Yosemite TR: A Gunks Gumby Returns

or:

"Free your mind, and your ass will follow -- but it might be a tight fit"

9 Days in the Valley

July, 2000

So tiredI I have never been remotely this tired climbing. I turn off my headlamp to save power,but the added darkness just makes me more likely to drift off. Karl tugs on the rope and I feed it out mechanically. Finally, "Off belay."I wait -- no longer do I begin to break down the anchor before the on-belay call; I don't trust myself to not make a mistake. Still, when I start climbing, I continue to crank. Even on wide 5.9 terrain, I can fist jam and yard myself up on it. The rock has taken away my energy, but it gives me energy too."An odessey up a natural passage" is the guidebook description of our route, and like a song that clings like gum to your shoe, this phrase won't depart my exhausted mind.

It began in March when Karl wrote me, "Maybe you would like to come in Summer (like July) and do some of the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows routes and enjoy the high country."

Tuolumne? I was there once, before ever being a climber. It's gorgeous. But what exactly is up there? Any crack climbing? I had all my usual doubts, unfamiliarity, the money, everything. But having climbed nine days with Karl last year, I had a lot of trust in his judgments of what I could do, and, more importantly, what I should do. An inner voice was saying yes, and wouldn't quiet itself until the outer voice said it too.

Still, the outer voice did some resisting. I didn't book the flight for a long time, and when I did, it cost me extra miles. Damn. And the schedule was starting to look a bit frayed. A mid-June spanking on a Seneca crack left me deeply uncertain how I would do back in Yosemite. And I passed on an appealing Rumney trip with Dawn to pack and get ready. I was starting to wish I had just gone to the Adirondaks like I usually do for July 4th weekend.

Where did this thing stop being a 5.9 cruise and start being an major effort? The Wilson Overhang. Overhanging chimney is more like it, more chimney than overhang. 5.8? Right. This is really hard. I could never lead this.

 Once in the car headed to the airport, things started to feel right, but then came travel hell. Weather somewhere (Pennsylvania?) yielded a three-hour delay, missing my connection to Fresno. Sleeping in the LAX airport wouldn't be so bad, except for being continually awakened by fools wearing security badges.

Karl picked me up and we did some shopping in Fresno (god bless Trader Joes). With two hours sleep it wasn't going to be a big day, but it's easy to get motivated when you come out of the Wawona Tunnel and see the Valley spread out in all its glory. Last year the only area we went to twice was Middle Cathedral, so Central Pillar was an old familiar friend as we walked past it. After a warm-up of Pee Pee Pillar, I led the first pitch of Powell-Reed to get us to the meat of Stoner's Highway, which Karl led two tricky pitches of.

 "Make time to make time." The dumbest songs come into my head at the dumbest times. Got the Wilson Overhang clean, but took too much time. Karl has been grabbing gear and just getting up rock fast since maybe pitch 1. He leaves the squeeze chimney in a weird place. I haveto clean the gear, go out onto the face too. I grab a sling. Okay, now I've been corrupted, maybe I can just start making time too. 

The next day we went to the Cookie, which isn't closed, just the usual parking is. Again I didn't lead much of anything and had a great and carefree time on Outer Limits, Beverley's, and Waverly. There was lots more to be done, but we needed to quit early to get ready for the big adventure.

 The guidebook rates Steck-Salathe V 5.9. From the topo it looked longer than East Buttress of Middle, but not any harder. Karl said it was all chimneys, and way harder. If I hadn't been focused on Tuolumne, I would have (re)read all the old trip reports at Deja. I would have seen that Allen Steck reported that a key flake was gone from the Wilson Overhang taking it from 5.8 to 10b.

That a 5.7 pitch was really 5.9. That the Narrows was a profound exercise in the greatest of mental control for Avajane... That the "4th class off" arrow of the topo didn't depict reality, and the easiest final pitch was at least 5.7. That rec.climbing's king and queen of offwidths slept twice on the wall, atop the Flying Buttress as well as on the summit.

 The evil god who placed the Narrows at pitch 12 was a clever bastard. Early in the route and you'd just back off and have a nonsuffering day. Any later inthe route and you might worry about the time and back off. But it seemed hardly later than midday when we started, and was late afternoon when we were done. Karl said "you couldn't fall out of this thing" and maybe I should lead it. I could fall out plenty, and proved it repeatedly.How did he even start this thing? What are those bolts doing out there? They should be in here. I bet I could get out to them, but I have to stay here and clean this gear, not that there's enough of it. 

In the retelling, Steck-Salathe becomes a pretty lighthearted excursion, starting when I finally called my wife, who I didn't want to worry. "Yeah, we finished by headlamps, got to the top around midnight, no, not too cold -- we brought up some extra clothes anyway, it's not like we didn't expect it. And we knew once on top we could build a fire. It was really nice!"

But in reality it was a profound experience for me too, a "vision-quest" in Karl's words. My muscles stayed strong but my mind and body were both shot. I could climb most of the pitches clean and still be quite certain I couldn't lead any of them. At the top, I had plenty of energy to collect some really nice firewood, but suddenly collapsed, couldn't talk or strike a match. I had an extra sandwich in my pack for "dinner" and was too tired to eat -- my friends would whip out a stethescope if they ever saw that. I slept for an hour and awoke to find my muscles feeling the same asleep you feel when you cross your legs for too long. My entire body probably hadn't moved an inch for sixty minutes. I stretched and promptly did the same thing for another hour. Finally Karl and I lit the fire, slept a bit more, and chatted through to dawn. I felt better and could eat my sandwich. The river Styx had been crossed.

The descent was a time of renewed attentiveness and energy, though when the first was no longer needed, at the Four Mile Trail, the second went with it, and suddenly my feet and quads were in great difficulty. Perhaps it was just the shock and unfamiliarity of level ground. We lazed the afternoon and evening away, napping, showering, eating, hot-tubbing. The next day we still lacked energy and motivation.

A July 4th party in North Fork sounded appealing, with heaps of musicians and good food, so we stopped at Fresno Dome and I led all of an easy but interesting six-pitch widely-spaced-bolted slab route whose name Karl didn't know. After S-S it all seemed quite casual -- we started after 3:00 and were done by 6:30, though now I can think back on my six-hour best-times for five-pitch Adirondack slabs and shake my head in wonder. The party was as much therapy as fun, and I drank only half the wine I ordinarily would have. Perhaps I was thinking of dehydration and the next day, or perhaps I could still handle only so much external stimulus, and, like Salathe, I could nourish myself on the music, or the very air itself.

The day after Fresno Dome we tried to return to something like a normal climbing rhythm. Picking an easy approach, we surprisingly had the Camp 4 Wall all to ourselves, and I started leading for real at last this trip with two 5.9s. Doggie Deviations went easily, Lancelot, with one short fall, less so. But we continued to chase the vision quest thing. Karl told me to toprope Doggie Deviations blindfolded. He couldn't say what I would learn from this but again I let trust win out over doubt, and was generously rewarded. Footholds out on the face were no longer needed when they couldn't be felt. My recollection of the crack, its line and its holds, was impeccable. Stances I had rejected or held tenuously previously were comfortable with eyes wide shut. If I can learn to relax like this on lead perhaps I can move up to a next level. We shall see.

Day Seven, and the healing continued. Still thinking more about easy approaches than easy climbing, we went to Chapel Wall and again had a crag to ourselves. Karl said the 10d, Gold Dust, would be a better lead for me than Heathenistic Pursuits, 10b. Any debate would seem pointless, I had never onsighted 10b clean let alone 10d, in fact I've yet to onsight 10a anywhere but the magic playground of Yosemite. I don't know if Karl was right, but I needed only one hang on Gold Dust. After toproping Heathenistic Pursuits I tried to lead it. Also one hang. Perhaps it was a pattern, but more likely it was simply needing yet more recovery time.

Nevertheless, it was time to vision quest yet again. Coming back from the Camp 4 wall we had run into a friend of Karl's, a former Valley girl, so to speak, now spending her time in Australia and Colorado. She had done the East Buttress of Lower Cathedral earlier in the week. Karl was full of questions; this was a route he had long wanted to tick. "How was the 10c chimney?" Flaring but with lots of gear. "What about the Beck Fissure?" 5.9. "How's the routefinding?" Her partner got lost, but he was more of a sport climber, what do you expect. Not bad really. "Easily done in a day?" Oh, sure. The last part you just run up.

It was all true, though so was George Bell's trip report, where he reports the routefinding difficulties, how bad the topo is, the difficulties leading the 10c, and his own added epic of rain in September. I myself thought the topo was pretty much dead on, except for the location of the trees above the 10c, and the major error of the "roof" above the 5.7 really being a ledge. (And if there really is a 10a variation to it, is it on the other side of the arete? Perhaps the topo could say that then.) The route itself is wonderful, with two 5.9 pitches that look more like 5.11 until you're into them, when all sorts of hidden cracks and jugs appear.

The 10c is very hard to lead, but following I could make all the moves with one avoidable fall, had I seen, and used, the face holds on the left. (George reports having missed good holds on the right, either he was facing the wrong way or he could make more of the few good holds on the other side than I could.) After the first of the upper 5.9 pitches we started to worry about the time, but it turned out not to be a concern and we even stood on the summit for a minute to gaze down at the Valley.

The lower pitches have some hanging belays but higher up are good ledges. The first ones have their best views blocked by trees but further up is perhaps the most perfect sight of El Cap there is. It was midafternoon and everything west of the Nose is in light, everything east in shadows. There's a famous Ed Cooper photo like this (but early morning with the light/dark reversed), but his is taken from Higher Cathedral and the entire east face is foreshortened and ugly, while from where we were it's in perfect proportion.

Our last day we were again exhausted by a long climb and instead of avenging myself at Chapel Wall, I picked up the soft 5.10a onsight of Peruvian Flake and followed Karl up the equally soft Y-Crack (after lowering off in the middle of the easy runout first half).

All good things come to he who waits, the saying goes. After the nightmare of my flight west, the airline overbooked my flight east and looked for red-eye volunteers. This time I was rewarded with a $500 voucher for being with the airline overnight, and I had a cushy seat, blanket, pillow, and film. The movie wasn't as nice as a manzanita fire, but the travel voucher in my pocket, like the bivy, preordain my next return.

Karl said we got just as much epic as we must have secretly wanted. The"odessey up a natural passage" was certainly more than I was prepared for, and at a minimum it was much too early in the season for him to be the master of the route, or either of us to be masters of our fate. Apparently sometimes you need to hand your soul over to a wall in a neat little package and get it back a day later with tattered edges and a humbled, strengthened core.

-steven-

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Steven Cherry - Gunks Gumby
Steven in the maw of a Steck Salathe Chimney
Steven at the entrance to the Great Chimney
More Steck-Salathe Fun
Steven Following Outer Limits on the Cookie 10b
The Agony - Our Semi-planned bivy site
The Ecstasy - Sometimes Climbing is like beating yourself over the head with a hammer, It feels good when you stop
Steven leading a mutli-pitch climb on Fresno Dome
Steven Leading the 10d Gold Dust on the Chapel Wall
Steven on East Butt of Lower Cathedral 10c
Steven on East Butt of Lower Cathedral
Following Y Crack 10a