Tuolumne Meadows

 

Tuolumne Meadows is roughly halfway between San Diego and Bend, so it’s become the perfect location to meet Joey for an annual climbing trip. We’re starting to feel more comfortable with the style of climbing there, and having some fun.  By fun, I should clarify that I am only referring to the planning and post-trip stages.  While we are actually out there, it’s basically a horror-fest and we spend more time questioning what the hell we have gotten ourselves into, than actually enjoying ourselves.  More on that below.

While the infamous Valley is well known for its big walls like El Capitan and Half Dome, Tuolumne is far less crowded, has cooler temps, and a bunch more options when it comes to shorter free routes.  Whether we will eventually venture into the big wall game is anyone’s guess, but for now, we are content to spend our time on shorter, less committing routes.  Given the amount of water that Joey drinks during a typical day of climbing, I don’t even know if a big wall is logistically feasible.  We would need to bring a dedicated haul bag and motorized pulley system to keep him hydrated.

Not quite a big wall rack, but it’s getting close

Joey and Elysia got married last year, which put a damper on our 2016 climbing plans.  I won’t hold that against him, since they threw an epic party and he would have been a fool to let her slip away.  What’s the saying, something something put a ring on it?  I was very happy for them, but I’m ecstatic that he has some vacation time again and isn’t spending his free weekends at the local florist, and sampling cake.

This trip was a bit stressful for me.  First, I had just gotten back from spending five days in New York, where we visited our friends Kim and Roman and attended Jasmine’s cousin Chris’ wedding.  As in, literally, we landed at the airport and drove home, I marched the kids into the house, hooked up the trailer, and started the 8 hour drive out to Tuolumne.  It was a long day, to say the least.

Zane and Kalani getting a taste of exposure above Manhattan

 

Good times with Kim and Roman at KCBC Brewery in Brooklyn

I ended up stopping near Ridgecrest and slept for a few hours, and then finished the drive the next morning.  Joey hauled ass from Bend and made it to Tuolumne early, and was able to get us a nice spot in the campground.  Due to the wildfires down near the Valley, the campground was relatively empty and we actually got two spots all to ourselves (for the price of one).  Forest Service employees are easily bribed with beer, if you’re wondering how we managed that one.  It felt pretty weird to be walking the streets of New York City one afternoon, and then camping in the forest in Tuolumne the next.  Actually, it felt awesome.

We were both pretty exhausted from our long drives, so on the first day we set up camp and decided to get our feet wet on Puppy Dome, near the campground.  We both led Puppy Crack, a short but fun finger/hand crack that is probably more of a highball boulder problem than a real route.  I don’t think either of us had plugged any gear in months, so it was enough to whet our appetites for the next few days of climbing, and we decided to relax at camp the rest of the afternoon.  We had doughs in the cooler and pizzas to toss, after all.  Alas, yeast is such a fickle beast; the dough wasn’t quite ready for consumption so we made some rustic nachos in the Blackstone oven and called it a night.

Joey following the second pitch of West Country (5.7) high above Tenaya Lake

The next day, we drove over to Stately Pleasure Dome, which rises proudly above Hwy 120 and Tenaya Lake.  Not quite in the same league as Fairview Dome, it’s still over 500 feet tall and has a most enjoyable approach, which can be measured in terms of seconds.  Had we decided to rope up for the initial scramble up the easy slabs to the base of the climb, we could have belayed from the bed of Joey’s Tacoma. Alas, we did not rope up for this initial section, though there was a moment where Joey shot me a look that suggested he wished we had.  Some butt-scooting and careful steps ushered him safely through a route finding mistake.

Joey running it out on West Country

Many of the routes in Tuolumne are slab climbs.  Slab can best be described as low-angle rock that is devoid of actual holds.  This is friction climbing, and the technique is very straight forward.  You must carefully dance your way up the face on your toes, while you desperately search for tiny nubs, crystals, and depressions that might offer purchase.  Simple, no finger strength required.  Scary, because there is nothing to hold onto, and there are moments where you question what is keeping you adhered to the rock.  It is a delicate form of climbing; one where you must concentrate, stay calm, and remain in balance.  I happen to love it!  Especially when I am sitting at home and able to wax poetically about the fact that I made it out safe.

Tuolumne slab climbs have a reputation, and deservedly so, for being run out.  Meaning, many routes feature long distances between bolts or any option to place protection.  True slab climbs are almost always bolted, since there aren’t any cracks or features to otherwise place gear as you climb.  The routes in Tuolumne were put up during a time when boldness was held in very high regard, and the first ascensionists may have only placed a bolt every 20, 30, or even 40 feet.   Drilling bolts was often done on lead, using a hammer and drill bit, which necessarily meant that they weren’t added casually, or often.  Snake Dike, one of the world’s most famous slab climbs up the side of Half Dome, has some pitches that are protected every 80-100 feet.  If the leader should fall, this unlucky individual will be going for a 160 foot+ ride (a cheese grater, as some call it).  This is a kind of cheese that I want no part of.  And I REALLY like cheese.

Fresh mozzarella, pepperoni, jalapeno, red onion with Calabrian peppers

The thought of taking a 50 foot fall, or even worse, a tumbling, cheese-grating starfish (a term I just made up) is what compels the leader to stay level-headed and composed.  Easier said than done, but this is the mental aspect of this crazy sport, and it is intensely satisfying when you knowingly enter this realm, and exit safely.

In the photo above, Joey is leading off the belay, at least 25 feet up, and he is just approaching the first bolt.  Yeah, it might have only been 5.6 or whatever the rating was, but let me assure you, in these circumstances, you are concentrating hard and doing your best to control your fear.  Nothing else matters.  NOTHING ELSE MATTERS!  As I have written on this blog before, this is one of the most compelling reasons why we climb.  I am, of course, being dramatic.  These are technically easy climbs; routes that almost anyone who possesses but a meager dose of athleticism and a few hours of experience would be able to climb successfully.  The test is of the mind, and not the body.  I prefer to save the truly hard climbs for single pitch stuff at the crag.  Less risk, and because I am a wuss.

High on West Country and getting ready to top out

So, we topped out.  Great!  We untied our knots, organized our gear, and coiled the rope.  There is, of course, the non-trivial matter of getting back down.  This might involve a series of rappels, or more often, a down climb.  Climbing outside isn’t the same as spending the day at an amusement park, and anyone who has read about the realities of climbing Everest knows that getting up is only half the battle.  Again, I am being dramatic, but when you factor in the possibility of inclement weather, serious heights and exposure, and a not-always-clear route to get back to the ground, a climb is never over until you are safely back in camp and chugging down a cold one.  If you’re wondering, the answer is a definitive “yes.”  We do sometimes question why we put ourselves through any of this.

Joey coils the rope and we prepare for the descent from the top of Dozier Dome

Most of our trips are hallmarked by a goal climb.  In 2014, the climb was the SE Butttress of Cathedral Peak.  We were successful on Cathedral, and it was a great day, so we upped the ante in 2015 and tackled the Regular Route on Fairview Dome, which remains our longest and most challenging route to date.  2016 was a rest year, and going into this trip, we had some rather audacious notions that we might try the 3rd Pillar of Dana, a true Sierra classic and a route that would flirt very close to the limits of our technical ability.  On Dana, we would be pushing both our mental and physical limits, a zone that, should you enter, you better be damned sure you are prepared for.

Joey might have been prepared, at least physically.  He’s been training hard and is in good climbing shape.  I can’t say the same for myself, since I’ve only been getting into the gym once or twice a week, and haven’t been outside on real rock in months.  I’m probably 20 pounds above my fighting weight, and those are pounds that matter when you’re hanging onto thin crimps at 13,000 feet.  The thought of getting on this route was turning me into a nervous wreck.

We had a backup plan, though.  The other route we desperately wanted to climb was Matthes Crest, a long traverse across a knife-edge fin of granite near Cathedral Peak.  Another classic, the Crest is technically easy, but long and super exposed.  The mountain drops down on either side of you as you traverse the fin from south to north.

Just getting to the climb is a bit of an ordeal.  We packed our gear and food the night before, went to bed early, and I set my alarm for 5:00 am.  We were on the trail and hiking through the forest, just as the first hints of light began to filter through the trees.  It took us about 4 hours to hike to the base of the route, mostly cross-country and off any established trail.  I am terrible when it comes to navigation, and I relied on Joey here.

The approach to Matthes Crest, Echo Peaks up ahead.  Snow in September!

 

The west side of Matthes Crest from below, the traverse goes from right to left

 

Looking up at the south headwall, the start of the route

Most gain access to the crest proper by climbing up the south headwall, which goes at easy 5th class.  After hiking for several hours (we passed a couple of coyotes and deer along the way) we finally arrived, but weren’t quite ready to commit.  We sat immediately below the headwall, eating snacks, and contemplating whether we wanted to go forward with the plan.  We had a bit of a dilemma, because we only brought one rope and the descent typically requires two for the rappel off the west side.  Back at camp, I had figured we would just walk off the east side, return to our stashed packs, and then hike out.  Unfortunately, the east side was a lot steeper than I expected, and this would require a lot more hiking to return to them.  It seemed unlikely we would get back to our stashed gear until sunset.  This set up the very real possibility that we would have to hike the entire way back in the dark, without any food or water.  We were already frazzled and neither one of us could pull the trigger on moving forward.  We discussed bailing, which seemed utterly ridiculous, having just hiked many hours to get to the start of the route.  A route we’ve been emailing and texting about for literally two years.  It was a huge, soul crushing bummer.

At one point, we were both tied in and Joey actually started up the first few moves of the headwall.  We weren’t talking to each other.  We were both miserable and upset.  We sort of started the route, I suppose.  And then we weren’t.  We were bailing.  Both of us had given up and thrown in the towel.  It wasn’t happening.  At least not on that day.

Joey on the second pitch of Isostacy 5.8 on Dozier Dome

I don’t think either of us have any regrets.  We were both in a weird mental zone and a bunch of little issues had piled onto each other and turned the day into a mess.  We should have brought a second rope.  We should have stashed our packs back by Echo Peaks.  We should have left camp earlier in the morning.  I should have verified that my Mountain Project app was working right, since that is where I keep all my approach and descent info (the app had apparently updated on the flight back from NY and I lost everything).  I think that the worst issue, and this is terrible to write about, is that there had been a tragic accident on nearby Cathedral Peak just a few days before.  I read about it on the plane and it rocked us both to the core.

On August 26th, a young woman named Megan Kelley was hit by rockfall and killed on the first pitch of the SE Buttress of Cathedral Peak.  The very same route we did back in 2014, and one of the more memorable days of my life (we sat atop the summit block and ate Neapolitan pizza together).  In a strange twist of fate, Joey’s wife happens to be friends with this woman’s sister.

Rock climbing is dangerous.  It’s a fact that I continue to struggle with.  I don’t know the statistics, but I would hazard a guess that the drive from San Diego to Tuolumne on Hwy 395 is nearly as risky as anything we planned for this weekend.  Climbing and risk will forever be intertwined, and only a fool would deny that the risk must, at some level, be part of the reward.  I am neither an adrenaline junkie or a risk taker.  I would never sky dive or bungee jump, and the thought of riding in a hot air balloon sounds awful to me.  There is something about climbing that is addictive, though.  It is an expression of independence and craftmanship, athleticism, and mental fortitude.  It is facing your fears and slaying them.  It is the casting off of any and all anxiety and stress from life and living in the moment.  It is the heightened awareness that can only be attained by performing under the threat of very real consequences, which is sorely lacking in modern life.  It is being within nature and experiencing the outdoors in a way that a tourist will never know.

But there are risks; objective hazards that simply can’t be avoided.  Rockfall, lightning storms, human error or miscalculation.  We can strive our hardest to limit the risks, but they are always there, lurking in the shadows.

Topping out on Dozier Dome, Medlicott Dome in the distance

I continue to struggle with this topic, which I choose to embrace as a good sign.  I have a wonderful life and a family that means more to me than anything else.  A family that I must come home to, no matter what.  My fears have held us back before, and I am certain they will again.  That is ok.  I am not a professional climber, and at the end of the day, we are doing this for fun.  It might be more than that, to be fair.  Climbing is important to me, and I do derive a lot more from this activity than simple entertainment.  It wouldn’t be worth it, if that were the case.  I’ve been climbing on and off for almost 20 years, and it is starting to feel like it is part of who I am.  I will always struggle with the risks, but I hope that I can come to terms with them.

Cooling off after the long hike back to camp

Hanging out above Tenaya Lake

 

Black bears are strong

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