Sunday, June 19th, 2016

Getting High in Yosemite

No Mountains too high, for you to climb
All you have to do is have some climbing faith…

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My expectations for Yosemite are low, very low. I’m talking about my up coming vacation.

Remember E, my once life partner and now best friend, a key non-player in my recent off-topic Astroman trip report? Well, he offered to stick around to look after the cats while I’m treated a vacation before he moves away for work for good. With the kitty concern out of the way, I arranged two weeks off at the last minute.

I need the vacation. It looks like my life is really starting a new chapter, so a vacation away from everything might just help reset. Being a born-again rock climber, my passion is running high. Having been a off-and-on weekend warrior since the beginning of the year, I’ve barely scratched the surface of those granite walls in Yosemite and I have never spent an extended period of time there.  The time has arrived. I only have one small problem: I have no partners lined up for the duration. Maybe I’ll just sit by the river and stare at the raging water?

To my amazement, life just unravels itself day after day, in a good way. To call it action filled is an understatement. I keep getting higher and higher. Higher than I could have ever expected for this on-a-whim escape. 12 days later, when I drive away, I have led Ahab in a good style, jugged the height of El Cap, and climbed Voyager, Astroman, Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock, The Moratorium to East Buttress of El Cap linkup, Freeblast on El Cap, and West Face of, again, El Cap. I got high, very high, in Yosemite.

Monday: Astrobaby and Generator Crack

Okay, Monday is an exception. This is the only day I actually do have a partner. I met J on my solo trip to Joshua Tree over the New Year’s. He and his young gang were climbing very strong. For his summer break from school, he arrived in El Portal for a seasonal job. His commitment of even just one day is huge because this is during the peak tourist season and he is needed everyday. Plus, no work no pay.

He has wanted to get on Astroman, and today will be HIS show! He has asked to lead all the money pitches: Enduro Corner, Harding Slot, Changing Corners, etc. Having been in his position only just a little over a month ago, I am happy to play the supporting role this time. He’ll bring the rack.

When I reach the belay for the pitch below Enduro Corner and get ready to lead the 5.10 variation from his belay, I notice something. “Where are your small aliens?” As it turns out, he misread the topo. Topo calls for gear down to 0.3″ . He brought his BD Camelots down to #0.3. Who else here has seen this mistake made? He can’t be the first one! Right? “Okay, I will lead this on nuts only, but will you be comfortable leading Changing Corners without the small aliens? It gets thin there.” He gave it some thought and nodded. Soon we were at the base of Enduro Corner. (To answer le_bruce’s question: that 5.10 variation to the Boulder Problem below Enduro Corner is really no big deal, esp. for someone who is ready to do Astroman.) He sets off on his lead. To both our surprise, he is having a hard time on the pitch. The month working a none climbing-related physical, albeit fun, job did nothing to help maintain his climbing strength and stamina, which Astroman demands.

Knowing what’s awaiting above us and he would need more Yosemite mileage to make this climb enjoyable, once joining him at the anchor above Enduro Corner, I talk him into retreating. But before that, we each get three laps on the pitch, including the 11c Boulder Problem below. Having only one 60 m rope, after he is at the rappel anchor below, I down climb the bottom section where the rope can’t reach. The pitches below can be easily rappelled using one 60m rope.

To give him the full value of the day, I take him to the famous Generator Crack. Last time I stopped my car there, there was a group at the base. They offered me their rope and timed my TR burn. From feet leaving the ground (no tree start) to both hands latching the top rail: 4 minute 9 seconds. We gave it two burns each this time. J did impressively well on his very first time up the tricky OW with few hangs.

Here he is, stretching out:

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Tuesday: Jugging to Mammoth Terraces on Salathe Wall of El Cap and to Sickle Ledge on the Nose.

A much needed sleeping in after so many days, weeks, of sleep deficit. In the afternoon, I found the man, Tom Evans, at El Cap Meadow. Who would know more climbers than him? “Hey Tom, here is my contact info. If you know any strong climber looking for a partner, can you please pass it on?” I’m glad to have found him, because I also gathered an important tip. They are not always there, but as of now, there are fixed lines on the wall. I fetched my jumars and aiders, just in time to do a run up Mammoth Terraces. Surprisingly, my first time jugging on the slabs, it feels easy. After up and down from Mammoth Terraces on Salathe Wall, I turn the corner and shoot up to Sickle Ledge just to make the day count. At home, I have an anchor off a tree. With a belay, I can jug a full 60m (200ft) of a free hanging rope. That is a more intense workout. Jugging the slabs just calls for comfortable footwear.

Tom tells me that many wall parties bail before they even leave the ground. When they walk up to the wall, they realize that they have never seen it from this angle and it’s a lot bigger than they have mentally and/or physically planned for. Sounds amusing, but I know he did not make it up.

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Wednesday: Jugging to Mammoth Terraces on Salathe Wall, 3 times.

I still don’t have a partner yet. But I refuse to stare at the raging river. They say it’s about 1000′ to Mammoth Terraces (maybe more because it’s 6 full length ropes), so if I jug it three times, does that count as an El Cap day?

Once you get in the rhythm, jugging is quite meditative. In addition, I helped free Steve Schneider’s haul bag stuck under a small roof. They are stashing their haul bag one pitch up in preparation for their next day’s departure on a nearby wall route. There is a party bailing from Muir Wall. I passed them both up and down three times. Because they are retreating using their own ropes, there is not much interference. I helped them free their stuck ropes that got twisted around on a slab and became impossible to pull. Don’t thank me. Life brought me here.

Call me strange, but I quite enjoy this solo experience.

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In the afternoon, I stop by Camp IV to look for a guy, D, from France, who has responded to my partner search I posted at Camp IV bulletin board, similar to my MP NIAD partner call. In the next few days, quite a few of my contact info cards would be torn off, but he is the only person who has actually made a contact with me. Despite enjoying my solo jugging experience, I’m getting desperate to climb something, anything, so much so that I’m just about ready to shove a Grigri into the hands of any passer-by and start running up the walls before he has a chance react. Thank god, D turns out to be an almost perfect partner. I say almost, because he has no interest in NIAD.

Thursday: El Cap Base cragging (Ahab) and Glacier Point Apron

If 10+ years ago, when I hooked up with a blind date partner, we first went free solog’ing Royal Arches to test water (trip report), now being wiser, and older, I take a different approach. We go cragging. I have one route in mind, which leads us to El Cap Base. After some warm up pitches (just a blur now), I am standing below Ahab. There is a long discussion thread just about this climb. If still a little intimidated, I feel ready. After all, I have recently onsighted Twilight Zone (trip report), which is rated harder. I should be ready, right?

The crux is the squeeze. We all know it. And now I’m half in it, and I can see why it is the crux. Because of its flared edge, foot stacking is out of the question for me. Darn it because it’s always my favorite (and comfortable) OW technique, which I used extensively on TZ. Without the support of the feet, movements are micro. The squeeze is so narrow that my right leg has only a slight bend with the knee on the front wall and heel on the back wall (left side in). I make sure not to over exert and make sure every move, even only at 1/2 inch each time, counts. After what seems like a long time, I am above the squeeze. Unexpectedly, after a hand crack section, I’m in another squeeze and again, it is too wide for foot stacking. Thankfully, this one is short. The exit into some finger crack seems casual in comparison. After 11 years since my previous and only time on the climb (top roping), I have led it clean! I have sat my phone down in front of D before my ascent, but he was so mesmerized on his belay that he forgot to take any picture. Use your imagination, or look at that long thread for pictures.

By now, the sun is upon us. My friend R joins for the afternoon, and wants to show us some slab climbing at Glacier Point Apron. Dang it, he knows how to expose my weakness! D, my newly met partner, impresses us with his face climbing skills and leads us up an unknown bolted line. Anyone recognizes this route? It’s about 50′-100′ to the right of Misty Beethoven and the pitch ends at two bolts just above the first roof right above D in this picture. Name and rating? (More photos here if needed.)

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Oh, and in the morning, while approaching El Cap base a little after 6am, we heard a loud swoosh, and this is what I saw.

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I saw the sun kiss El Capitan!

Friday: Voyager on Fifi Buttress. 11c, 7 pitches.

I have wanted to do this route for a long time. Now we have the perfect team for it — me being the crack addict and D being the face master. The crack pitches 1, 3, 5, and 7 are mine and the rest are D’s. The approach is very tame in comparison to that of Book of Job, which I did a month ago. That’s great as I have specified in my partner ad posted at Camp IV that I am slow in talus fields. We started early enough that we now have the base to ourselves. After some relaxed preparation, just when we are about to start the climb, a couple show up. Judging by the obviously pregnant bulging belly, I derive this is a husband and wife team. The wife spoke, “we are already racked up, can we go?” “No, you are not racked up, ” I thought to myself looking at their closed backpacks. We have the rope flaked, harness on, and gear racked for my first pitch. But seeing the utter distress on the wife’s face, I mouthed to D, “should we let them go first?” He mouthed back, “As you wish.” So, we let them go first. They, especially the wife, are elated. She promises to be quick, planning to grab on gear because she’s just here to support her husband, who is supposed to be a 5.14 climber.

It works out because they indeed are not holding us up after the initial wait even though they are not literally flying up either. They seem to have moved fast on the first few pitches, but then they slow down. When we get to the last pitch, they have just started the rappel. There is another party that have started way behind us, and we barely see them skipping their belay on our rappel down.

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This above is the much talked about Incinerator pitch. I’ve heard at least two people busted up having decked at the start. It’s very easily avoided. When the leader finishes Pitch 2, do not set up anchor at the bolts, which are well placed for rappel; instead, go ahead and step left around the corner and set up a gear anchor on the huge platform. It takes great gear (BD #3 and nut, etc) that you won’t need for P3. This way, the leader starts right above the belayer. There is no extra rope needed for the step left around corner, and the belayer can easily spot the leader because she/he is on a giant platform. No more broken ankles!

I won’t take credit for this idea. D belayed me this way and I thought it was ingenious! Don’t think he even paused to ponder about it even though it was both our first time on the route. This is a retired Chamonix mountain guide, who had to go through some grueling and very demanding certification process (4-year school). The skills really showed! I will continue to learn from him in the next few days.

Saturday: Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Rock. 5.9+ PG13. 11 pitches.

D has a friend visiting him for the weekend. My friend A from the Bay Area agrees to join me. He is another wide addict, so we easily settled on NEB of HCR. Surprisingly, this normally popular route sees only us on this route today all day. That is good because A has started on a completely wrong route (maybe Mary’s Tears?) left of the actual start. When contemplating retreating, he finds an abandoned sling sitting there in a crack for no good reason, not secured to anything, which provides him a rappel without leaving gear behind. Am I crazy for thinking that God, or the High Power, just placed the sling there?

Our wide practice at the gym (Planet Granite gyms if you ask) is paying off. We did the 11 pitch route in 7 long ones. After the first traverse, I linked Pitch 6 and half of 7 (to above the roof), which years ago felt hard. When you get the right technique, wide climbing can feel quite pleasant. Trust me.

Here is A taking the Supertopo version of the finish:

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Oh, did I already mention I’m slow in talus fields? If left to his own pace, A probably would have descended from Higher Cathedral Rock like this:


And in the mean time, I would be on the ground sliding down every little boulder, almost like this:


Oh wait, I slide down on my butt, not my head! Anyway, I had enough forethought that I had a serious discussion with A before our hike today. “See, I’m not being needy, but a team’s approach and descent speed is always dictated by the slower one, being me in this case. If you bolt way ahead, I’m left with navigation on my own, which means I, already behind, still have to pause from time to time to decide which direction to take, thus slowing further down. Not to mention I might take a different turn and we get completely separated.” It did happen last time when A went up to support my Book of Job ascent. With him out of sight ahead, I followed an obvious trail and cairns until I was told that I was on my way to Middle Cathedral Rock. I think I made enough sense that A this time stayed closely ahead of me. I’m shaping him, a young climber full of potential, to be a top level partner for the climbing community. You are welcome.

While driving together on the way to and from, A told me about his secret to a good night of sleep for very special circumstances like this — he managed to go to sleep at 7pm last night before the early morning drive out to Yosemite. Apparently, there is a certain weed you can legally acquire in Washington state that can knock one out in just minutes. And the quality of sleep is great. That piqued my interest because I instead took half of a sleep aid pill I bought from RiteAid in preparation for the early morning start. I did NOT feel awake when my alarm went off. Maybe one of these days, I WILL try some weeds? Talk about getting high… Suddenly, this sounds scary.

Monday: Astroman. 11c. 10 pitches.

I would have climbed yesterday too if it hadn’t rained. The forced rest may have been a good thing though, if not already too late. After all, I had climbed six days straight before the rainy day. By now, my elbow tendinitis has gotten so bad that the pinched nerves have resulted in completely numb fingers (thumb, index and middle fingers) in both hands  whenever I’m asleep. I cannot feel the phone in my hand in the morning when I try to turn the alarm off. At least, I can claim that I’m balanced — the symptom is equally bad in both hands.

It rained at night and early morning too. There is puddles of standing water on the ground to show. So when D and I met in the morning at the Majestic Hotel parking lot, we were not sure if the route would be dry enough for some safe climbing. We crossed our fingers and went for it. It turns out to be perfect!!! The rock is dry where you need it, and the descent, through usually loose sand, is nicely packed down.

Again, our team division came easy on this route. I lead Enduro Corner and Harding Slot, and he, being tall and masterful at face climbing (5.12 on limestone) would take Changing Corners and the last pitch. The climb went well as planned, but if I can be honest, I think Harding Slot kicked his butt. D mumbled many many words in French, and I’m quite certain that there were curse words in there if not all of them. But having no idea what he was saying the entire time he was inside the slot in between the groans, I’ll say the French cursing sounds pretty elegant. After he clawed his way out, I took the next pitch. Over all, it took us ~9 hours bottom to top, not bad for taking a first timer up it.

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This above is when D is at the Changing Corner. Below him where the rope bends is the the bolt right above boulder problem I had trouble leading last time. Well, as it turns out, with him having back cleaned the gear in the horizontal crack below the bolt (you can see the chalk) to reduce rope drag on the long pitch, I have no problem at all, zero, nada, getting the moves clean this time and I followed the entire pitch clean. I do enjoy the simple life of a follower.

Unsolicited beta: When I used to follow Harding Slot, I hung everything off of a shoulder sling that’s girthhitched to my belay loop. It worked just fine. Now that I have started taking on the lead, I do something different to make my follower’s experience more enjoyable. What I did today was: below Harding Slot, I tie into the middle of the 60meter rope using a locker. I clip one strand to the side of my hardness to get it out of the way and lead on the other strand. The follower keeps both end. When I get to the belay, he attaches everything to the end of the free rope so he climbs without any burden. I then haul up the free rope while belaying. That’s the only time I haul. Otherwise, we carry all our personal gear ourselves.

Wednesday: The Moratorium (11b, 4 pitches) to East Buttress of El Cap (10b, 9 pitches) linkup.

Another one of those “I’ve always wanted to do it” routes, but really, I just want to do the East Ledges descent to see how bad it is. There was not even a discussion between us, and I took the 10d Pitch 1 and then 11b Pitch 3(+Pitch 4). D thinks these corner/crack pitches are hard — if you can hear him, it is said in a British English accent, which I always thought sounds more elegant (and funnier) than the American English accent. We did the route in the full on sun as you can see from the below picture.

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The sun is not too big of a problem on East Buttress though. The wind is blowing hard. And some droplets of water come down from time to time from a nearby water fall. Initially, I thought someone was peeing from above. With plenty of linking and simul climbing, we passed the two parties that were high above us when we started. This route (EB of EC) took us 4 1/4 hours.

On the way down, we made friends with two young climbers from WY and NY and teamed up for the rappel. They gave D a spot to crash at Camp IV for the next few days and D loaned them his rope for their Half Dome in a Day assault. Climbers help climbers.

Friday: West Face of El Capitan. 11c. 20 pitches.

My vacation is about to end. D has made plans to get on Salathe Wall with a Spanish climber (an old legend) in the next few days, the ultimate goal for his visit. We settled on this route as our finale. When we were hiking up, we saw two women; the leader was already on Pitch 1. When asked, they said they were climbing West Face. My heart sank — a party in front of us! But D didn’t think we had reached the climb yet, so we kept going. After some exposed 4th class scrambling, we reached the real West Face route. The women showed up at the base when we started the 2nd pitch. They have one dedicated leader and the second ascends the rope (using a Grigri as it appears). After 6 pitches or so, we can no longer hear or see them below us. I still cannot believe our luck how this played out. Could it be the karma we earned from letting the couple go ahead of us on Voyager?

With the abundant hard face climbing on this route, D’s face climbing skills really shine bright. Who would have thought a 10b R face traverse (after the 5.7 up and down traverse pitch) would be the mental crux for both the leader AND the follower! We mostly swung leads, but I did what I can, incl. linking and dealing with rope drag, to make sure the hard pitches fall under his lead. On this climb, going for speed, I don’t need to point out that neither of us went for a clean free ascent. I am happy to find out that with the speed being my primary goal, grabbing gear comes natural, a skill required for my future speed climbing excursions. That said, most of the route went free.

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The moment I stand at the very top of El Capitan, my first time ever, is indeed the high point of my life. At this moment, I’m no longer a mudworm that I have always been, making progress only inch by inch; at this moment, I’m a bird, soaring high…

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We topped out still at a lunch hour (around 2pm). We were in the shade most of the route and were both shivering when belaying, which ruined our desire for water and food. I was really ready for a lunch that big gestured in the above picture. Then comes the gruelingly long descent. Wow! I’m no bird after all. We climbed the route in 9.5 hours, but the car to car time is 13.5 hours. Down in time for dinner. May I brag that our time is still faster than the c2c time by the Speed Climbing book author Bill Wright when he teamed up with the rock star Mark Hudon in Oct 2001? Oh yay!!!

Saturday: Freeblast on El Capitan. 11b, 10 pitches.

It’s the last day of my vacation. To be honest, I was really hoping to have been well trained and ready to send Nose in a Day by the end of the vacation. But I didn’t have a like-minded partner. I feel lucky just to have found D to tick off some kicka$$ free climbs with. If no NIAD, how about Steck-Salathe? That’s my second most dreamt about goal. I met Allen Steck on his 90th birthday celebration in May and have hoped to send the route in his honor around my own birthday. Oh yes, today is my birthday. But D’s wall partner, the old Spanish legend, is already getting impatient for them to get on with their mission. They must go up Freeblast (first 10 pitches of Salathe Wall) on Saturday, so that the next day, they can just jug up the fixed lines with their haul bags for their multi-day Salathe Wall assault.

A partner search with Tom Evans did not turn up a partner, so I accepted D’s invitation to go up Freeblast with them. It is a very relaxing ascent for me, a cool down for the action-packed vacation. Because it’s their first time climbing with each other, they want to swap all the leads to learn about each other’s style and strengths. I, I just get on my phone, take pictures and do my live broadcast on social media. You can’t be more living in the moment than being hundreds of feet off the ground on El Cap and not having any task to do.

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When we reach Mammoth Terraces, suddenly, they start singing Happy Birthday song to me in both French and Spanish accents. A birthday celebrated high on El Capitan. Life does not suck. Apparently, President Obama has brought his family to Yosemite to wish me Happy Birthday too, but I try to stay out of the spotlight. I appreciate the gesture and will still say, like millions of others say every day, “Thanks, Obama!”

After we return to the ground, we stop by El Cap Meadow to take another good look at the big rock. I ask D to take photos of this special T-Shirt I am wearing. E’s old climbing buddy sent it to him, but it apparently only fits me. I like the message, at least the message I read.

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Express yourself!

I express myself by showing off my lycra pants.

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I figure since not many people visit here, I can post this close up shot.

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Home bound:

I also found out while on the wall that E had to fly out ahead of schedule due to some work emergency. The early wrap up on the climb allows me to return the same day. I don’t care what kind of bias people hold about cats; I am pretty sure my cats are ecstatic when they see me.


Within 10 seconds of me crawling into the bed, still in a sitting position talking on the phone with my sister in China, I am solidly pinned down.

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Do not ask me how my sleep is. How good can it be when you cannot move and is checked for breathing by a caring and concerned cat standing on your chest every couple of hours? So good to be home. Now, only if I can have some of that magic weed…

Epilogue: Steck-Salathe. 5.10b. 16 pitches.

If I always like to go light and fast on my climbs, my reports are anything but. It has taken me a whole week to write bits and pieces that get me this far. Before I know it, the weekend is upon me already. Well, I have unfinished business with Yosemite. On this Saturday, A and I drive out of the Bay Area at 1am on Saturday. Why 1 am departure? To give our respective animal companions maximum human time. It’s going to be a long day. We are headed to Steck-Salathe. Neither of us has done it before and both are feeling a little anxious.

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We again get lucky on this route like we did on Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral two weekends ago — we are the only party on the route. It is surprising because with the route being in the shade, it is really a perfect outing for a hot summer day like today.

Just like what I did when I went for my onsight of Book of Job about two months ago, A has forgotten to bring a BD #5 as we have full intended to. Oh well, will just have to do without. We swing leads, link pitches, and simul climb, and manage to onsight the route in 9 long pitches under 10 hours. The two 5.10- pitches fall under A’s lead. I have the squeeze above Wilson Overhang and, pleasantly, the Narrows. We both enter the Narrows as fast and clean as you can say 1-2-3. Our gym practice is again paying off.

I bet not many people pull out their camera while comfortably wedged inside the chimney midway on the Narrows pitch, but I did. It is just too unique and beautiful of a view not to make a record of.

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The summit on top of the Sentinel is one of the more memorable ones (see the top of the post). What an incredible panorama with El Cap to the west and Half Dome to the east! When you stand on top of the summit block, letting the wind flow through your fingers, taking in the view 360 degrees all around you, you wonder if this is, what people call, climbers’ high?

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All the past couple of weeks of hard free climbing has taken me into the clouds. I’m feeling invincible. I’m feeling very tall at 5’4″ even with a -2″ ape index.

Then, the aid practice on the bottom pitches of the Nose on Sunday hands me a big slice of humble pie. Trying to lead from the bottom of the Nose, I tasted the spiciness of those 5.9 C2 pitches. I’ve never done anything like it before, and it opens up a whole new, challenging, world to me. Yosemite has gotten back the upper hand. But this is not how it will end. Some day, I will be soaring high again topping out on the Nose. Until then, game on!

That’s all I have to say for now, although I’ve said a lot. Life is full of ups and downs. There are moments when I feel low, for no good reason, or for no reason good enough, but I cannot help it. Even just days ago, I couldn’t shake the dark feeling that things would only just go down hill — it was Summer Solstice. When I’m at the bottom of my own rabbit hole, I will look back at these memories (good that I wrote them down) and remember those high times. Most importantly, I will remember the tremendous gratitude I felt towards life when I was feeling high. It will give me the hope and confidence that the low is just temporary and someday, just like that day in the past, I will again be soaring high, like a bird. The low will pass and the gratifying high will come again.

Thanks for scrolling all the way to the bottom. That beats 80% of the viewers. I get it, who has the time to read? Admit it though, you just came here to see cat animations, didn’t you?

Wait, is that a balloon you’ve brought me???


Thank you and have a wonderful day!

Appendix (links):

Supertopo trip report: Getting High in Yosemite

3 Responses

  1. Mudon 27 Jun 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Congratulations on the incredible couple of weeks. Quite a few really good routes.

  2. Alison Chaikenon 16 Jul 2016 at 10:08 pm

    That’s an amazing trip report. The photos are spectacular. I don’t understand any of the climbing terminology, but congrats on achieving your goals nonetheless.

  3. mudwormon 19 Jul 2016 at 4:08 pm

    Thank you Alison! We should get together one of these weekends when Mr. Mud is in town (before he moves up for good)!