A Trip Report: Yosemite National Park. May 2012 with Flashbacks to April 2011

This was the best Yosemite Valley trip ever. K, Michael and I all agreed when we finally said our goodbyes back home. Seven days in Yosemite are bound to have wonderful moments but even the little mistakes made turned out well, and sometimes made the trip better. I’m going to present the trip to you as a Drama in Three Parts (or roughly around that length, I’ll be covering seven days of Yosemite awesomeness but plan to condense a few of the days).

Part I. Day 1. – The Nutcrackers.

I’ve been on some part of “Nutcracker” five times now, the first four times happened back in April of 2011. This day I couldn’t keep thinking about all of them.

K, Michael and I arrived at the nearly empty Manure Pile Buttress parking area early in the morning of May 4th. Our plan was to do the popular classic, 5 pitch trad route, “Nutcracker” which had a few variations for its first pitch. As a party of three we couldn’t be picky on which one we started, we just needed to start as fast as we could and try to stay out of the way of other parties. Since K and I had done every start of “Nutcracker” in our guide book [Note: we have since discovered more], we figured we could handle whichever start had no one on it. Since there were only a few cars in the parking lot, we hoped that meant at least one of the starts was free.

The first time I got on “Nutcracker” was in April of 2011 during the Yosemite Tweetup and the 5.9 start variation had water dripping down on it. Fortunately the ribbon of wet was mostly not on the route and our friends had already gone up on this grey day without incident. K led it and I followed with a little bit of difficulty around the wet part, then I proceeded to lead the second pitch. The second pitch is much wider so it was easier to avoid wet spots and I had no problem with it.

We got as far as me cleaning the middle of the 3rd pitch before hail started bouncing off of my helmet. We ended up at the belay for the 4th pitch when we decided to single rope rappel down to the party a pitch below us who we had asked to wait for us. We all bailed down from there in the rain.

Michael asked if we were going to rack up at the car. We were, we still hadn’t seen any other climbers. Luck seemed to be with us so far. K and I had expected to find Manure Pile Buttress busy. Hopefully not as busy though as the third time we had tried Nutcracker…

“Which way did you go?” I asked K, eyeing the expanse between the 5.6 dihedral we had climbed up as the first pitch of “Nutcracker” and the ledge where the various second pitches of “Nutcracker” all met. It looked pretty thin. “I went higher,” K said. I examined that way. “If I fall from there it’d be a nasty pendulum swing into that rock.”

“Yeah it’s more dangerous for the follower.” I decided to stay low, it would still be a pendulum, but I liked the look of the end of the traverse better. After a few moves I managed to get my right hand on my goal, the crack which led to the top of the lieback start variation. K was just above that.

I took the second pitch, it was short and easy, it angled up the ramp that the 2nd pitch after the 5.9 variation eventually led to. What I found on the top of the 2nd pitch though was a crowded ledge. I built my anchor on the ramp a few feet above the large ledge, where 4 people were waiting. We hadn’t seen them from the base of the cliff.

Eventually there was a line of 9 climbers, with a party of two barely 8 feet above the ledge, stuck in the middle of the 3rd pitch. When a party of 3 wearing psychedelic colors came up but then bailed after the stuck party of 2 came down, they started a chain reaction of rappelling down. We must have been waiting for an hour or more on that ledge.

Michael, K and I hiked to the base of Nutcracker and found all of the starts free. K started up the 5.9, it wasn’t wet this time but quite dry though a pretty flower on the ledge below the crack stood as testimony that water had been there recently. I heard voices from the direction of the approach path. Ah, the anticipated line was going to start now, or maybe they’d take the other starts? But no, the party didn’t even look our way but seemed to be going straight to “After Six”. Which, coincidentally had been my very first trad lead ever in Yosemite Valley.

The start of the 5.9 variation for “Nutcracker” is a friction/small edges climb up to a small ledge before starting the meat of the pitch, a small diagonal finger/hand crack with slippery placements for the feet. K went up and Michael seconded, I was slated as third.

By the time I was starting the climb, a party of two had claimed their spot in line after us (after I overheard them discussing how the 5.8 start would be bad for a recovering shoulder). I was a little nervous since I was being watched, and was also cognizant that it’d be better for everyone if I climbed quickly. There is a trick to the crux of the crack start, you have to put your right foot out on a lighter colored ribbon on the rock of the right of the crack, it’s just a smear (and the rock is polished) but it gets you up. The rest of the moves must be done quickly (or at the very least as quick as you can when cleaning gear). By the time I was at the tree which marked the belay station for Pitch 2, I was breathing hard.

Pitch 2 was my pitch. I saw that the party behind us had already started up, so I took off with the rack. Since this was my third time leading it I knew what to expect. It’s a lovely slanting wide crack with parts of it turning into a dihedral interrupted by some rocks and trees. At times I was walking in the crack, other times I was stemming it or liebacking. I used the trees for pro. The crux is the top of the climb where the right side of the dihedral juts out, creating a small roof of sorts. I went up and over and proceeded to the wide ledge to make an anchor in an ideal spot for Pitch 3. There was no on on the ledge this time. However, I was belaying Michael up when the leader of the party behind us topped out instead. He had essentially soloed a lot of the route and said something about how our rope should be fine because his placements weren’t in the way. When his second came up, I think I heard him say something about how the leader had only placed 3 pieces.

We let that party pass us of course.

K leading the 3rd pitch of NutcrackerPitch 3 starts off with a step across to a crack. I once led this part and about 15 feet above it before I backed off, my lead head lost after having to wait while on the route for some climbers ahead of us. This time it was K on the sharp end and we had waited long enough for the party that passed us to be free from the belay station. K went up the zigzagging route, then Michael, then myself. As I cleaned the route I thought about how I had backed off before, the part I had backed away from (one which required liebacking) was not very hard, but it did require a moment of commitment, at least for me anyway, and back then it had been wet. I thought I could have handled it on this day, but it was good to be fast anyway in case of unexpected weather. K and I still had memories of our second attempt at “Nutcracker”…

“That was pretty tiring!” I said to K as I finished up cleaning the 5.8 lieback start. He agreed. We moved up the ramp to attain the large ledge which was the bottle neck of all the start variations. This was when we felt the first rain drops. It wasn’t supposed to rain today. The forecast called for rain every single day of our trip, but not today.

A party of two women joined us on the ledge, they had done the 5.6 start and had had trouble on the traverse. We conferred about the rain. “Well, we can wait a bit and see if it stops,” one of them said. We had a bite to eat while exchanging introductions. Then the rain started to dump harder. K and I were having flash backs to two days prior. We jointly decided to combine our two ropes and rappel down. When we all got to the ground we talked about trying again and said our goodbyes.

The rain didn’t stop all that day. All we heard in the Curry Village common room was, “It wasn’t supposed to rain!” Turns out folks had bailed off El Cap and many other routes that day. So much for the weather forecast.

The belay for the 4th pitch is a bit small for two people to stay at. K took this pitch, I was on belay, and Michael had to literally hang out. Pitch 4 has a lot of friction and the leader disappears from view very quickly since the first moves take you around and over a small overhung area. As K went out of view I could only watch the rope for clues to his progress. By now, we spotted a party of two, no three, no four? below us. It seemed to me to be a while before K stopped climbing, when I followed him up I figured out why. The pitch has some fairly run out sections and then leads to a fist sized crack which goes up a small roof. A cam was stuck in there. K had warned me about it but I gave it one shot trying to clean it anyway. But, mindful that there was a party behind us, I moved on. After the roof there was still a bit more climbing to be done, involving some small cracks, edges and friction. I was fighting tremendous drag, it must have been what slowed K down. We should have extended the piece below the roof. I had clipped my tailing rope to it, not thinking I needed to extend it either. Eventually I got to the belay with a small ledge. K said he could’ve stopped a few feet below where we were but wanted to leave it for the other party in case they needed it.

Michael soon came up and then K was off again to do the famous mantle pitch. I can’t quite figure out how I would lead this within my comfort zone. Now the party behind us (turns out they were two parties of two) was right on our heels. The leader ending up building an anchor in the area K had passed up. Fortunately this was the last pitch. K did the mantle with no problem. I followed, ending up using a small crimper on the left of the dihedral to the mantle to get me high enough to make the mantle move. When Michael went through this section he said he just reached the hold for the mantle itself, but he’s a bit taller than I am.

Our party at the top of the NutcrackerWe topped out to a beautiful sunlit view which included Half Dome in the distance and seasonal waterfalls on the walls opposite ours. After a break on top for a high five from Michael, photos, a few friendly words with the first party behind us who were topping out, and a bit of a walk around, we headed down. We were pretty excited because we had finished in good time and felt we could check on our friends’ campsite to figure out where they were climbing today and hopefully meet up with them.

At the car K asked me, “You got the car key?”

“No,” I said with a smile in my voice; he’s tried this joke before.

But it wasn’t a joke. He didn’t have the key and I didn’t have my clicker. We were locked out.

Stay tuned for Part 2