As part of my last trip of Summer 2006, I joined a group from the Bay Area to climb in Yosemite. I had visited the Bay Area earlier in the summer and climbed in the new Planet Granite Sunnyvale gym with my longtime climbing partner Cindy Chiu and others. I suggested that Cindy climb Snake Dike with me sometime, and she wrote to me in early September saying she was planning to climb in Yosemite, in particular in Tuolumne Meadows which she'd never visited, later in the month. She asked if I wanted to come along so we could get more experience climbing outdoors together. It turned out the weekend she had in mind was September 16-18, which was perfect for me since I was planning to hike up Mt. Whitney on the 20th. I'd been to Tuolumne a few times before but had never climbed there, so that would be perfect as well. The only down side was that I had also wanted to join a hiking/scrambling expedition to the Sierras being organized by Jim Ralston, a math professor at UCLA, and that turned out to be the same weekend. Since I'd already planned to go with Cindy I couldn't join this other trip, but I hope to join Prof. Ralston next time as the trips he goes on sound like great fun.
The group from the Bay Area turned out to be Cindy, her boyfriend Oded Wurman, Ivan Tzvetanov, and Yang Tan. I'd known Oded (who'd recently graduated from Stanford) from before and had just met Ivan and Yang (both currently students at Standford) at Planet Granite last visit. Since there were two couples plus me I felt a bit like a fifth wheel, but I liked everyone a lot and felt very comfortable with them. The Bay Area group would drive out Friday night, stay at Housekeeping Camp, and then Cindy would get up early to try to reserve a space at Camp 4. She also made reservations for Tuolumne Meadows Campground for Sunday night. I drove in Saturday morning, leaving at about 6:40am and arriving around noon. I got a speeding ticket in Fresno on the way there which put a damper on my day. I'd only gotten one speeding ticket in my life before, and that was also on the way to Yosemite. I arrived to find Cindy and friends at campsite 29 in Camp 4, just finishing setting up. I'd never camped there before and so was excited to finally have a chance. It was a lot cleaner and nicer than I expected, and Cindy said the flush toilets and running water were relatively new. The crowd seemed more varied than just climbing bums, too. However that night a couple climbing bums started making loud ape noises and then shouting random annoying things at around 1am. Oded had very cleverly copied the ranger phone number onto his cell phone when he arrived, so he was able to call the ranger station from his tent and soon a ranger arrived and got the two jerks to stop. Despite that interruption I slept quite well that night, and even better the next night in Tuolumne. I'm enjoying camping more and more. I'd brought both my one-person and two-person tents, but decided to use the former since it would be warmer at night. I also brought both 40 degree and 20 degree sleeping bags. Cindy had said she was cold in her 20 degree bag the previous night, so I used the 20 degree bag but found it hot. I also found it on the warm side the next night in Tuolumne even though the temperature supposedly got down to 28 or so. I think Cindy is just particularly sensitive to cold. [I later found out my bags were actually 30 and 15 degrees respectively, so that partly explains why I was hot. I should have used the 30 degree bag!]
The others brought all sorts of food and we camped in luxury. I felt bad because I'd brought no food whatsoever, having just intended to buy what I needed there. To make up for that I paid for a large part of the very nice dinner we had at Tuolumne Lodge on Sunday. That turned out to be the last night of the season the Lodge was open, so we were lucky.
After eating lunch Saturday (we were joined by a swarm of bees or wasps, which fortunately didn't sting anyone), we walked over to Swan Slab to climb. Swan Slab happens to be the very first place in Yosemite I've climbed, when with Kyoko and other friends we took a class there in 1999. It's kind of sad that I haven't improved that much as a climber in the last 7 years. My main goal for this trip was to learn how to lead climb. I'd read about placing protection and building anchors but needed to actually practice such things. It wasn't clear there was a good climb at Swan Slab to learn how to lead on, though. Of course on a Saturday afternoon the Slab had plenty of people on it, but we found the Swan Slab Chimney (a one-star 5.5 climb) to be free. Cindy led it but didn't find any opportunities to place pro, so she just stuck in a cam in one place that she could but otherwise soloed it. There wasn't much to anchor to as well so she just wrapped a couple slings around a very solid block at the top. The rest of us climbed on toprope (in normal rather than climbing shoes for a bit of a challenge) and inspected her cam placement and anchor. Much more useful, we then walked around and practiced gear placements in cracks we could find, as well as setting up two and three point anchors. It was very interesting to compare the sliding X versus the cordelette anchor. There's some recent discussion that the cordellete does not equalize as well as was thought. I knew that the cordelette could not give dynamic equalization, but I was surprised trying it myself to find just how hard it was to get three-point static equalization in any direction! I'd prefer to use the sliding X until I figure that out more. We also practiced using prussic knots which was a lot of fun. Cindy was an excellent teacher and I learned a lot from her.
The next morning Cindy and I were the only ones to wake up early, so we went back to Slab for my first lead climb. I decided to try the "Unnamed Gully", 5.1, which would be easy enough that I could worry about placing pro and not about climbing. It also had great sentimental value because it was the very first outdoor climb Kyoko did (sadly when I told her this upon returning she said she didn't remember climbing it!). In fact you can see a picture of me at the bottom of the climb in the 1999 report:
The tree in the picture is midway up the climb (which is apparently about 50 feet total) and is not the tree at the top used as an anchor. It wasn't clear if there were any good opportunities to place pro, but I'd at least get to build my first anchor. I wore a fairly full rack just to get experience carrying the weight, and started climbing (no pictures of course since we were both busy!). There were actually quite a few places to put in pro so I placed several cams and nuts for practice. At the top the only really good anchor seemed to be a tree at the top, which I guess is normally used as the sole anchor. I found a crack to put a reasonable nut into, and stuck a Lowe Ball (not really the right piece but I didn't have any really small cams) into another crack. I took quite a lot of time figuring out how I was going to sling the tree and combine everything together, and I wasn't very happy with my anchor but it seemed it was safe enough and so I belayed Cindy up. She thought my pro placements were fine but also wasn't happy with my anchor, and had some good advice about improving it. I'd taken so long with my anchor that it was already 10am and were were supposed to have broken camp, so we rappelled down using the tree as an anchor. This was the first time I rappelled without a belay backup, so I tried using a prussic knot backup but it got caught up a lot (I tightened it too much) and so took a lot of time to get down. In any case this was a terrific experience as a first lead, and I really enjoyed it.
We quickly broke camp, drove up to Tuolumne Meadows, and setup camp there at site A84. I suggested we try nearby Lembert Dome, which I'd explored a tiny bit of in 2000 with Jon Degenhardt (I should put up some pictures of that trip, which included a climb of Mt. Dana, sometime soon). There were some easy climbs on the left side that we could try (although again not clear how good they'd be for practicing placing pro) and also we could just walk to the top (which I'd yet to visit) and presumably get some nice views of the area, which was new to everyone else. At the dome I gave Cindy the choice of going left or right, and she picked right which turns out to have been by far the better choice. We tried walking around to find the low-angle tourist approach to the top, but my understanding of the shape of the dome (I thought it was ramp-shaped) was extremely inaccurate. Trending to the right for a while, Cindy found a good third-class section she thought she could climb to the top, so she and Oded went up that way. I'd actually tried something similar with Jon back in 2000, but he didn't let us continue past a certain point since he thought the climbing would get harder and we'd get stuck and not be able to go up or down. Then he led me away from the section I was on, which was quite secure to downclimb, over to a friction ramp which I found very frightening! But somehow we managed to get down without incident.
Cindy and Oded were climbing a different section that I didn't believe I could downclimb, so I joined Ivan and Yang in moving further to the right in hopes of finding the tourist route. It was not to be, though, and instead we eventually found a section that looked like it might lead to the summit or tourist route, and more importantly could be downclimbed if we got stuck. It was mostly class 2 with some class 3 in places. It was terrifically fun to plan out the route and climb it--this kind of scrambling is perhaps what I love the most, even more than roped climbing. It took us a long time but we finally made the top where Cindy and Oded had been waiting for a while. I now had a much better understanding of Lembert Dome, and I hope to do a lot more of this kind of scrambling in the future. The views got better and better as we got up, and views from the top were stupendous, better than I even expected. So everyone was happy at this choice for the afernoon. Here's a view of the main meadows:
We then found the tourist route down to the trail, and followed that back around to the other side with a detour to the beautiful and extremely blue Dog Lake. We never did take a close look at the climbs on the steep left side since it was getting cold and late at that point, but I think the scrambling was much more fun anyway.
The next morning we set off for Pothole Dome, which also looks like a right-to-left ramp from the road, to try some climbs there. The SuperTopo guide listed some easier topropes on it, which again wouldn't give us any chance to practice leading (or much setting anchors as the anchors were bolts) but it was close and we could at least climb a little before I had to leave around noon. Surprisingly it was very hard to to find just where the climbs were given the rather vague instructions and no overview diagrams in the SuperTopo guide. I missed where it said "steeper left side" in the description, but still guessed that was where the climbs were. I pointed out the likely section as well as the likely third-class part to scramble up to set the anchors, but the others didn't believe me so we continued to the right to see if we could find something. We didn't, and going back I spotted someone else on the left side and so realized my initial guess was correct. There was a very nice family of four (I think the sons were 1 and 3 years old) from Flagstaff Arizona there. They'd set up at anchor G of the SuperTopo guide so we set up our anchor next to them at F and then shared ropes. I went up with Cindy and Oded to help set up the anchor and then rappelled with no backup at all for the first time. Since I had to go I got to be the first to climb. Apparently you can vary the difficulty from 5.6 to 5.10a depending on just how you go up. When I got to the steep section it seemed I was at the 10a part and couldn't figure out how to get up it, so I tension traversed to the left and did the 5.6 version, which still seemed pretty hard. Oded did it after me and was able to get up that harder section, saying there were just a couple hard moves. Here's a picture of him at that section, with Yang to his right climbing a 5.1 route on the other party's rope.
I had to hurry off soon after to drive to Lone Pine to begin part two of my trip, hiking up Mt. Whitney. I had a great time climbing with everyone, and hope to get together with them again soon.