Trip Report – Yosemite: East Buttress of El Cap, Nabisco Wall of The Cookie Cliff and Astroman on Washington Column
By Calvin Landrus
Classic! What makes a route one? When it was first done. Difficulty or lack of it. Popularity. Movement. Rock quality. Accessibility.
Recently, a couple of (almost) 50 year olds were spouting off to me that they would be doing the Fifty Classic Climbs Of North America (Roper and Steck, 1979) during their fiftieth year. When I informed them that one of the climbs, the Hummingbird Ridge of Mount Logan, has never been repeated, their definition of classic was altered.
In September 2011, I climbed again in the treasure chest of classics – Yosemite Valley while I was there for a week for a Solid Rock – Climbers for Christ gathering. Because of the rich history, stunning setting and crucible reputation that the Valley has, a climb would need to be really average not to at least get honorable mention on any classic’s list. With that in mind, I propose everything that is written-up here in this trip report is classic.
Like almost all long routes in the Valley, the first pitch was the obligatory chimney of the route. It was the chimney and wide stemming that starts off the East Buttress of El Cap and goes at 5.9. The second pitch is the route’s crux, 5.10b, and it is classic…and not for its climbing. It involved making some insecure moves on pin scars, getting a bad jam and then some more insecure moves before getting to the first real solid piece ofgear. You would be 15 feet up and 10 feet to the right of your belay with no gear in between you and nasty corner where your partner was holding the rope. I got most of the way through that, then chickened out and in a moment of indecision my feet skated causing me to slam into the corner. All the while, in classic Yosemite snooty-style, a hole in the granite that once held a bolt sits there in your face. I screamed, rather I grumbled, “It would be so much better if the bolt was there” and then I figured out a way to cheat around this section on tricky aid.
The pitches above provided many classic climbing moments. The exposed, run-out and moderate arête climbing on the third pitch is spectacular and photo-op worthy. That pitch was followed by a vying of topos for your direction to proceed which left us with a classic moment of indecision. My 1987 Meyers and Reid guidebook shows two simple 5.7 and 5.8 pitches. But the current versions, one being Chris McNamara’s Supertopo and the other being Fish Products topo found online, varied a lot. We followed the Supertopo gully option to the left and my partner, a relative new comer to climbing, Jason Graves (and author of “anchoredman”), stepped up and led a 5.8 with an overhang in great fashion.
Then comes the money pitches - back to back sweet 5.9s. On both, (we didn’t run them together like some topos and write-ups suggest), I found many cool and interesting moves which required tons of thought – very classic. The only remaining pitch I found classic was the one the that Timmy O’Neil (interestingly enough we bumped in to him on the East Ledges Descent) made famous by free soloing it. The pitch is not nearly as run-out as McNamara’s classical build-up of tagging it the “psychological crux of the route.”
After knowing Jason and I had the climb in bag, with an easy return to the Valley floor before dark (we had started approaching at 5:30 am), we slowed our pace and enjoyed ourselves. It was then my mind first started to set the style for the next time I do the route, “I will free the crux and use the Moratorium start. Hmmm, maybe a classic.”
The middle of my week in the Valley was punctuated by a visit to The Cookie Cliff with super-strong climber, Doug Englekirk. The classic Nabisco Wall was our late afternoon adventure and Doug led the “hardest 5.10c” in the Valley called Waverly Wafer. With a rating by Supertopo of 5.11a, I was able to follow it clean with a lot of huffing and puffing. Having already done Manure Pile Buttress that day, the steepness of the Cookie was a jolt to the system and caused me to doubt my success on Wheat Thin. So to give me time to recover and get psyched, Doug led Butterballs (11c) with only enough small cams to safely do it by back-cleaning most of the way. So be warned: not bringing enough gear is Doug’s classical method when it comes to putting together a rack.
After I lowered him back to the belay (the starts of Butterballs and Wheat Thin share a ledge), Doug handed me the sharp end and I got to work on Wheat Thin. Such a classic pitch! Gradually harder finger locks are enjoyed until you clip the first bolt of four that protect the 50 feet of lay-backing up a super thin flake. I thought the hardest move was right there, moving from the crack to the flake. Fighting the over-all pump, I soon had reached the chains of a classic pitch I have wanted to do since first climbing in the Valley in the early 80’s.
Doug followed and then led the last pitch of Nabisco Wall, choosing the right variation named Ladyfingers (11a). With it looking difficult for him, I tried the left, Butterfingers (11a). With forearms flamed, I didn’t make much progress. I then tried a different path on Ladyfingers then Doug and I thought it would go. But my hopes of “freeing” the wall slipped away as multiple attempts ended slightly short of easier ground.
The day after Wheat Thin, I had a great time while volunteering with the Yosemite Facelift . The project that I and a group of Solid Rockers did was pulling asphalt out of dirt to clean-up an old construction site. So when the next day came, I was ready for some rest as the following day was going to be my biggest of the trip. But when an opportunity to climb with legendary climbing guide, Doug Nidever, presented itself, I could resist. It wasn’t because it was going to challenge my climbing skills - we did do something easy on Manure Pile Buttress - but because in January, Nidever had a stroke and heart-attack and lay on his kitchen floor for 10 hours before being found. By all accounts he should be dead. So it was such a pleasure to see him romp up the granite, swinging leads, as if he had never skipped a beat. In almost all ways, he has recovered yet your prayers for him continue to be in order as he works towards getting all is reading skills back.
My biggest day of the trip began real early…leaving the car at 10:30 a.m. I needed to give a Sunday morning message and wrap things up with the Solid Rock – Climbers for Christ gathering. So with a rather late start, we quickly approached the classic entry level “bad-ass” route in all of climbing – Astroman. With a couple of 5.11+ pitches and the Harding slot, I doubted if I was prepared enough. It was great that I was with Englekirk, the best rope-gun in the world.
Combining the first two pitches (5.7 and 5.10), I led them without much trouble. Then Doug combined the next two pitches, the Boulder Problem and Enduro Corner, into one monster pitch. He gracefully sent it which shouldn’t be too surprising as he on-sighted both pitches many years ago. Then it was my turn with 200 feet in between me and the top of the pitch. The Boulder Problem pitch is just that and my lack of bouldering strength quickly became evident. So, when I popped off after a couple moves it wasn’t a surprise. But the fact that I fell 15 feet before the rope stretched enough to stop my fall was. Without the benefit of a tight tope-rope, my eventual sending of that section was well earned. But the fun had just begun; the 120 feet of the business of the classic Enduro Corner still awaited me. After catching my breath on the ledge, I launched up it. I tried to climb with smooth, energy-saving technique. That didn’t last long and with the stemming sapping my core strength and my forearms getting pumped from the lay-backing and thin-hands jamming. So, I needed to hang off the rope several times to get up this pitch. The good news is that the moves were not unreasonable; I would just need to have better fitness to send it on a future attempt.
The next two pitches were quickly dispatched swapping leads and that brought us to the start of the notorious Harding Slot. Doug struggled a bit and it looked tight for him, a man who is five inches shorter and quite a few pounds smaller than me. But I still expected to get through it with hangs. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t get established into the bomb-bay chimney. Even with pulling on gear I couldn’t make progress. So since I really didn’t like idea of doing the squeeze chimney anyway, I grabbed the edge and lay-backed up my way to the belay. Not proud of that method but there are times when groveling is classic.
The rest of the route is amazing where the climbing for me was very doable. My only remaining falls were when I had to take at a couple spots on the last pitch to figure it out with a bit of trickery. Although my ascent of the route is far from classic, I felt privileged to have treaded where so many other climbers with greater skill and ability had battled and mastered a classic by every climber’s definition of classic.
Before I sign-off, I will admit that I probably over-used the word “classic” and perhaps everything I labeled as classic is not really so. But since this is the first article of my blog entitled “Nothing But Classics” on Dead Point Magazine's website, I felt compelled to use it a lot.
PS – If you want any further beta on any of the routes mentioned, don’t hesitate to email me at calvin @ srcfc.org.