American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, California, Yosemite, Wapama Rock, South Face, Hetch Hetchy Valley

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1970

Wapama Rock, South Face, Hetch Hetchy Valley. Hetch Hetchy Valley lies a scant 15 air miles from Yosemite Valley, still within the confines of the park, but until April, Hetch Hetchy had never heard the blow of a piton hammer. Both climbers and hikers have scorned it because it is inundated by a reservoir constructed by the city of San Francisco some fifty years ago. I had heard legends of half submerged walls rising out of the water, accessible only by boat. Boats are not allowed on the reservoir and swimming is difficult when carrying pounds of hardware. John Muir’s 19th-century description enchanted me: “The correspondence between Hetch Hetchy walls .… and those of Yosemite .… has excited every observer. .… there is a counterpart of El Capitan that rises sheer and plain to a height of 1800 feet.” (The Yosemite, pages 193-5). Joe Faint and I visited Hetch Hetchy and what we found exceeded our expectations. Muir’s “El Capitan” was there, rising not out of the water but from a level rock bench about 100 yards wide, which continued from the base of the cliff almost all the way to the dam. At dawn on April 5 we shouldered packs and headed along the glacier-polished granite bench for the wall, prepared for two bivouacs if necessary. Soon we were roping up and climbing a fourth-class section to the base of the smooth face. Free climbing gave way to easy aid as I led a pitch ending on a fine ledge. While waiting for Joe to clean the pitch on Jümars, I examined the wall above. We had grave doubts about one blank-looking section near the top and from observation earlier in the year, much of the upper wall stayed dry in a rain storm. I yelled down to Joe, “Where’s the bolt kit? In the day pack or in the hauling bag?” Joe shouted back, “I didn’t pack it. I thought you did.” I hadn’t! We discussed the merits of going down but decided not to become another statistic on Chuck Pratt’s ignoble list of reasons why climbers back off walls. Joe led a mixed pitch up to a ledge at the base of a grim jam-crack, where he smiled wryly, knowing the problem was mine. As it turned out, a small crack on the outside wall afforded protection most of the way, but the upper part was still F9 in difficulty. Later in the day I watched Joe go over a small overhang toward a large alcove, apparently the only bivouac site. We had no hammocks and the alcove proved to be a steep ramp between two walls, not a ledge. It was after sunset when I hurried, cleaning the pitch, up to Joe and led frantically on above. A worn photograph in my back pocket seemed to show a faint traverse line around a corner to my left. Joe lowered me and I pendulumed 30 feet to the left. Peering around the corner, I saw a ledge only five feet higher. Soon I was there and Joe was prusiking in the near darkness. In the pre-dawn glow I felt I was above Yosemite. Then I had a realization. Peering downward I saw no roads, gas stations, buildings or campfire smoke. I heard no motors, shouts or horns. There lay a dark pool of water, rippling quietly. This was Hetch Hetchy, which had been “ruined”, while Yosemite had been “saved”. The yellow glow of the morning light crept down the walls and formed rainbows in the spray of Wapama Falls. I led up from the ledge, nailing a single crack up the slightly overhanging wall. Joe climbed a fifth-class section which ended on a 100-foot-long ledge. The final headwall bulged ominously overhead. From the end of the ledge I began climbing free up a difficult overhang, surmounting it only to find hard aid climbing above. Wishing for a bolt, I made several free moves above a row of mediocre pitons all driven behind the same flake. Another circuitous aid pitch brought us to the top of a small buttress, isolated in the center of the blank section. Above, a small bottoming crack wormed up the wall out of sight. I gained 30 feet on tied-off pins before I lost half the gain in a flash; a sawed-off angle piton in a bottoming hole held. This was a fine place for another pendulum. After several tries I reached a crack far to my left. Nailing this up an overhanging corner, I finally reached a ledge at the base of a crack system leading unbroken to the summit. Several classic jams and laybacks put us on the summit just before the end of the second day. Hetch Hetchy proved to be a pleasant and surprisingly isolated place to climb. It was spoiled only by the discouraging realization that an area “ruined for posterity” 50 years ago seems relatively remote and untrodden in the context of wilderness today. NCCS V, F9, A4.

Galen Rowell

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