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North America, United States, California, Sierra Nevada, Ballon Dome, Into the Pit and Netherworld; "Cat Wall," Heaven and Hell

Balloon Dome, Into the Pit and Netherworld; “Cat Wall,” Heaven and Hell. For the longest time I’ve wanted to do a route on this dome, which lies a few miles upcanyon from the Fuller Buttes. It sits in the San Joaquin River’s canyon, dead center of the Sierra, and rises nearly 3,000' from the bottom of the canyon. The canyon is filled with unclimbed walls. The stone is just like Yosemite, nearly as much of it, and nearly as big. The difference is long, steep, trail-less, bushy approaches. No people and no noise, except the simple things like water, wind, birds, and on occasion a mountain lion. In the fall I decided to finally get in there. I needed a partner who could take a serious beating and keep coming back for more. That would be none other than my friend lake Jones.

We started from the Squaw Dome trailhead and headed south, cross-country, for three miles downhill (including 1,400' of rappelling) to the canyon bottom. The north face of Balloon Dome, across the canyon, faced us as we dropped into the canyon.

On our first trip in October, we planned to just scope a line up Balloon Dome, deposit huge bags of gear, then return home to stock up for the real push. But it took so much longer to reach the bottom than we expected, with all the bushwhacking and rappels, that we were committed to climbing back out by a new route. We scoped an obvious line up what looked to be a not-so-big wall and started climbing at 4:30 p.m., knowing darkness would be upon us by 7:30. The line goes directly up the center of the largest south-facing wall opposite Balloon Dome, but slightly upstream, thus taking us back toward our approach descent. We named this wall the “Cat Wall.” But cracks that looked open from the ground pinched down in places and didn’t all connect. Our sweet 5.9 simulclimb and jog to the beer store turned into a thin- at-times, run-out, 1,400' 5.1lc. We had no bivy gear, extra food, or other way out, so we had to focus and keep pushing. We managed everything onsight and topped out at 10 p.m. on a moonless night. Wearing shorts and T-shirts, with fading headlamps and no extra batteries, we ditched our gear and bushwhacked uphill for four hours, worshipping the car like a god, when we finally found it, and drove home, arriving just before sunrise. We named the route Heaven and Hell. The route name fits the entire canyon.

During the rest of October and November we humped several loads to our base camp and pushed what I believe is the first line from the bottom of the canyon to the summit of Balloon Dome. A forested section splits the upper dome from the wall below, and a few routes exist on the upper dome. (You can approach the upper dome by a 12-mile hike from the Cassidy trailhead in the Oakhurst area, without having to descend to the river.) Fred Beckey, of course, was the first to climb the upper dome. What we did was more like two separate routes, linked during our final push.

Our line on the 2,000' lower wall, Into the Pit (V 5.11d), ascends an obvious line of cracks leading to an obvious, left-angling dike. The dike leads straight to the most amazing, splitter, right-facing corner on the whole lower wall. More straight-up cracks, then some 4th class, lead to the upper dome. Our line on the upper wall, Netherworld (1,100', 5.1lc), could be accessed by the 12-mile hike (i.e., without starting from the valley bottom). It ascends our left skyline view as we approached from the opposite side of the canyon.

Whether climbing our line or any future line from the river to the summit, one should plan on a grade VI wall. As for the logistics of getting the gear and yourselves to and from the wall, plan on that being more work than the wall.

Sean Jones