© — It was a California Start. In mountaineering there is an Alpine Start; this is when mountaineers leave camp for the summit between midnight and 2:00am so as to be coming down from the summit before the warmth of the day causes ice and snow to move, and releases overhead rock frozen to the cliffs. We started our climb up Royal Arches in Yosemite at 11:00am, after sleeping in, and a long, leisurely breakfast. This was a classic California Start. We parked our car at the Ahwahnee Lodge and headed over to this 1,400-foot wall. It was a beautiful spring day.
Leslie, Dave, Steve and I headed up Royal Arches on relatively easy climbing. Dave and Steve were on one team, and Leslie and I followed as a team. We climbed quickly until we came to the ledges that traverse the face. About 1,000 feet up we came to paradise. There is a creek that cascades down Royal Arches from a valley above. Over the millennia, erosion and decay have collected enough soil on these ledges to support life. There were small trees, mounds of brilliant green moss, ferns, and wildflowers. We walked easily, hundreds of feet in the air, across a scene from Avatar. Birds flew in closely, and sang to us.
We reached the top…right about sundown. Before us awaited the walk back down to The Valley; rappelling on a route with traverses was not an option. There are two ways off of Royal Arches. The mountaineer’s route was down a 3rd Class gully (generally, no need for ropes), which can be down-climbed, but is dangerous; other climbers in Camp 4 had advised against this, as this route drew too many rescues. The other way off was to get up to the trail above, walk over to Yosemite Falls, down, and back to the Ahwahnee; we chose this route. Somebody should have checked the map first.
Above us was the slope up to the trail. It consisted of 1/4 mile of 3rd Class climbing, followed by 1/2 mile of dense, 4-6 foot high shrub, followed by over a mile of very steep, wooded mountain. It soon became dark, and as we only had two headlamps, Dave’s and mine, we chose to bivouac at the top of The Arches, choosing to wait for daylight to find the trail. I had with me two space blankets, made of reflective mylar, folded and sealed into sleeping pouches. As it was a glorious spring day, I had worn my climbing pants and a tee-shirt; Leslie, Dave, and Steve had on shorts and tee-shirts. Leslie and I had jackets; Dave and Steve did not. We found a flat-ish rock, and attempted to bed down. Leslie and I barely squeezed into the pouch…together; Dave and Steve opened the pouch and lay down under the mylar sheet. Reflective mylar is excellent at reflecting radiant heat, but does nothing against conductive heat.
Leslie and I were warm on the top and sides, but the granite beneath us sucked our heat away; we gingerly rolled over every so often to unfreeze the side against the hard, cold rock. About 3:00am, I gave up, half frozen. I was earlier reluctant to build a fire, as the bivouac was tinder dry, and littered with dry tree debris. Giving in to the cold, I cleared a spot, and built a small fire. Leslie soon joined me, and by placing the reflective mylar behind the fire, we were able to stay warm…enough. We sat by the fire, gazing at the lights in the Ahwanhee, knowing well that they were busy preparing the Easter brunch.
As the sun rose, Leslie and I headed upwards. We climbed over granite for about an hour. Then fought our way through punishing shrub for an hour. Then scrambled up a steep cross-country grade, and finally, to the trail. We headed west where we knew we would find Yosemite Falls. After some period of hiking, we heard our names being called from a distance in the woods. There, in the deep shade, were two filthy ascetics.
Dave and Steve made it at the first bivouac until about 10:00pm. At that time, literally freezing, they decided it would simply be safer to start walking, thereby generating their own heat. After some discussion on the safety of this, I gave them my headlamp, and off they went, looking for a trail in the middle of the night. They never did find the trail that night, as they hadn’t gone quite far enough up the slope. Eventually, they set up a second bivouac on a large, flat rock. They built a fire, and a second, and a third, and attempted to sleep. After Dave’s valiant effort to start a fire with a spark from his headlamp batteries…that is, before Steve pointed out that Dave was carrying really old matches. Cold and poorly dressed for nighttime conditions, they had to roll over every minute or so to keep warm among the fires. That is, rolled over, and over, and over, in dirt and soot.
By a weird twist of fate, Dave and Steve found the trail just as Leslie and I were coming towards them, oddly, at the same place and at the same time. Dave and Steve were all smiles, as were Leslie and I. We had made the climb, survived the night, and were reunited. As Dave and Steve approached, Steve still trudging through the snow in his Tevas, Leslie and I got a good look at them. Their hair went every direction but down. They were covered in dirt and soot from head to toe. And the shrubs had had their way with them, scraping them up badly. What a sight! We hugged, swapped stories, and marched on. And on. And on.
Having checked the map…recently…I figure we walked 18-20 miles that day. With all of our gear. Dead tired. And having long-since run out of food and water. We finally reached Yosemite Falls, and quenched our thirst with cool, crisp water just before it cascaded to the valley floor. On the way down the falls, I saw backpackers coming down from the high country with big packs. I used to be a big-backpack hiker, and I knew that some of them were bringing home extra food. I politely pleaded with these backpackers for handouts…with Dave and Steve standing right behind me; they added an Oliver Twist atmosphere to my begging. We soon feasted on spare candy, power bars, dried fruit, and nuts.
At the bottom of the falls, we continued on. It was another 3 miles back to the Ahwahnee and the car. And then immediately over to the cafeteria for hot food. Leslie and I sat and ate our Easter dinner, quiet but dignified. With Dave and Steve…who were at least quiet.
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012
Big Dumb Guys
As if that wasn’t enough…
About halfway up Royal Arches, we came upon a large block with a hand/foot crack about 4″ wide. It was the crux of the climb. Not long, however, it did require expert climbing skills. Dave and Steve went up first; I followed on the lead with Leslie behind me. Leslie, coming up last, had a moment where she couldn’t quite figure out the trickiest moves. She hung in her harness with the rope sitting deeply into the rock’s crack. After letting Leslie hang-dog for a while, Dave, Steve and I decided we would resolve this problem with brute force.
I used to subscribe to Accidents in North American Mountaineering. It is a professional journal that explains everything that can, and has, gone wrong in climbing. One article was about an attempted crevasse rescue. Crevasse rescue is almost impossible, as even if you get the fallen climber to the top of the crevasse, the last few feet means either digging them out, or pulling them through the snow. On one rescue, the climbers on top tried to just pull the fallen climber out over the edge. This team of strong climbers pulled so hard that they ripped the harness right off of the fallen climber, sending them falling to their death.
With Leslie hanging, and time running out, Dave, Steve and I, young and very strong, decided to pull Leslie up the block. The rope barely moved, and we could hear Leslie moaning below as we pulled her face-first into the rock. The rope being in the crack, we did little but pull hard on Leslie’s harness. Leslie gave us direction to back off, and she completed the climb on her own. (And did a great job!) But, for several minutes, we almost yanked Leslie right out of her harness.
Big Dumb Guys.
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012