How many climbing spots can you cram into a 4 day trip that starts in California’s Central Coast and hits Yosemite? Well that was what I wanted to find out. My friend Vina had invited me to go with her to Yosemite to take advantage of an invitation to stay at her friend’s tiny house in Oakhurst. Not exactly Yosemite, but much closer than coming from Ventura! I agreed, and we soon came up with a plan to get to Oakhurst in a roundabout way that I’ve dubbed the “Sierra Circle”… via stops at Alabama Hills (neither of us had climbed there before), Tuolumne, Yosemite Valley, and then to either Fresno Dome or Shuteye Ridge. Little did I know that this trip would become a test and highpoint in my re-entry to climbing experience.


Eye to the Moon formation in Alabama Hills, CA

Drove from Ventura to Lone Pine, arriving in the afternoon, and ate at an unpretentious restaurant. Vina wanted to buy a helmet so we went into the climbing shop across the street. While there I asked if it was too hot to climb at Alabama Hills and was told it would be pretty hot, 104 earlier. What climbers usually did was hold off until 5 pm to climb but there were a few places in shade. We didn’t want to wait until five to climb but decided to spend some time grocery shopping to miss some of the heat. It was my first time driving in Alabama Hills and I wasn’t sure how my Honda Fit (2008 Sport) would fare on the dirt roads. The friendly gal at the shop had advised us to check out the Corridors area as a good chance to find routes in the shade so we hoped to camp near there as well. I drove Fitting (yes, I’ve named my car) out on the dirt roads and after a bit of wandering loops we came to a section I thought would be too hard for it. I wisely did not attempt this and put it in reverse; unfortunately, I hit a sand spot and my front wheel dug in. Vina got out and changed shoes, readying to push my car. A climber nearby saw our predicament and helped out as well. He explained he’d gotten a rental car stuck in the same place. Thankfully it wasn’t that hard to get unstuck and I decided to pretty much set up camp right after we got my car turned around on more solid ground. We were close enough to walk to the Corridors and the Lost Eye to the Moon formation the gal in the shop had said would be in the shade (she was right) and got on them. The routes turned out to be good, confidence building onsight routes for me and Vina did a lead there too. The quality of the rock was excellent and was comprised of quartz monzonite same rock that’s out in Joshua Tree. After climbing, we ate some dinner while looking out at the great views one could see in many old Western films. Vina tucked into her tent and I took some long exposure shots but was I too tired to really work at it (and found light pollution from town and the moon interfered with starlight) so gave up and went to sleep in my car. In spite of the heat, Alabama Hills was a great spot and I already knew I’d be back for climbing and photography purposes!

Milky Way night shot in Alabama Hills. Lone Pine, CA


The Shark’s Fin in foreground, Sierra in background, including Mt. Whitney.

Got up and packed up before heading out to do Shark’s Fin arete… a goal I had ever since I’d seen the formation years ago when a friend and I had crashed the night right under it… but he wouldn’t let me climb it (we were rushing to get campsites for friends in Tuolumne and he’d insisted we didn’t have time). There is a designated parking area for The Shark’s Fin now, it meant for a very short walk, but we did see that a group was beating us to the formation as they were already walking out. Luckily, once Vina and I caught up, they didn’t seem to be hopping on the arete route. It was a guided group led by a female guide with a small group of guys who, judging from what she was telling them and their responses, were either very new to climbing, or had maybe done it a little in a gym. I asked the guide if she minded if I led the arete route “real quick” as we were then going to leave for Tuolumne. She said her plan was to get her group up the left route then hang a rope on the arete route but she still had some instruction to do on the ground so, go ahead. I stepped up to the route and realized it was one of those that the start was a bit odd, I had hoped I could clip the first clip from a boulder nearby but it was too far, eventually I just had to go for an essentially no foot move to gain an edge to then clip. The rest of the climb was not a gimme either, but quite a lot of fun! Vina followed it and paused for some time at two spots and later told me she was impressed at my onsight of it, “Great job, Eileen, you did it so fast, and without even eating breakfast!”

Climbing guide on The Shark’s Fin in Alabama Hills

“Really?” I said. I had worried that I’d taken too long since the guide had been waiting to add a rope to our anchors.

One of the guys in the group piped up, “You did great, I was watching, you looked really smooth on it, no hesitation.” It struck me that – even though some other guys in the group had been talking loudly about skydiving and trying BASE jumping in such a way that made me wonder if perhaps their egos were feeling a little threatened – climbing has come a long way since I first started when guys pretty much assumed a female (when there was one in a group) was not a leader. This morning, the two leaders on the rock were female, and one was a guide. Shark’s Fin is such a picturesque rock and I love that you can see Whitney from it as well. After that, Vina and I stuck to our word and got in the car to head for Tuolumne.

GoPro shot of me on-sighting Shark’s Fin arete. See time-lapse video here

Bishop, CA

Unfortunately, upon leaving Lone Pine, my low tire pressure indicator came on. This had also happened a week ago and I found my driver’s side tire slightly under inflated, chalked it up to temperature changes, inflated it and all was well. The light coming on again made me worry it was a slow leak, though it could be due to altitude and temperature change again – if so I’d expect that to affect all 4 tires instead of just one. We decided to make an air and lunch stop in Bishop, CA after I told Vina that I loved going to Schat’s Bakery every chance I could when going through that town just to buy a loaf of their Chili Cheese Bread. Schat’s is a very busy, tourist filled place but we got a table and the bread is totally worth it! After that we tried to go to the Chevron to put air in the tire but someone had parked in the spot for it. The tire visually looked fine and I didn’t see any nail, etc, but I still wanted to fill it up. I went to the Shell in town which is at a Carl’s Jr and after getting the free tokens to operate the machine, found out it was out of order. So I went back to the Chevron which fortunately now had the air/water parking spot free. The tire was at 21 PSI. Tire filled with air again, and the low pressure indicator off, we hit the road.

On the road to Tuolumne up Tioga Pass

Tuolumne, CA

I was running on a sleep deficit from a busy week so I was glad to be able to catch a few winks while Vina drove on the leg from Bishop into Tuolumne and the Lembert Dome picnic area. I had had the vague idea that I would lead us up Northwest Books. That route was my very first multi-pitch trad route I’d done a long time (*cough* almost two decades *cough*) ago. I wasn’t so sure though. I didn’t remember a key part of the route. Missing this part would make a big difference in the rating. I also remember the descent being quite painful in climbing shoes (and steep enough that I wouldn’t want to do it in hiking shoes – and yes, I know there’s a long way down via a hiking trail). Luckily, we got a primo parking spot alongside the road and started to rack up. Alas, the spot was too good to be true, as some climbers told us who were sorting gear nearby. We had parked in the No Parking zone and didn’t realize it because the car after me had done the same and also blocked our view of an additional sign. The climbers were leaving though so we could take their legal spot. Trip of ups and downs in terms of luck so far!

We grabbed the parking spot and finished gearing up. I was still feeling “car warp” from the drive and grogginess from my not-very-refreshing cat naps in the car. Hiking up the approach I could feel the altitude (I live basically at sea level). I looked ahead to the route and still couldn’t see where one was supposed to traverse to avoid getting on a harder crack climb after pitch one. I realized too that it’d been years since I’d done a multi-pitch climb of any sort, following or leading. I had studied Mountain Project’s beta on the route but still didn’t have a clear picture in my mind. Truth was, I was hoping another party would already be on the route so I could see where they were going and follow them. What I did notice when I looked up was that someone had left an alpine draw on the one bolt on the route! Nothing gets you motivated like a chance at booty gear! I headed up the 3rd class approach to get to the real start of the climb.  Upon getting to the tree and setting up an anchor, I realized that I could also see that there were two pieces of gear in the crack beyond the bolt! I guess the party that had left the gear on the bolt had bailed higher and didn’t want to just lower on one piece of pro or didn’t feel good about their placement of it. I still wasn’t liking not knowing the route properly, though my memory of the first pitch was coming back pretty strong. I remembered it was a bit odd and slick in parts, not an obvious crack or lieback technique situation. The pair of guys who had passed by earlier on the trail below (and I’d hopefully asked if they were going to do Northwest Books) came back. I called out, “You’re back!”

“Yeah, we decided to pass on the direct route and do Northwest Books instead.” I had already decided to just lead climb up to the bolt, maybe check out the situation with the two cams, but likely come back down. The reason for this plan was that I had lost my nerve but Vina wanted to at least climb a little since we were there. We had a backup plan so would do that afterwards.

Vina takes a selfie, I’m in back

In the end, after some discussion with the guys, it was decided that I could climb up and use their gear to get lowered / downclimb. In exchange, the guys would now get to lay claim to the gear left in the crack. I headed up, placing a few cams before getting to the bolt. Right before the bolt I could see why it was there… there were some friction moves to get to it and to go beyond it. Getting to it was likely easy for anyone taller than myself but I didn’t like it much and found it an unpleasant surprise after the easy terrain before it. In addition to this, I could hear a lot of chatter going on at the base of the climb and thought I heard my name. I stepped back down to a ledge from my attempt to start the friction part to ask what was going on but learned no one had said anything to me. I continued up and gained the bolt. The gear was brand new and could not have been left there more than one day – particularly since this was normally a very popular route and it would’ve been cleaned sooner. The cams and crack seemed so close but so far away! But, I already had a plan, so put in the Berkeley guys’ gear and lowered / down climbed.

Vina went up after and did the same. However, we didn’t take off quite yet, she wanted some photos before we headed back to the car, so we were able to see the guys start the route. Upon getting to the friction part, the leader was hesitant as well – it really was pretty blank for a route that’s supposed to be 5.6. He went ahead and got to the crack but said, “I didn’t like that part at all!” He continued on and passed the two left behind pieces. Then we could hear him exclaim, “There’s more gear!” This was very odd, why would someone leave so much gear? Vina and I were already making our way down but could still hear the guys talking. At one point we heard the leader say, “Something must have gone wrong, there’s an anchor just lying here at my feet, not attached to anything”. This was very strange and not good. Leaving gear on multi-pitch routes is not uncommon, some would say it’s the price of admission to multipitch trad climbing. But leaving a lot of gear, and seeing an anchor setup not attached to something, is not common at all. I wondered if the party had been chased away by a thunderstorm, or, as I heard one of the guys say to the other, “Maybe they were so flush, they just bailed and left all their gear?” There was another possibility that neither they, nor I said out loud.

It was with somber thoughts that I left the Lembert Dome picnic area with Vina to scope out a “climb” she had done with her husband a few weeks ago near Tenaya Lake which she described as just “walking up” with great views. My backup to Lembert had been to find Bunny Slopes or one of the few top rope areas in Tuolumne but, considering my mood, the fact that we’d already driven past one of the top rope areas, and the time limit (Vina wanted to get to Oakhurst early enough to say hello to her friends before dark) – easy “climbing” was fine with me. We ended up not finding exactly what Vina had envisioned but we did pull over across from Tenaya Lake and go up what I began to recognize as part of the descent area from when I did West Route years ago. I then spotted the route itself and remembered leading the rather slippery lie back pitch, and thinking it must be even more slippery now. Was I being older and wiser to not even want to do it now, or was I just being chicken? Was my caution completely due to my “still getting back into climbing” status, or something else? I had led fine in the morning on the sport route. What was it about trad in Tuolumne that scared me so much? I brought my attention back to the exploration we were doing. We found a lot of wildflowers and gorgeous views. Tuolumne is pretty breathtaking, no matter where you are in it.

Driving to Oakhurst

Me jumping at Tunnel View.

We took off from Tuolumne with some regret, and headed to Yosemite Valley, hoping we wouldn’t have to follow the loop road around. Thankfully we didn’t but I begged for a stop at tunnel view, as the light was very pretty. It’s certainly one of the most photographed views in Yosemite, but that doesn’t make it any less gorgeous! Unfortunately on the drive down from there, the low tire pressure light came on again. This was not good. I was at the wheel and knew there was a gas station at Wawona. When we got there, the air pump needed to be turned on and there was no one inside the gas station (though the gas pumps still worked). I checked my tire pressure and it was at 21 PSI again. We just wanted to get to Oakhurst and I’d get the leak patched (or buy new tires). It made for a slightly nerve wracking drive down (with us keeping an eye out for gas stations along the way) but we finally made it to a Chevron with a hightech but working air station. My tire pressure seemed to have held, as it was still at 21 psi according to the fancy air pump machine. I filled up the tire and drove the thankfully short distance to our hosts’ place in Oakhurst. Safely at their place I got out of the car and heard a hissing sound. That was new! I could tell the tire was going to be flat by morning. I had just bought this set of tires, less than 2 years ago. Darn luck!

Coming… PART II, in which I inexplicably get my nerve back and experience some “firsts”

Below: Gallery of Day 1 and Day 2 trip photos featuring a mix of my professional photography shots, camera phone, or GoPro shots, and shots by Vina Lustado (those taken with me in them except for my GoPro timed photos of Shark’s Fin). Photo of Vina and me in yoga poses by unknown photographer from LA (one of the guys being guided).