Sunday, August 31st, 2008

My Anniversary Present: Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral

(Skip the trip report and jump to Beta Section)

On the Saturday morning of this Labor Day weekend, we drove out of the bay area and headed straight to the Rostrum. Recently, our friend had tried to remind us that there were other climbs in Yosemite. It’s not that we had forgotten that; rather, the Rostrum had become a project of ours. It offers almost every element of challenges that a climb can offer, so we can use it to gauge our progress: how are we doing with hand crack, finger crack, lieback, and offwidth, and how is our endurance? As a result, this time when Erik did well leading every pitch clean from the ledge, we both felt happy. (We skipped the first three pitches because we arrived late, and plus, we had always done those pitches every time we got on the route this year.)  I didn’t do very well on the 11c crux pitch, but I did a little better on the rest of the route.  Still, when we topped out, I was a little let down because I had expected to do better, especially remembering that I managed to top rope that crux pitch clean twice last time we were on it.  But I had to admit that I was not carrying anything on my harness when we cragged, while I had all kinds of extra weight, such as water and the big pieces needed later, on me when we aimed at topping out.  The latter is the real thing that I need to learn to deal with. That crux pitch remained my nemesis.

We did not have a plan on what to do the next day. Partly, we just wanted to sleep in and relax — in Erik’s words, sit by the river and eat ice cream whole day. But part of me wanted to do something long. We had Monday off, so we would not need to be concerned about heading home early for next day’s work. But what should that “something long” be?

It was Blaine who put the Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral (NeBoHC) in my head when we met him on the Rostrum a few weeks ago. Last time I climbed it was almost five years ago (wow, time flies!) with Allen. It was epic. We progressed nicely on the climb until we came to a grinding hault after five pitches when we caught the party in front of us. It took them forever to do the seventh (crux) pitch when we watched from a big ledge. However, none of us had done the route before and when they assured us that the pitches above looked like cruisers, we pushed on behind them (impossible to pass up high without causing the other party great inconvenience). It turned out that the upper pitches were not cruisers as they had hoped after all, and eventually, Allen led the last pitch for them so they did not have to bivy in their harnesses 150′ below the top as they had thought about doing. But by the time when we all topped out, it was dark. We ended up getting lost descending on the wrong side to the top of Bridalveil Fall, which I learned later is a fairly common mistake that climbers make, and had to shiver bivy the night. In the morning, exhausted, I stepped right through a yellow jacket nest and got stung by a dozen of the bees when they got trapped in my helmet and wind breaker. Man, it was epic!  So, when Blaine brought it up, I found myself thinking it would be nice to get back on it and descend the route and get back to the car in light on the same day. The route is a gem in the valley, long, strenuous, and above all, of a modest grade, something that fits me now since I’m not feeling particularly strong these days. The idea got me excited. Blained says he will do it with me in the fall when it’s cooler. Okay, it sounds good, but I want to do it now too!

However, every time I talked about it with Erik, he didn’t sound very interested. He had done it a few times before, albeit years ago. He would prefer getting back on Kor-Beck to go to the top. Every description I have read makes the upper part of Kor-Beck sound unappealing, loose, dirty, and meandoring with lots of 4th class. Plus, the notorious kat walk at the top is not something I would seek out for.  I guess, not having another long route we both wanted to climb also attributed to us keeping getting back on the Rostrum. Anyway, on Saturday night, when Erik muttered he would take me up NeBoHC, I appreciated his good intention. It was our anniversary weekend. He had been behaving exceptionally kind, from the cards, flowers, and chocolate on Friday, to this sacrifice he was willing to make. I thought about being a good wife and offering to follow him up Kor-Beck, but decided against it immediately.  I set the alarm at 5:30am before we went to sleep.

I don’t sleep well when I’m away from home, so, when the alarm went off, I didn’t feel the urge to get up. Erik was grunting too. But after tossing for about half an hour, we decided that neither of us could fall back to sleep so we might as well get up and get on with the day. When we left the car with our packs on our back, it was 7:10am, not as early as I had liked for an epic route like NeBoHC, but I’d better take whatever life had to offer — we weren’t really getting any younger and friskier.  One hour and fifteen minutes later, we were at the base. I must give Erik credit for his navigational skills because whether we were on the trail or not, he always maintained his cool and always managed to get us where we were headed. Oh, my heart sank a little when we heard voices coming from above on the route when we were still hiking up the talus field — oh no, there was a party in front of us! But my heart immediately recovered its position when I rationalized that they would be way ahead of us since we were not at the route yet and it usually takes me forever to get ready. At the base, I dumped my pack, stretched, answered the nature’s call, clipped my toe nails, and taped up. Seriously, it took me forever to get ready. What’s a little disconcerting was the voices above us did not seem to pull away from us. Oh well, maybe it was just the acoustic effect — they had to be moving up, right?

Finally, it was quarter after nine that Erik started leading. Last time on it, I led some pitches of the climb, but today, Erik was my rope gun. I was doing the best I could to help prepare him for climbing with his buddy Steve in mid-September. Also interested in our times on this climb, I started my watch in chronograph mode. I set a lap split every time Erik left a belay for the next pitch. Shocked, we caught up with the party in front of us at the second belay. They were two nice fella from San Diego, Phil and Bart. They kindly let us climb by them with some careful maneuvering from both parties. Luckily, that was still a possibility on the lower pitches. They started arriving at the ledge for the 5th belay when Erik was already leading away the seventh pitch. The sixth belay is, to most people, the point of commitment — you just have to keep going once you go beyond it unless you are willing to leave your expensive gear behind. As soon as I pulled over the roof on the seventh pitch right above the slick groove, I could no longer see them, at that time, Phil was leading up to the sixth belay.

Despite various options available for the last few pitches as suggested on the internet (I only read about those afterward), the route we did was what Supertopo had laid out. To me, it seemed the most straightforward way. However, this variation means there is either chimney or offwidth, or both, on every pitch above the sixth belay.  Having done some other variation before, and not remembering the route very well, Erik was surprised by how much wide stuff there was on this climb. I remember on our way driving back to Ron and Liz’s B&B, I asked Erik if he had a pen in our room and he asked me what for. “Oh, I wanted to mark my topo.” “Are you going to write wide, wide, wide, and wide?” His remark made me chuckle for a while, but I realized there was some truth to it. I just wanted the pen to write down our split times and some comments about the belay stations for future beta purposes.

The climb took us a little over seven hours. Having plenty of day light, we took our time hiking down the (correct) gully back to the base, eating, packing up, and hiking down the talus field back to the car (exactly twelve hours car-to-car).  The progress of Phil and Bart kept coming up in our conversations. We were a bit concerned about them and were grateful that they let us pass. While we were hiking down the talus field with our packs, we stopped to check on them whenever we had a line of sight. Erik found a little compact telescope on the hike and it became very useful when we tried to make out where they were and what they were doing up there. Last time we saw them, Phil was belaying Bart up Pitch 8 (Supertopo). Phil was inside the chimney and we could see his arm from time to time. We could hear Bart cursing and laughing (often almost in the same breath).  It did not look like they would make it before dark. We hoped that they had head lamps with them and hoped that they found their way down safely. It would not be a comfortable night, but they would have an incredible tale to tell afterward. “Be safe up there,” I said a silent prayer before turning around the corning and loosing sight of them.

(Update: I got in touch with Phil and Bart afterward to send the photos I took of them.  After reading the report, Bart pointed out that he dropped the mini telescope probably on their first attempt a couple days before. I mailed it back to him. Thought it was really funny how things coincide like this.)

Beta Section:On Weather:

Someone on Supertopo asked about climbing the route late August. Having just done it, I’ll say it can be very pleasant. Or, maybe we got lucky. Although it was still a hot weekend (Hi 92 in the valley), there was some breeze on the wall. I remember only one place where the rock was a bit hot to the touch, and that was at the first traverse on the face (p5). Other than that, it was very comfortable. Also, when we arrived at the big ledge (belay 5), where the real climbing starts on the route, a little after noon, the upper part has gone into shade. I wore a tank top on the route. At times, while belaying up high, I was even a little chilled when the wind picked up a little. But, it was perfect when Iwas moving.

On Logistics:

We made a few choices before we got on the route:
* No helmets. I know many people might think this is a stupid idea, and I am not going to argue with anybody who believes a climber should always wear a helmet. I’m just speaking from my personal experience. I wore one five years ago on this route, and I still remember how I couldn’t move in the squeeze chimney because my helmet got stuck. I was happy without one this time.
* No hiking shoes. I offered to carry our two pairs of hiking shoes up, but Erik convinced me not to. I was glad he did because when you are inching along up a chimney or offwidth, anything on your back or harness can be a big hassle. The hike down the talus field back to the base in my Mythos was not bad at all.
* No camelpaks. I know this could be a tough call. Especially because the route is long and known to have benighted many people, it’s natural to want to carry extra just in case, and next thing you know, you’ll need a camelpak to store all that stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad idea to do that, but you do pay the price in a chimney and offwidth. I carried a fanny pack in which I put two headlamps, my compact camera, and Erik’s light weight vest (I forgot my windbreaker at the car). I was able to move it around my waist depending on which side of my body I needed to shovel into the crack. It was still an annoyance to have to move it back and forth in those wide cracks, but I was happy that I had that option.

On Making it to the Top or the Bottom in Light:
It seems that the route has exceeded its fair share of benighting climbers on the route. I believe it has something to do with the layout of the pitches on this route. The first six pitches are typical of many popular multi-pitch climbs in the valley of the same grade in that the climbing is familiar to most climbers — hand jams, finger locks with good feet, and blocky face features. So, it is fairly easy to maintain a good speed on those pitches, and it makes one believe the rest of the climb will go just as easily. But what many people have not expected is the awkwardness of the wide cracks above. One might be fairly comfortable with wide cracks such as those on Reed’s Direct, but still could be surprised to find him/herself out of ideas on how to move up the slick groove or the squeeze chimney on this route efficiently. One thing everyone needs to know on this climb is, even if the crux (7th) pitch is over, there is still a bit of awkward climbing to come especially if you stick to the Supertopo version for the upper pitches. So, already tired and spent, one should not expect the rest of the route will go any faster. The sixth belay (per supertopo) has many rope loops and slings with one metal screw-gate link. Above that, I’ve seen many fixed pieces (throughout upper pitches) and even massive cordellette rigged ready to offer a rappel (on p7), but it looks like one needs two ropes and needs to leave gear behind for bailing. So, in my opinion, the sixth belay is the point of commitment.

Of course, once you get to the top, there is always that question of how do you get down. I followed Erik who has some inner compass built-in, so I unfortunately do not have any fool-proof beta to provide. The only thing I tried to remind myself to do was regularly looking over to the gully where we were supposed to go down to re-orient myself, so that later, I could get a sense which general direction I should go toward.

If it helps at all, this dead tree says, “go that way.” And seriously, it’s pointing to the right, and that’s where you should go.
The tree says,

On the Route (with pitch by pitch photos):

The route we did is exactly what has been laid out in supertopo; however, we skipped a couple of belays but set up belays somewhere else. We still did the route in 11 pitches and can probably make it 8 next time if we do the same variation (unlikely just because we want to try something different) again. There has been some discussions on the internet as to what the variations are for the last couple of pitches. I will talk about that below where I post pictures I took on all the pitches. One thing I really like about this route is with the exception of the 6th (hanging) belay, there are good stances or big platforms at all other belays that we took. I could even sit down at many belays, which was a real treat.

(Move your mouse cursor over the picture, and the description will show up.)

P1: 165′ to a big flat platform
start of Pitch 1

P2: 130′ to a broken ledge with a tree where you can sit down
Start of Pitch 2 he belay at the bottom of P2

P3: 140′ to a big ledge, or you can go 20′ higher for another nice ledge. Erik set up belay here because we climbed past another party (they kindly let us).
Start of Pitch 3

P4: 100′ to a huge platform. Erik stopped here so that the party we just passed could get moving sooner, but it would have worked better to skip this belay and head left for the traverse.
Start of Pitch 4

P5: 70′ traverse to a broken ledge where you can sit down. There is only one bolt (not two as suggested in supertopo).
The nice looking crack up from Belay 4. Do not go this way. Off route! tart of Pitch 5, the traverse pitch.

P6: 80′ to the most uncomfortable belay on the route — a hanging belay. This is almost the last place where you can retreat with one rope without having to leave gear behind. Below is moderate climbing, and above is continuous wide and awkward climbing — the real deal.
Start of Pitch 6. The shade is moving in.

P7: 185’to a very good belay stance. Erik went further than what supertopo suggests. It looks like the belay suggested by supertopo (20′ below) is a hanging belay, but we could be wrong. This is the crux pitch on the route with a slick groove followed by a very awkward squeeze chimney.
The groove on Pitch 7 below the roof. The start of the real climbing. A closer look at the groove.

P8: 100′ or so to a big broken ledge below a tree (belay #9 as suggested in supertopo as Erik skipped #8) after the traverse left and down-climb. The leader really should skip this belay and continue to climb up and belay from above. But when Erik did it, he over-did it in protecting the second by placing a few pieces on the traverse which caused too much rope drag when he tried to move up. The truth is each piece needs to be removed before the downclimb, so the second is not really well protected with the extra pieces anyway. Well, we learned. The chimney before the traverse is a bit awkward too.
The chimney on Pitch 8.

P9: 160′ to a broken ledge (it is belay #10 as suggested by supertopo, but it’s not as big as implied by the drawing). It comfortably stands two climbers, and I could sit on the higher rock after Erik left the belay. This is the only pitch up high that I do not remember any serious wide crack climbing.
The start of Pitch 9. Per supertopo, this is right above that tree by Belay #9.

P10: 90′ to a stance (in the ride side wall) inside a chimney where you can comfortably lean your back against the back wall. This is not a belay in the topo, but Erik has placed his big pieces down low and did not know if he would need any for the last chimney, so he stopped here. This is right before you traverse left (to a tree) for that 5.8 chimney in supertopo. If you go straight up (instead of traverse), it is supposed to be 5.6R chimney. It looked fairly dirty when I looked up. This pitch is pretty much wide and awkward the whole way. Supertopo is a little misleading as it says” 5.8 awkward hands, fist and lb and 5.9 hands. It’s really an offwidth.
Start of Pitch 10. It requires some awkward moves there.

P11: 70′ or so to the top. Short pitch, but it still has a short (20′ or so) section of chimney climbing. Above that was basically blocky rocks that lead you to the top of the climb. Vuala!
Erik has made the short traverse up a ramp by the tree and almost disappeared into that chimney. Just a peek at the 5.6R chimney straight up. It does not look very appealing.

3 Responses

  1. le_bruceon 03 Sep 2008 at 8:21 am

    Enjoyed it, thanks! And thanks for clarifying the ending variations that C Cummins had written about – it was never clear to me until now.

  2. Markon 09 Sep 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Great report and beta. How much wide stuff had you done before this climb? Were the wide sections all long or were they mostly short sections? I’m planning to do this, but a little worried about my experience level.

  3. mudwormon 09 Sep 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks for your kind words! Revisiting my own blog, I now remember that there are a couple of pitches consistently wide. So, being comfortable with wide stuff definitely helps keep a decent pace above Pitch 5 and conserve energy. If you go to my home page (where all my posts are), you can see that in year 2005, I did seek out wide stuff quite a bit. That was three years before this climb, but what I learned back then still helped tremendously. Nothing else, take a look at my Offwidth Training in Yosemite (and ignore the free soloing Royal Arches part). If you can get up those wide cracks, you should be fine on this climb.