American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Fairview Dome's West Face

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  • Publication Year: 1974

Fairview Dome’s West Face

Thomas Higgins

SEVERAL times since 1968, Bob Kamps and I have attempted a new route on the virgin west face of Fairview Dome in Tuolumne Meadows, the glorious Sierra high country above Yosemite.1 Each time, we retreated after realizing aid would probably be necessary to surmount a twenty-foot overhang dead center on the proposed line. In the past two years, several parties have ventured onto the face (see marked attempts), but have been stopped by bulging roofs or smooth, high-angle rock. In September of 1973, Mike Irwin and I reclimbed the pitches Bob and I had completed several years before, found a way around the enormous roofs and gained the summit. The route proved to be one of the most lengthy and improbable in all of Tuolumne.

The many granite domes of Tuolumne Meadows are gradually attracting more and more climbers, though the scarcity of routes below 5.8 and the lack of a formal guidebook probably holds back a climbing flood. The Tuolumne Rock Climbing School continues to receive considerable demand for its service. Anticipating the damage to rock such a demand might do, the school now instructs all its enrollees in the use of nuts. New routes continue to be done, mostly of the short and difficult variety. Steve Roper promises a technical guide to the Sierra, including Tuolumne Meadows, amid a growing debate about the tendency for climbing guidebooks to bring excessive crowding to climbing areas. Some climbers are in a sufficient quandary about the effects of reporting to simply remain silent about new routes. Last year, I was party to several new routes in Tuolumne which went unreported, though simple apathy was as much responsible for our silence as any deep seated concern about crowding.

Mike and I have the fortunate experience of beginning our climb early one morning with no sign of anyone on the dome. Just the tremendous silence of the wall jiggles our stomachs. We have slept on and off the previous night in anticipation of the ascent. I never have butterflies, only a ping pong ball lodged in my solar plexus.

We begin in a grassy crack perhaps 100 yards right of the standard route, the first route on Fairview Dome, done by Chuck Pratt and Wally Reed in 1958. As Mike climbs the first lead, he fiddles for several minutes at each nut placement, finding the bottoming cracks resistant to adequate protection. Kamps and I had of course used pitons here years earlier. Mike is a young and persevering bouldering fanatic from Berkeley. This will be his first long climb. He moves in careful short bursts, piecing the pitch together as if it were, I suppose, a series of short climbs. I tell him to move right and look for a bolt, all the while reminding him about how poor my memory of climbs has become. He finds the bolt 30 feet above where I tell him to look. The first touches of 5.9 appear as slick, small flakes off which ones foot might explode, without warning. Mike finishes the lead, apologizing about the long time he has taken. Following, I take just as long.

The next lead is so devious I forget what to do. A straight-up crack system tempts me onward, but I seem to recall the pitch went left. Climbing left, I realize only too well I am on route. A traverse begins with some 5.8, then ends with a frantic frizzle of footwork—good 5.9. When Mike follows, his feet get out of sequence. A little hopscotch misses and he’s airborne…

Another pitch of 5.9 on a straightforward path and another of 5.7 equally obvious take us to just below an enormous horizontal dike visible from the road. From here, the dike resembles pie crust. It runs right and left as far as I can see, probably connecting with the standard route to the left. I mantel on the crust, walk right, then climb up past two bolts, numb to more tidbits of what seems like 5.9. Mike leads the next long and awkward crack pitch. He does a bizarre undercling, eyeballs to kneecaps and again 5.9, to finish the pitch. Now we are under the same roofs Bob and I had contemplated before—crackless, mammoth visors.

The ultimate satisfaction of free climbing rests in calculating how to climb and then barely climbing the most beautiful and improbable rock. After my several visits to the vicinity of these roofs, I have realized they are strangely beautiful but not even barely climbable. If any route is to be accomplished here, it must jog right under the roofs, attain a dihedral, then a bowl and finally the top. We regret having to jog right, crimping an otherwise straight line, but cast one look at the setting sun and begin the traverse.

Now the territory is entirely new. I place small wire stoppers under flakes that, to the touch, sound like cellophane uncrumpling itself. More precious minutes go by as I place still another bolt. There is an hour before sunset and still 700 feet of rock ahead. But the pitch ends below gradual rock. I yell to Mike, “It’s all over now!” and begin climbing the dihedral which ends our jog. Suddenly the wall steepens again. Angry with myself for not anticipating a possible bivouac, I try to force the route directly upward. The climbing seems hard, ridiculously hard. Is it me? Next I traverse right, seeking easier rock. I’m working across 5.8 rock 40, then 50, then 60 feet from my last protection. Finally a bulge stops me. The sun has just set. My mental picture of the route previously derived with binoculars tells me an enormous broken bowl is just above us somewhere, the left side of which will surely involve only moderate climbing to the top. I tell Mike I’ll attempt to come back and climb another way. I find myself verging on tears! The sun can’t be down! I can’t be stuck 60 feet out! We can’t be without water or food or even the lightest parkas! But it is all true, like the senseless and improbable fates linked together to down the hapless souls described in the AAC Accident Reports.

Head pounding, I ease myself back off the ledge and begin to traverse. With every move, I move more quickly. To my astonishment, the difficulties practically vanish. I must be floating in adrenalin! The traverse over, I climb back to a break in the dihedral, a break I ruled out 30 minutes before. Mike asks if we shouldn’t just sit the night out where he is standing, an area of rock about the size and shape of a crumpled towel. Feeling light and charged, I ask to try the break. Mike agrees. I clamp onto two small handholds, find nothing for my feet in the dusk below my waist and haul up to a hand-sized ledge. To my right is easy rock. One bolt should allow me to reach it. Drilling in supersonics, I place the bolt in 5 minutes. Suddenly, there is a ping and flash below—I’ve dropped the drill and holder!

Now the choices are simple. With thoughts racing in a neuron fire, I rush right across what seems like 5.9 but looks like 5.10 and pray for nut cracks and easy rock. In fact, the face does set back. Only one hard move done in the dark by feel hinders the free flow on the remainder of the pitch. Mike hand-over-hands the rope and comes up from the murk, his breath roaring like the smokestacks of a sinking steamer. “Can’t see anything,” he says. Rambling takes us to the bowl we knew was above. It is stuffed with dry wood and sandy beds; and we, without matches, know an appropriate punishment is about to ensue.

The first freak snow and hail of the season had already fallen two weeks ago. We start to build a veritable cabin of branches in case the few cattail clouds now streaking the sky unfurl again with snow. I can’t believe Mike is still patient with me, as well as calm and happy. Supposedly an experienced climber, I’ve landed both of us dry, cold, empty and matchless in a tinderbox on Fairview Dome. We chop apart a mound of stones trying to strike enough spark to light our toilet paper, meanwhile chattering about hammerless ascents. Our efforts are fruitless.

We huddle under our wadded ropes, feet in the daysack, create fifty possible names for the route not yet done, and doze. I wake up shivering, my ear to Mike’s heart. The clouds are gone and the moon down. Something scurries at our feet, and I jolt upright straight into a log. Mike wakes only to find a ground squirrel scampering away. We rub one another’s backs to stop the shivering, laugh, and marvel at the great curtain of black rock behind us framing the starlit night.

The heavens are at once beautiful and vacant of a word for us. In our desperation earlier in the day, not one minute was halted, not one extra moment of light given us. I am reminded of Thomas Mann’s ostensible hero of the Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp, who would look at the porcelain face of his watch, the two fine and delicately curved gold hands moving over it, and the little second hand taking its busy ticking course round its own small circle. His head reeling, Hans watched the second hand, tried to hold time by the tail, to cling to the passing moments, but the hand tripped on its way, unheeding of the figures it reached. By the way the hand moved over the Arabic figures on the watch face, Hans knew the figures were simply beneath it, that there would be no sign that one moment marked the end of one thing and the beginning of the next. Here in our rock-cut cradle, Mike and I are at once like the porcelain figures and Hans himself. Under the time-face of the heavens, we find the pace of all things unaltered by our struggle, and are awed and frightened by the prospect. We know now how infinitesimal is our climb under this starry night, the ascent meaning whatever it will to us and us alone. Like broken bodies, we slump onto one another and let the universe take care of itself.

With the first light, we finish the climb in two moderate pitches leading out of the left side of the bowl. As we scramble to the top, there is cool air moving strongly over the summit. We feel wonderful and fresh. We are happy with ourselves, with having withstood the cold of the night. We hadn’t been sullen or angry. Instead of inventing a solution to our predicament of yesterday, perhaps groping to the top by moonlight, we had sat down and watched the entire sky turn black, the stars slowly appear, arrange their patterns, move when we thought they wouldn’t and then release the dawn. We had stopped ourselves long enough to find the earth ignores yet contains our small destinies, and can be kind.

Later, our descent takes us along the base of the wall we had climbed, a wall soaring upward like some in Yosemite which, because of their smoother character, are climbable only with aid. We stop to look upward at our accomplishment. I nearly expect something must be different, even moving, after all our effort. Perhaps a little flag waving under the enormous roofs! Mountaineers leave cairns, ice axes, biscuits, something to fix their achievement. Surely we rock climbers should be permitted some sign to remind ourselves and others of our routes. Of course, nothing is changed. As for motion, a few sparrows flitter beneath the roofs, beginning their day without fanfare.

As we turn for the remaining walk through the woods, we find the only tangible evidence of our passage. There, in the long green grass, is the drill I had dropped from 1000 feet above. Perfectly still, this composite of steel holder and spiral fluted bit is clearly a contrivance of man. As with the wall, its state shows no signs of the energy and desperation with which we worked it. The bit is not even broken! I reach for it in the grass and, like a dream, the ascent begins to fade. The rolling and gentle ground around us eases us away, and with each step, we grow aware of how tired and famished are our frames.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Fairview Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, Sierra Nevada, California.

Ascent: Fairest Of All, V 5.9 or 5.10, September 3 and 4, 1973 (Tom Higgins, Mike Irwin).

1 See A.A.J., 1969, 16:2, pp. 323 to 326. The author regrets having misspelled “Tuolumne” in Volume 16.

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