Postscript: After a month, I posted a modified version of this same report to SuperTopo (link). To my relief, the comments have been positive.
Ever since I came back to outdoor climbing in October last year, I’ve been dreaming about returning to Astroman, one of the crown jewels of Yosemite free climbing. And now, I’m actually hiking towards it, in the dark. I’ve left the navigation to my partner S because he has done the route 10+ times in the last two decades. Yet, he still managed to go off trail (as we later found out, we turned left uphill too soon). We are just cross countrying through ankle deep leaf debris right after a wet winter and high stepping up and down big boulders. Neither of us is very concerned knowing we will hit the wall one way or another. So, I just let my mind wander.
And wander it does…
Time flies, doesn’t it? Last time I did this route was almost 11 years ago. Let me just call my then-partner E. We had only been climbing together for a little over a month with our first trip together being up the Rostrum. We fell into a groove nicely and had one after another great climbing outings, including two weekends in a row up Astroman. The shared love for outdoors at a grand scale brought us close together. That passion shifted into long distance bicycling in the next few years, which saw us at the fifth/last pass on the Death Ride road century eating the celebratory ice cream together, at the finish line of the acclaimed toughest mountain biking event in the western region, Tahoe Sierra 100, and among the small handful of the finishers’ of the grassroot unsupported, now defunct, Henry Coe Hard Coere 100 (100 miles and 22k ft of ascent on dirt) underground race. If it sounds like bragging, it is. I’m extremely proud of what we have achieved as a couple. More importantly, he has always been my best partner. His can do attitude (you can get a glimpse reading his Nose TR), cool headedness and big heart in front of big adversaries have earned him a lot of respect from his friends, and me, and have a profound impact on me. He is awesome!
We reach the base of Astroman. By now, it’s light out and our headlamps have been off for a while. Nobody else is there. Strange. I have heard about lines at the base and was expecting at least some parties going for AstroBoy based on the recent Mountain Project ticks.
No crowd? Maybe people are still driving around looking for Ahwahnee Hotel (no more) following the approach beta in all the guidebooks? Or, maybe because it rained at night and there is a 20% chance of rain in the forecast for the day. S cautioned me it would not be good if the last pitch is wet. Let's hope it won't be. After taping and gearing up, I set off for the two approach pitches.
Our gear list:
- Rack includes double from green alien size to #3 BD C4 camelots, plus one each #.75, #1, and #4 camelots, one each blue and black alien, and one set of stoppers including RPs. Thinner than what Supertopo and Mountain Project suggested, but after S assured me he and E used to take a single set up Astroman, I did not press the matter. Don't want to be chicken, you know.
- six shoulder length slings, four half length runners, each with a biner along with a few loose biners.
- One 60m rope, and no tag line. We are committed.
- One bottle each carried on our own harness. I had a .5 Liter bottle and had water left when I topped out.
- Two bars each. Okay, I had four and S forgot food, so we split.
- No helmet.
- S carried his light descent shoes on harness. I just wore my TC Pro with thick socks all day. They are the size of my street shoes.
- I have elbow and knee pads, with the latter doubled up as gaiters when we descended the loose sand later.
- I carried a light wind breaker and a Mammut wind shirt in a fanny pack. I had to put them all on up high due to the strong wind. Always prepare for wind chill.
There is running water on the first pitch. So, I tread carefully. I thought I placed gear sparingly, but still, I manage to have a horrendous rope drag through the 10a lieback and finger section after I have clipped the first anchor bolts. Every move is a squad, and squading away, I reach the next anchor. S has told me he would, as he has always done, go up the “dangerous” way – the 10a stemming corner. Both of my prior times on the route with E, he led the Boulder Problem. I didn’t get it clean both times, so I secretly hoped to follow that way to test the progress made through my recent gym practice. But rock climbing rule #1: never argue with the leader. S protects the “dangerous” way safely (three pieces on the right) and leads us a short way up to the bottom of Enduro Corner. My turn.
I've been looking forward to leading it again remembering dancing up it last time. I want to put my small hands to use. When I reach the anchor above, I have led it clean again, but I will not call this time a waltz. I didn’t struggle, but there were moments my forearms felt pumped and I had to pause to recover and regulate my breathing. Who knows, maybe after another 11 years, I will again remember today’s performance an easy dance up the pitch. Funny how sometimes time flushes away any unpleasant memories. I'm confident though if I return to the route a couple of more times this year, I WILL dance up the pitch effortlessly.
Oh, the funny things that time does. Now that I'm belaying, my thoughts are back to E. Even though E and I seemed to be made for each other as our friends like to say, strangely, we grew apart. No drama, and not even fights. I don’t quite understand, but after all these years, being together just no longer seems exciting any more. I'm feeling low inside all the time, and I can't seem to make him laugh any more. Why am I feeling the way I feel? Am I unhappy because he is unhappy, or does my being unhappy drag him down? Why can't we just be happy when I know we still care deeply about each other? Is it him? Or is it all me? I don't want him, or anybody for that matter, to change on my account, but can I change myself, and how? There is no blaming, but there is a lot of confusion. If it is not meant to be, should we keep the status quo, or must we break our matrimony vow? Over many months, I agonized over all these questions. I went to sit in empty churches of different disciplines hoping the answers would come to me, but I didn’t feel a thing.
One recent day, he received a relocation package from his company. Most of his department had moved up to another state, where most of his family live. He’s been doing frequent business trips to work alongside his colleagues, oftentimes two weeks a time. He either moves with work, or risks losing his job here in a few months up to a few years. Knowing he likes what he does at work, I will never stand in his career path. It would have been a very tough decision if nothing had happened between us because my job is here, but now, the path is clear — we agree that he will move up to his work and be close to his family. My agony has dissolved and acceptance filled in. This, I call destiny.
It did not take long for S to follow Enduro Corner and after a short change over, he is off to the next two pitches. He always link them. After the climb, I thanked S for having led the pitches that I didn't lead (redundant?), because despite the lower ratings and having no name (in comparison to famous pitches like Enduro Corner, etc), those pitches seem in general awkward. However, only after a couple of days, I find myself having no recollection of these connection pitches in between my leads. Other than what’s written on the topo, I do not remember the characteristics of the pitches, let alone the gear placement. I guess next time I get on the climb, if I lead these pitches, they should just count as onsight!
Talk about onsight, I was hoping for an onsight of Harding Slot, which is now hanging over my head after I have reached the anchor and joined S. How can this be an onsight if I have done (followed) it 11 years ago? Well, not that long ago, I remember listening to a Training Beta interview with Climbing Sensei Justen Sjong, and he said something to the effect that if you have not been back on a climb for two years, sure, a send counts as onsight! Okay, before you jump up and down, let me just say no, I do not bear that belief. I’ll go for my redpoint of Harding Slot. Although… I have no recollection of the slippery bird droppings on the left wall. A slippage there almost botched my stem, but thankfully, my other three contact points were solid. And entering the slot? It was nothing like what I remembered, but my OW training at the gym paid off. With a hand jam and later chicken wing on the left, I bridge the slot with my right knee and right sole. Once in the slot, it’s chicken wing and arm bar, paired with heel toe left and knee heel right. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle… I arrive at the belay without much drama.
I’m just not the drama type of person. Even just after I have told E that I needed to move out to sort myself out, we remained on very good terms. Once expectations were taken out a relationship, what’s left is just caring. It’s still a lovely feeling. I still tell E everything. I tell him my difficulty in search of compatible climbing partner(s). He has a whole theory for it, even a name. He says I’m right now at a tweener stage. I’m now strong enough to face the challenge offered by hard climbs like Astroman, so naturally, I want more. For that, I need strong partners. However, I am not at the level of those elite climbers who can blast up Astroman in 4 or 5 hours. Thus, I'm a tweener. On top of that, I lack the confidence to take just about anyone up these climbs not knowing if I can get the party to the top and out of trouble if the partner has a meltdown. E knows my dilemma because he’s been there. Basically, a compatible partner would be another tweener. Well, that’s probably a very narrow field by itself.
Surprisingly, S was having trouble following Harding Slot. After all, he has done the route so many times, and has even led the pitch a couple of times. But I think I know why he has trouble this time though. He must have offended offwidth gods recently when he typed out loud in one of his emails that he hated OW. By the time he finished Harding Slot and was on the lead of the next connection pitch (again one that I remember being awkward without remembering any details), the leader in the next party who started right after us reached my anchor. We are the only two parties on the wall all day. Thankfully, I have left the belay when his follower was still in the slot.
Changing Corners pitch is my lead. Again, I don't remember it being hard last time I followed it. If anything, I remember my small fingers had advantage on this pitch. Well, what did I say about the power of time? OMG, this time, on lead, this pitch feels really really hard.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but the moves (supposedly an 11a mantle) before clipping the bolt turned out to be a big hurdle for me. For one, trying to place gear in the horizontal crack to protect mantle is just out of my reach when I stand on the tip of the flake below tip-toe'ing. So, I had to pull on a side pull, hold myself in while standing on some edges (on the slightly overhanging wall) in order to place a couple of pieces in the pods along the horizontal crack. That pumped me out.
When I grew up, I always noticed that I had some disadvantage in my street fights.
And only a few days ago, I finally figured out why. After all these years of being curious, I had my Ape Index (arm span – height) measured. I was shocked and shattered to learn that I have a -2.5” ape index. That means as far as arm span is concerned, I might even be “shorter” than Lynn Hill! And right now, who knows, I could well have a brain of a bird because apparently I am not thinking straight on lead. The moves I’m trying to execute are either too reachy or too powerful. (In hindsight, I should have tried to mantle up on the right and traverse left, which I never tried.) I hear S from below, “Aid through. We have long ways to go.” Being a singled minded free climber, the thought never occurred to me, and now I know he is right. It takes me a little while to figure out how to aid through! That was an ordeal just to get to the changing corners.
Well, at least, I am glad to have executed changing corners without mishap having heard S tell me about his 30’ fall from there with a piece pulled. The moves out on the face, with the last piece below on the other side of the arête tucked away in the corner, are a bit unnerving and involve some long reaches and high steps. What a relief to clip the next (fixed) piece right at the tip of the changing corners! The section above that is super thin. Even my small fingers are not fitting the ever smaller crack slots. 20’ up, the cracks get confusing. There is a straight up crack in the middle, a hand crack behind a flake on the left, and a seam on the right in the corner. I vaguely remember reading something about the middle crack, so that’s the way I take. Gray Camelot size, for 50+’ long. Yikes. The going is not fast. Only later did I find out that you were supposed to climb the hand crack on the left and protect in the middle crack. I don’t know. Right now, on my lead, that left hand crack just appear too far away — beyond my (short) arm span.
Then the cracks get confusing again. The three cracks stop. At one point, I can continue up the corner, or transition right up a thin (red Camelot) crack that starts to the left of a platform. I step on to the platform and find a microwave sized boulder sitting there with chalk mark “DEATH” written on it. I go up the thin crack until I reach a roof where I set up a belay. It only takes one pull for me to hear S say that is him. I have climbed a full rope length. Apparently, people usually set up belay while standing on that platform next to the DEATH block. But my hanging belay under the roof is not too bad. Comfortable enough for me to drift into my thoughts again.
My trouble in finding partner(s) does not stop at the narrow field of tweeners. There is a tricky situation. Most guys are either in a relationship or are looking for a relationship. Wives or girlfriends are usually not happy when their SOs’ get on an exciting climbing/project with another woman. As a matter of fact, at the end of the day, S and I said goodbye to each other, “it was a very good day climbing with you and we shall not climb with each other again” for that exact reason. Even though my lone partnership with S was not all as planned because there were supposed to be two other climbers with us, but they were still on the Nose that day. His wife has given the ultimatum – this is the last time he is to climb with a woman, despite that S has been a very long time good friend of E’s and E completely trusts him. I don’t take it personally and hold no grudge, but it does not make my situation any easier, because the other end of the spectrum is even harder to deal with – I personally don’t want guys to waste their time climbing with me when they can impress the girls they want to impress, and they probably think the same.
Your eye brows might have been raised sky high by now as you question, “you are a woman, so why don’t you climb with other women?” Well, I tried. I even put out my personal (how embarrassing is that!) specifically looking for female climbing partners on Mountain Project since that’s where some real and current climbers still visit. Well, if you know a female climber who likes to swap leads on Astroman (just an example) and is looking for a partner, please forward this quest along! But really, I don't care about the gender. Climbing partnership is about trust and compatibility.
The next one and half pitches (since I extended the CC pitch) are again S’s. He stops at the start of the traverse as you would expect from any experienced climber. But that also means I get to walk past him and continue to the bottom of the last pitch and set up belay there before bring him and rope over. What a relief! I do want to carry my end of the stick and do not want to be choosy of what I lead, but I was a little wary of this last pitch . There is a whole thread on Supertopo about the pitch.
Both times, I followed the pitch. E always protected on the left to make it safe, but I vaguely remember those moves were hard and extremely reachy for me when I cleaned his placement. I am really not sure I can pull that off on lead. S places three pieces at the bottom of the flake (with one alien piece intended to block a stopper piece) and goes straight up. That makes my follow a lot easier. We reach the top with plenty of light left. So we sit around waiting for the young party shortly behind us because they have never been down the descent before and are hoping to follow us (S to be exact) down.
With the view of Half Dome in my face, I can’t help but giving out a satisfied sigh – life is pretty darn good.
It is good even though I don’t know where my future will lead. I don't think about that when I'm on the walls. I want to get on the walls; the higher, the better. E has offered to stay around for another month to take care of our three cats before relocating, so I can take an extended vacation (two weeks in June). Oh, how I dream of the tall cliffs and the long routes! I've put out my NiaD partner search on Mountain Project. Maybe, I should give Supertopo a chance too?
Well, it has been my observation that the more offtopic a discussion thread, the more views it gets (on Supertopo at least). I think I've managed to go very offtopic on this Astroman trip report. Can I get more than 2 views?