Despite a stomach sinking prologue to my trip, I was excited to go out to Tuolumne again and this time to add a stop to climb near the Whitney Portal. The Plan was pretty complicated, aside from two nights outside of Tuolumne, Peter and I were in charge of procuring a campsite for a number of climbers who would be coming and going throughout the week, including some people I had never met before but had chatted with via Twitter. Climbing abilities of those involved were also going to be varied so the route tick list was not set in stone as well. Sounds like a recipe for fun doesn’t it?

Day 1 & 2 – 7/10, 7/11

We drove out to Lone Pine and ended up sleeping in the Alabama Hills. I had never been out there, though I’d of course seen it while driving on the way to the Whitney Portal. We ended up right next to the rock formation called the “Shark Fin” and at sunrise the next morning I looked longingly at it, wanting to climb it instead of just taking pictures. Alabama Hills, Shark Fin & other rocks

Peter had slept on top of his truck’s shell on a mattress while I slept inside of it with the tailgate down, surrounded by a lot of camping stuff. He has a homemade shelving system in there which leaves room for one person to sleep in a narrow space.

We took off without breakfast and drove to Whitney Portal, parking near the bear boxes for the Meysan Lake Trail head. Then we hiked through the campground and onto the trail itself. We stayed on the actual trail for about 10 minutes before turning off to pretty much go straight uphill, an approach Peter had described as “like Tahquitz but steeper, longer and off-trail”. I learned it also apparently included some slab soloing. We stopped in some of the sparse shade to eat a little before getting to the base of the climb, I felt a little winded from the high altitude exertion.

Candlelight Buttress on the right
Candlelight Buttress on the right. Photo by Peter Bozek

Our goal was “First Responder”, a 3 pitch bolted friction and knob climb with pitches rated 5.10a, 5.9, and 5.8. The buttress is visible from the road up to Whitney Portal and looked impressive from the bear boxes. Peter had set his eye on it because another climber had talked about it on one his previous climbing trips.

Peter set off on the first pitch. It was soon evident that it was going to be a tough one. He fell a few times (fortunately not before the first bolt) and a knob broke off on him. I really knew it was hard when I heard him say, “Damn it, where’s that bolt!” I don’t think I’ve ever heard him curse before, even something as mild as that.

View from the base of "First Responder" on Candlelight Buttress

When my turn to climb came up I had my own issues, I could feel my shoes buttering off of the knobs, particularly the quartz ones. The weather was hot so perhaps my shoe rubber wasn’t cooperating. I was wearing my tighter fit Mythos shoes but I’ve had them resoled so I don’t know what kind of rubber I have on them. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to like quartz and/or the hot weather. I was also breathing hard, still not used to the altitude I guess. When I got to the “damn it” part I unashamedly weighted the rope a little.

The 5.9 section contained similar climbing but was a little more straight forward (the 10a had veered a little to the right). Seconding it, a hold broke off in my hand. I had asked if I could lead the 5.8 pitch but when I finished the 5.9 I was so winded (and a little perturbed at the hold breaking off) that I told Peter he could just finish it if he liked. He did want to, though he said later that he didn’t think the climb got easier and he felt the 5.9 and 5.8 pitches were the same.

Then we were at the rap anchors and rap rings on top. This is where the real drama began.

Peter had said his guide book mentioned a 30m rappel. We had a 70m rope with us. Peter set off to rappel first, which included going from the rap rings over a rounded edge before getting to the steeper part of the rappel. He was about 15 feet short of getting to the hanging belay station. He had to ascend back up.

Peter doing the first rappel of the day
Peter doing the first rappel of the day

About now I started feeling extremely sleepy. So sleepy that I rested my helmeted head against the rock and fell asleep while in a partial hanging belay. I’ve never done that before. I only woke up when I heard a loud rushing sort of sound that made me think of an avalanche. Fortunately it was just the wind.

Peter finally made it back up and set up a single rope rappel, extending the “pull side” with cordelette and slings as he went down to the next station. I followed and we got on the hanging belay.

Then it was time to pull the rope. Peter heaved on it and it slowly moved. He looked quite winded so I told him I’d take a turn and let him rest. He was so tired that he called me, “the most wonderful woman in the world”,  once I started pulling I understood why he’d said that.

Picture this, I’m at a hanging belay. I stand up to grasp the rope as far up as I can (we had a t-block to help grab the rope) and then I use my arm muscles and leg muscles and eventually my entire body weight (ending up nearly upside down) to move the rope down — 6 inches. This wasn’t just drag, this was incredible, old-days-of-wizened-sailors-hauling-ropes, line pulling. I kept at it for awhile as Peter tried to catch his breath. It was frustrating because you could see the knot moving ever so slowly and meanwhile my body was getting wracked.

Peter eventually took the rope again but after a few more pulls from him announced he was going to ascend again and try to get the carabiner to at least get over the rounded edge (his theory was that the carabiner and/or knot had been catching on knobs).

And so he went up again as I caught my breath on the hanging belay [by the way I want a comfortable harness, any suggestions?]. Eventually I could see Peter coming over the edge. He told me to secure the cordelette/sling end of the rope to the anchor “as if for a fall”. I was a little confused as I wasn’t sure what that would do but did as he said. Turns out he had just adjusted the rappel to be a double “rope” rappel and was coming down on both ends. It was a tricky preposition though I don’t see what other option he had. He got to the station safely and we were able to pull the rope this time.

“Yes!” Peter yelled as it came down.

I took the next (last rappel) and discovered the rope didn’t quite make it to the start of the climb, however I was able to walk it to the left (uphill) and got off rappel.

Peter came down and we hiked back to the car, this time skipping the “solo slabs” having spotted a safer way to go down. By the time we got to the car we calculated we had spent 11 hours on the three pitch climb (including the approach and descent).

We drove away from the Portal and had dinner in Lone Pine, after which we went on towards Tuolumne, parked in a day use area (where other vehicles were also parked) we were both exhausted from the day and got to sleep around 12:30 at night.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the  “Less Rack but Extra Friends – High Sierras / Tuolumne Trip 2009” saga…