American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Some Yosemite Rock-Climbs

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  • Publication Year: 1944

Some Yosemite Rock-Climbs

William Shand, Jr.

ALTHOUGH nearly all the major summits of Yosemite had been ascended prior to 1900, it was not until 1934 that serious modern rock-climbing was undertaken in the valley. Since that time members of the Sierra Club of California have pioneered routes on faces and pinnacles comparable in difficulty with the best granite climbs of other regions of the world. Accounts of the earlier ascents, notably of the Cathedral Spires, earned for Yosemite a reputation expressed in a recent guidebook as a region characteristic of “rock-climbing of greatest difficulty, which can be undertaken only by experts.” It is true that many of the most popular routes are of fifth and sixth class1 difficulty, yet countless other climbs are to be found, from pleasant scrambles such as Grizzly Peak and Mt. Starr King to long climbs of intermediate difficulty such as Washington Column. Exceptionally competent women have climbed the Spires, although I believe that no woman has as yet led a Class Six climb in Yosemite. It might be mentioned, incidentally, that the first “Class Six” climb in the valley was accomplished in 1875, when George Anderson, the trailbuilder, engineered his way to the summit of Half Dome by drilling holes for eyebolts through which a rope was threaded along the line of the present “Cable.” Like the ascent of Devils Tower in Wyoming, this feat was accomplished long before the advent of modern rock-climbing.

The geology of Yosemite has given rise to the smooth, precipitous glacier-polished faces and spectacular spires of granite with which everyone has become familiar in the oft-seen pictures of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome. Although the altitude of the summits is not great, the length of difficult roped climbing often exceeds that found in other, higher, ranges. For example, the height of the Matterhorn above the Hörnli Hut is 3880 ft., of the Grand Teton above the Lower Saddle 2150 ft., of Mt. Victoria above the Abbot Hut 1777 ft., while Half Dome is 4890 ft. above Mirror Lake, Glacier Point 3200 ft., and Washington Column 1900 ft. above the valley floor. The immense proportions of the valley walls often cause serious underestimation of height. The rock is unusually solid and sound, the holds few and far between, minute and well-rounded, interspersed with narrow cracks and ledges. An unuusual feature of Yosemite climbs is the presence of small bushes and dwarf trees on even the most perpendicular and overhanging pitches. Although they form welcome belay stances and convenient roping-down anchors, one must not count on their appearance ! Because of the scarcity of holds on long leads, more rope than usual is generally required : at least 100 ft. between climbers on many routes. The classic example is Brower and Morgan’s 300 ft. lead on Castle Cliffs. In addition a 200 ft. rappel rope is usually carried, since the route of descent is otherwise either excessively long or difficult. As yet practically all of the climbing in the valley has been done by Sierra Club members. With the ease of access of the region, the unsurpassed quality and variety of climbs available and yet to be made, it is indeed surprising that other rock-climbers so seldom visit Yosemite to climb. In Spring and early Summer, when the falls are at the height of their magnificence and the valley floor teems with tourists, the rock-climber leaves them far below, and gains viewpoints incomparably more interesting and enjoyable than the parking space at Happy Isles or Bridal Veil.

Although I had visited Yosemite in 1939, it was not until the following year that I was able to make any of the climbs in the valley. After first seeing the Cathedral Spires I was smitten by an overpowering desire to reach their summits—a feeling which is no doubt common in all climbers when they spy an apparently inaccessible and forbidding crag. The Cathedral Spires were the first of the difficult climbs in Yosemite to be accomplished. These slender pinnacles stand to the east of the Cathedral Rocks, towering 2100 ft. above the valley floor. The original routes with minor variations are still the only ones completed, and they are still not “an easy day for a lady.” An hour of pleasant scrambling over talus and through the cool forest at the base of the terrifying N. faces brings one to the saddle connecting the Spires with the cliffs of the valley rim. From the saddle the foreshortened S. W. face of the higher Spire presents a much more broken appearance than from the road below, but a closer examination soon disillusions the optimist. Fortunately we were not particularly optimistic that day since we had as usual slept late, and started later still. From the saddle a series of cracks and ledges leads upwards to the N. to “First Base,” the wide ledge where the difficult climbing begins. There the lead devolved upon me, the others kindly declining this dubious honor on various pretences of slight credibility. After surmounting the initial overhang, one traverses on a perpendicular face around one of the most spectacular corners in the valley onto the “Bathtubs.” These peculiar solution ledges are wide enough to balance on, but lack confidence-inspiring handholds above, and overhang the W. face, which plunges 500 ft. into the forest below. I experienced that unusual sensation which one might have on stepping out onto the sill of a window on the 50th floor of the Empire State Building, and preparing to climb around to the next window. I kept up a conversation with Raffi Bedayan, who was belaying me, by means of an echo from the face of middle Cathedral Rock, since I was now out of sight around the corner, and the rope was running through the karabiners with considerable difficulty. The friction is considerably lessened by the use of two ropes, the one used through the karabiners up to the corner, when it is allowed to hang free and the second rope is snapped in. In spite of the expansion-bolt which protects the last part of the lead, a narrow crack above the “Bathtubs,” I was happy to embrace the little tree at the top of the crack, and dangling one foot on each side of the trunk, spent the next half hour gazing down at the talus while the others apparently decided, one by one, not to do the higher Spire that day. Finally Bedayan appeared around the corner below, cheerfully remarking that the worst was over ; we had at least made the first pitch.

In a few minutes we were at the base of the “Rotten Chimney,” really a smooth open face of vertically fractured and rather unsound rock. Fortunately most of the pitons were in place. There were 17 altogether, and since we only had 10 karabiners it was somewhat of a problem to decide which ones to ignore—except for the ones at the top of the overhang, which gave me a few nasty moments before I could struggle out onto the narrow platform to recover wind and confidence. Bedayan followed in short order while I belayed from behind a convenient buttress of rock. At “Third Base,” the ledge below the summit block, I took a look a look around the N. corner of the ledge while prospecting for the route, but unprepared for the terrifying view, recoiled with some profanity from the precipice which falls almost a 1000 perpendicular feet to the base of the Spire. The old route ascended a piton ladder in a vertical crack in the S. W. face, but there are at least three easier variations. It might be remarked that for some time after the first ascents of the Spires and other routes, the climbers, fascinated by the fact that the ascents could be accomplished at all, seemed to ignore the possibility of safer and easier variations, and to specialize in lowering the speed records. This situation now seems to have gone to the other extreme, and some of the climbs are in danger of being lowered by one class of difficulty. The variation we chose was certainly not difficult, though quite exposed. We traversed around the S. face of the summit block along a narrow ledge and ascended an easy crack to the spacious summit. On the highest point appeared the inevitable dwarf pine. A yodel of triumph brought a faint reply from far below on the saddle, where the others awaited our return.

The view from both the Spires is remarkable in that one feels that the summit rock must be floating in space ; no ridges, no faces are visible from the tops. The view to the lower Spire is much like the view of the Winklerturm from the Stabelerturm in the Vajolet Group in the Dolomites. The shadows of the Cathedral Rocks, striding up the valley, warned us that we were late, and we hastened to descend. The scrub pine furnished an excellent roping-off point, and rappelling in 100-ft. pitches from tree to tree in the S. W. face to the right of the climbing route, we soon returned to “First Base.” The last rappel, an 80-ft. overhang, leaves two alternatives : going slowly and getting dizzy from revolving, or going fast and burning off the rappel-patch. Having no patch, I preferred the former method, while Bedayan took the latter.

The lower Cathedral Spire is generally considered easier than the higher, although the “Flake” pitch is more difficult than any pitch on the higher Spire. Late in September, 1941, Dave Lind, of the Seattle Mountaineers, and I reached the base of the lower Spire via the long curving talus slope to the E. of the Spires. While prospecting for the route we visited the notch between the Spires—a splendid gap which drops abruptly on the N. side to the forest far below, a viewpoint which should not be missed by climber or off-trail hiker. Since we knew that the first pitch was unusually severe, we started up the wrong place, and soon got into greater and greater difficulties. Descending, we started again higher up on the correct route, beneath a tree growing out under an overhang. Ants chased us up the chimney to “Main Ledge,” but the traverse to the block beneath the “Flake” confused them, and we were pursued no more. I won the toss to see who would lead the “Lake,” and being unable to persuade Lind that I was quite willing that he should do it, tied in to the double rope while he tied in to the pitons. A shoulder stand enabled me to grope around for holds that did not materialize, but somehow I got started on the face and reached what the Climbers’ Guide calls an “almost inadequate ledge.” I should like to delete the word “almost.” A traverse to the left, up, and back to the right, and a few shakes later I was under the “Flake” itself. This remarkable exfoliation slab is some 60 ft. high, a mere shell at the outer edge, and about 2 ft. thick at the base, a very precarious looking affair indeed. A loop of sling-rope is thrown over a projecting point on the lower corner of the “Flake” about 6 ft. beyond a one-inch ledge on which the climber stands in a perpendicular face some 30 ft. above the belayer, the rope trailing in a semi-circle through the karabiners along the way. Once the loop catches, the difficulties are over, and the thin edge of the “Flake” is carefully surmounted. I never did quite understand how Lind got started off the block, but after a while his smiling face appeared over the edge of the “Flake” with the remark “Quite a drop-off here !” The view from the ledge above the “Flake” gives one a remarkable impression of the steepness of the N. face of Sentinel Rock. Two variations are possible from the ledge, the earlier one considerably more difficult. We chose the easier way, traversing to the right along the ledge and up onto the corner of the E. face. In a couple of 100-ft. pitches we were on the summit, the W. end of which overhangs the N. W. face. After signing the register and dropping a pebble over the overhang we hastened to join some friends who were exploring the ravine behind the Spires. Roping down over the “Flake” was much more fun than climbing up it !

By far the most popular climb in Yosemite Valley, to judge from the number of ascents, is Washington Column. Standing at the eastern end of the Royal Arches, opposite Half Dome, this great mass of rock forms a giant cornerstone where Tenaya Canyon enters the valley. Most of the climb is four class in difficulty ; one pitch on the usual route, the “Piton Traverse,” is fifth class. In 1940 a “direct route” of greater difficulty was made, and later climbed in winter. Perhaps the route is popular because within five minutes of leaving the automobile, one can rope up and start an 1800-ft. rock-climb ! The length of the climb usually necessitates an early start—needless to say, our party was late in getting under way on Memorial Day, 1942, despite the threat of a bivouac on the Column. At the base of the chimney separating the Royal Arches from the Column one climbs into the face and follows a series of easy ledges and cracks for about 1000 ft. diagonally upwards to the E. to “Lunch Ledge,” where the more difficult climbing begins. Actually lunch was consumed some distance below the ledge, since none of us had been on the route before, and we expected a much narrower ledge than it actually turned out to be. While eating we admired the impressive view of the Arches, with water raining from the overhang and drifting over to us with occasional gusts of wind. Across the valley we could see the route in the E. face of Glacier Point which we had climbed the previous autumn ; now it was practically a waterfall.

Some distance higher we finally found the ice-pitons which mark “Lunch Ledge” and the beginning of the “Piton Traverse.” Deciding to risk a bivouac, we started the traverse, a 75-ft. pitch on a 65° smooth, rounded face with minute, polished holds, a severe test of balance and friction. A 100 ft. beyond, a rope- traverse from an alcove gives access to the top of the chimney between the Arches and the Column, above where the stream pours over the great overhang to dissipate itself in spray far below. The chimney was wet, and full of damp and slippery moss and lichen. Using felt-soled Kletterschuhe which I had fortunately brought along, the upper waterfalls were climbed without serious difficulty, although not without discomfort ; the rest slipped and slid up the rope through the water at the worst place. We emerged at the top at 6.30 p.m., and held a council to decide how to go down. Instead of roping down the Mirror Lake side, the usual procedure, we decided to hike down Indian Canyon by crossing over the Royal Arches. This sad underestimate of distance finally brought us to the head of Indian Creek shortly after dark, and forced a bivouac upon us. The alpenglow on the snowy High Sierras and the spectacle of the firefall from the Arches opposite Yosemite Point nearly recompensed that cold night on the valley rim.

One of the most pleasant of the easier Yosemite climbs I have made is the ascent of the Leaning Chimney, the great recess behind the Leaning Tower by Bridal Veil Falls. The climb is shaded throughout by the tower, and the remarkable view of the tenuous Ribbon Falls from beneath the tremendous overhanging face at the foot of the climb is quite unforgettable. The only difficulties are two large chockstones, the lower one passed over a slender spire and a smooth face, and the upper one a chinning exercise on remarkably deep and convenient handholds. From the notch at the head of the chimney it is but a short scramble to the top. We decided to cross Bridal Veil Creek and descend to the valley by the Gunsight, the cleft between lower and middle Cathedral Rocks. A few hundred yards above the brink of the falls we found a place to cross the torrent by jumping to a boulder in the middle of the stream, and sliding the clothes and packs over on a karabiner and rope. After some debate as to which notch was correct we chose the lower one, which happily turned out to be the Gunsight. A long rope-down into the valley, some scrambling over talus, and one enters the forest at the foot of the lower Cathedral Rock opposite El Capitan. On the way back to Bridal Veil Falls we examined the N. W. face of the lower Cathedral Rock, the climb projected for the next day. The key pitch involves a shoulder-stand in slings to get out from beneath a massive overhang above the alcove in the face visible from the Wawona Road junction.

Not all of the Yosemite climbs are of great length ; indeed, some of the minor pinnacles are almost as difficult and take nearly as much time as the Spires, the Arches, or Washington Column under good conditions. Such climbs are Kat Pinnacle, Split Pinnacle, and especially popular with one group of climbers, Pulpit Rock, a 200-ft. shaft of granite just below the dam on the Merced River where the All-Year Highway meets the Oak Flat Road. Several strong parties were repulsed on the latter climb until Raffi Bedayan, Carl Jensen, and Randolph May finally engineered the overhang above the “Cave.” Pulpit Rock is somewhat reminiscent of the Guglia d’Amicis, and I have often thought that it might even be climbed by the same tactics of throwing a rope over the summit blocks from the adjacent wall. During low water one can reach the rock in fifteen minutes by crossing the dam ; in springtime one must take the fishermen’s trail on the S. side of the Merced from Pohono Bridge, a mile further upstream. The route is unique in starting from the upper branches of a tree to get into an overhanging crack. When I first made the climb, with Dave Lind, we had some difficulty in deciding which tree to start from, all of them looked so unpromising. Finally we spied a lonely piton high in the face above the correct tree. Add another point to the list of reasons why pitons are unethical aids ! The first belay stance, a piton anchor, is fully 80 ft. above the tree. Dave led, and I quite appreciated the upper belay over the perpendicular face. A short distance above this is the “Cave,” an outward sloping alcove filled with loose blocks. The problem from here is to reach a ledge on the S. face, overhangs barring escape in all directions. After arranging the rope and anchoring in to pitons, Dave started up the 75° sloping slab which runs into the overhang to the left of the “Cave.” At the top he fixed two slings, got a piton in the nose of the overhang, and after looking all around for holds, came back to rest for a minute. Then he went back up, put a sling in the last piton, and wiggled the loose chock- stone a little to be sure that it would not come down. Stepping into the sling was no easy job ; he dangled over the chasm briefly, then disappeared from sight, and soon called for me to follow. With the slings already in place it was only a short time until I joined him on the ledge, collecting the pitons on the way. One more pitch puts one on the summit, two large slabs leaning against each other to form a sort of roof. Two long rope-downs into the Pulpit completed the day’s work, followed appropriately by a swim in the Merced at the dam. For anyone who desires a taste of Yosemite rock-climbing, Pulpit Rock is a good appetizer.

Late in the Fall, when the trees have turned and patches of early snow powder the valley rim, the climbs on the south side of the Yosemite lie in the shadow. The floor of the valley is cold until midmorning, and climbs on the N. side are more popular. In November, 1942, with several members of the Southern RCS, I climbed the S. W. arête of lower Brother. The ascent begins a short distance up Eagle Creek, below the prominent chimney opposite Split Pinnacle. Of all the routes in the Climber’s Guide, I have never been less sure that we were on the route described there. The lower part is a “Yosemite bushwhack” ; one climbs a pitch of moderate difficulty, emerges in a veritable thicket of manzanita and scrub pine, and struggles with great effort through the tangle of rope and branches to the foot of the next open pitch, where the process is repeated. Fortunately this did not last for long. We followed tree-covered ledges, ascended difficult cracks, and crossed delicate traverses, spiraling upwards and eastwards around the arête. After 1000 ft. of pleasant climbing we reached a sunny shoulder on the ridge itself. Beyond the cliffs of the east face the upper part of the valley lay a great patch of snow capping Half Dome. Directly below was Michael’s Ledge, the “classic” route on lower Brother. Lazily we ate lunch and wondered if we were on the route. From here a long sloping crack led to the base of the most difficult pitch, 100 ft. lead in an open, holdless chimney. The top of the chimney is a rather awkward bit of stemming at an angle that is nearly too open to stem, and we were glad to be above it. In another rope-length one is forced onto the arête itself over a steep, open face. Once on the arête, the remainder of the climb is but a scramble to the crest of the lower Brother. The summit is a narrow knife-edge, dominated by the face of Middle Brother, which towers abruptly another 1000 ft. above. The similarity of this view to that of the N. face of the Grand Teton from the Teton Shoulder is very striking. The shortness of daylight hurried us down Michael’s Ledge, the foot of which we reached just as darkness fell.

In spite of the fact that nearly all the summits of Yosemite, with the exception of the Lost Arrow, have now been attained, countless fine climbs of all degrees of difficulty still remain to be made. The opportunities for route-finding on new faces is almost unlimited. Taft Arête, the N. face of Clouds Rest, the N. face of Sentinel Rock, Watkins Gulley, and many other routes are still unfinished. The problem which still fascinates most of the climbers is the Lost Arrow, the awe-inspiring needle on the cliffs to the east of Yosemite Falls. The summit has jokingly been called the “Last Error,” the first three “Errors” being prominent ledges on the proposed route, the lower part of which has been ascended several times. The upper part has been reconnoitered by roping down from the valley rim. The ascent will probably be more difficult, from a technical point of view, than the most difficult climb yet made in the valley, the Arrowhead Chimney, a route which borders on the suicide climbs of the Wetterstein and the Kaisergebirge.2 It is to be hoped that the facts of Half Dome and El Capitan will never develop into American Eigerwands, but with due apology to Professor Whitney, I shall nevertheless not make the statement that they never will be climbed.

1 The Rock-Climbing Section of the Sierra Club, for the purposes of the Clmbers Guide to the High Sierras, has thought it convenient to follow the Welzenbach system of classifying climbs according to difficulty. This system was not adopted to encourage competition or classify climbers, but to prevent the inexperienced from attempting routes beyond their powers, and in some measure to indicate the difficulties to be expected and the equipment necessary to complete the climb in safety. The RCS hopes that other American guidebooks will adopt the same or similar indications of difficulty on rock- climbs.

2 For an account of this really remarkable ascent see the Sierra Club Bulletin XXVII (August, 1942), 134-136.

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