avalanche, I noticed black clouds in the early morning sky. My tenuous determination, already weakened further by lack of sleep, the sticky humid heat, and the dust burning my throat, began to fade.
"This pack is too damn heavy anyway." The steep trail was causing my thighs to burn with each step. The Yosemite Falls trail is one I'd been up and down a number times before, but never with a 65 pound pack at 4:30 a.m.
I sat down and looked at the clouds -- there had been buildups in the high country every afternoon, but nothing had really threatened here in the Valley. Now I wondered if that would change today. The last thing I needed was for Zeus to start chucking lightning bolts my way.
"Oh well, I might as well go up and take a look." If I bailed and the clouds burned off, I knew I wouldn't be able to forgive myself. And if they didn't, the worst would be that I lugged a huge pack up and down this trail and maybe got a little wet.
A little after 6 a.m., with the clouds somewhat dispersed, I tossed my ropes and began to rappel. Laden with a daypack, a small rack, two more ropes, and all the carabiners I owned, it was a little akward as I passed the knot at the end of the first rope and began, with a jumar as a backup, rappelling down the second rope, a skinny 8.5mm.
The cool morning breeze should have felt good, but instead it magnified my worries and doubts. I looked up at the rope stretching over the cold, dark stone wall. At 250 feet, the climbing ropes seemed a lot more like thin rubber bands, elongating a good 20 feet under the weight of my body and gear. And the single 8.5mm strand was all too eager to slip through my rappel device.
Some 270 feet below the rim, I swung right about 15 feet in order to land my feet on the loose talus of the Lost Arrow notch. There I carefully worked my way onto more solid ground and eventually, ropes in tow, to a familiar set of shiny bolt anchors on the Spire itself.
I'd been there a few weeks before, with my two friends David Ress and Bob Suzuki. On that trip, I had been irritable, pissed off and a general asshole at times because things did not go as smoothly as I would have liked. So partly because I thought we had taken too long on our ascent of the Spire Tip, and partly because I was bored and had no climbing partner for a mid-week trip, I set off to rope solo the route last July.
The Valley was a hot, swealtering, sticky, overcrowded nightmare. I couldn't for the life me figure out why so many people came to Yosemite Valley in the middle of July. It seemed miserable, and the crowds only doubled the displeasure.
When I had arrived the previous morning, it was too hot to climb. I fought my way through the flocks of tourists, ate some ice cream, bought a few more carabiners and a cheap watch which I set to go off at 3 a.m... and I gazed up hypnotically at that giant granite phallus.
As the day cooled off a bit, I waited for a short, straightforward crack climb to become available and then I set off on my first ever rope solo aid pitch. The crack was so good that it was virtually a bolt ladder. But then I knew that the route on the Spire would not have any real technical difficulties either.
I had settled into the picnic area at the Church Bowl to cook my evening meal when I heard a loud roar. I thought it was a jet at first -- then after it continued for a moment, maybe thunder. But despite an eastern cloud buildup earlier in the afternoon, the sky was clear. And besides, the loud rumbling kept on going.
I stood up from the picnic table and strode out towards the road. Two people were looking out towards Glacier Point. There, from cliffs east of Curry Village, a rather large avalanche was in progress.
As with most such demonstrations of nature, the raw power of this event, even from our safe vantage point, was pretty impressive. An enormous piece of the granite wall had calved off and was falling thousands of feet. When it landed, a huge cloud of dust was forced far into the sky, eventually blotting out all views of Half Dome.
The sirens went off, and I wondered, even though it was early evening, how many unfortunate hikers were in that corridor. Certainly somebody was hurt or killed...
Rescue workers, who had only just left the adjoining meadow after a helicopter evacuation, began to reassemble. They looked tired and resigned to a long night of work. As the curious gathered to stare out at the giant dust cloud, I laid out my little pile of gear next to my car, crammed it into my pack, and then drove away to give the rescuers more room.
I managed a fitful night of sleep in the hot, filthy, buggy and humid woods above noisy Sunnyside. A small animal kept jiggling discarded tin cans in a crevice very near my head. Of course, the alarm went off far too soon and I was up and stuffing food in my mouth and hiking the trail. It all seemed like a really silly idea at 3:30 a.m.
When David and Bob and I had done the climb, we shared the route with a man who had climbed the Direct route with his friend. On a gear and beer run to the Valley, his friend had seriously twisted his knee on the trail. So this man was back to finish the last two pitches by himself. Watching him climb was fascinating. His movements were smooth and efficient, seemingly effortless.
In contrast, seeing us climb must have been like watching an old Three Stooges movie. "Hey Moe, you expect me to jug up this skinny rope?" "You knucklehead, you're standing in my aider!" "Woo-woo-woo! I thought you had the rack!" "Anybody seen my other Jumar?"
We had started off by rappelling into the notch with the rack still slung on a tree limb at the rim. Bob seemed very concerned about ascending an 8mm static line. One of my shiny new $50 Jumars unclipped from my harness and dove off the Spire. We stopped climbing at the second belay and began a macrame project with our ropes. Performing a Tyrolean back to the rim appeared to be by far the most complicated task that has ever been performed. Hours passed.
So I was sure I could do better on my own. The leading and cleaning shouldn't take any longer, and a quick rap back to the start of each pitch shouldn't consume much time, right?
My self belay device was a clove hitch. This meant that to make progress I had to keep passing rope through the knot (or clip in a new knot and unclip the previous one). This technique, particularly on the little bit of free climbing required, turned out to be pretty slow going. In addition, the task of rope management was left entirely to me. Nobody was there to stack or tend the ropes as I climbed. A stuck rope while I was 100 feet up would be a major pain to deal with.
The first pitch went without too much fuss. There is a little bit of free climbing, but I never felt scared in my Five Tennies, which to me means about 5.6. The book says 5.8, but I think you can aid a little more or less in places. When David led it, he got his money's worth by mantling out of his aiders onto the Salathe Ledge. I timidly slotted nuts there instead.
Climbing up off the Salathe Ledge (really a big flake) towards the supposed crux of the climb, my carefully stacked lead rope fell off and threatened to wedge behind the flake. So I had to downclimb and restack it. More lost time.
Once up to the two A2 placements, I discovered to my annoyance that I had forgotten which pieces fit, even though I had led this section a few weeks earlier. As I fumbled with my gear, I noticed someone watching from the rim above the Falls. I stopped and waved. For a moment, my anxiety was gone. It was really fun to be hanging there off the side of the Spire.
Then a glance up at the returning clouds got me moving again. "Oh yeah, the #1 friend fits here like a glove". Then for the shallow scar, I pulled out the ace card -- a 0.5 tri-cam. Easy placements and a number of funky fixed pieces that appeared to have been scavanged from a junkyard led up to an optional belay point. It was here that the three of us had spent a good thirty minutes reorganizing gear and untangling ropes. Because there were three of us, we had broken the climb into as many pitches, but I had no need or reason to do so.
The bolt and rivet ladder that Bob had led was a lot of fun. I remembered looking up at him as he stuffed cams under the bulge and then swung over it and followed the remaining rivets to the top. It isn't hard, but it's dramatic -- and amazing that it is sometimes free climbed at a stout 5.12.
It looked like there was going to be some thunderstorm activity and I was keen to clean my gear and get off that granite lightning rod. As fast as I could, I got back down to the Salathe Ledge and starting jugging like a madman, clipping gear haphazardly back onto my rack and harness.
As I prepared for the first of three crossings via Tyrolean, I looked down at a pair of newly arrived climbers. A Yosemite guide with his client had hiked in from Tuolomne to climb the Tip. I replaced the 8.5mm rap rope with my lead rope so I could traverse on two full size ropes, and I carefully stacked it on top so it would feed as I made my first trip.
As soon as I lowered off the top, the whole thing just fell off and plummitted towards the two below. "Rope!!". Fortunately, it didn't reach them -- "Sorry! I'm still trying to figure this stuff out!". "That's okay.". I started across, seeking a rhythm and also trying not to feel too scared. I kept looking at the anchor, the knots, my harness, the rope itself -- I didn't trust anything.
I stopped and looked down at the two preparing to climb. "Aren't you guys worried about rain?!" "YES!!", came the nervous response. I pulled up onto the rim and felt a strange mixture of relief and anxiety. I was back, but my ropes weren't. I tied off the one I'd dragged and traversed back again. I looked down, but the two were already around the corner, working very quickly on the climb.
When I got back to the Spire, I realized my blunder in a moment. A stream of obsenities alerted the guide's wife who was watching from the rim. "Are you okay? Are you stuck over there?" The thought of being trapped on the Spire in a thunderstorm sounded so unpleasant that it made my prediciment seem too trivial to warrent a fuss. But it irritated me just the same. "No, I just didn't pass my rope through the anchors. I'll have to leave a couple carabiners on top." I knew I could also do two more traverses, but with the weather deteriorating, I thought the price of two carabiners -- even the overblown lockers that I chose -- was a small price to pay.
I made the final traverse, and with much grunting and groaning and with the help of a jumar, I pulled my stubborn ropes through the carabiners on the Spire and back to the rim. The two below had decided to rap back to the notch and jug out -- it had begun to rain and there were rumblings of electrical activity in the distance.
Coiling my ropes and stowing my gear, the weather and the light rain now felt harmless, even pleasant. I chatted with the guide's wife and yelled to the guide about my shiny lockers on top. I couldn't tell if he was more disappointed about bailing off the climb or missing out on the booty.
My huge pack wasn't much fun to carry down the trail, and I felt rather dubious about my little adventure. But I knew there was beer, food and a nap waiting for me down below. Half way down, with my body rebelling, I was passed by a dayhiker babe in a halter top and short shorts. Somehow, I managed to practically jog after her. Just keeping her in sight was motivation for me to keep moving.
As it turned out, it took me only about 30 minutes less time to climb the thing as it had when I was with Bob and David. Hardly a success from that perspective. And I found out that rope soloing added a stress to climbing that, for me, stole away some of the fun. I'm not sorry I did it, but it did seem a little silly in a way. And I just might do it again.