Thursday, September 26, 2013

Night 268 and Royal Arches Recap

Hi and welcome back!

Mark's Tent (Our Home this Week)
Today's post will be kind of long, because I have a LOT to tell you about.

I was so excited yesterday that I woke up around 5:00, even though Mark said we wouldn't be leaving until around 9:00.  He and Janelle climbed Higher Cathedral Rock on Tuesday and didn't get back to camp until about 8:00, so they needed some sleep.

Sorting Gear
After breakfast (oatmeal and a sip of coffee, which was pretty gross), Mark helped me sort through my gear.  He said you want to take the least amount of gear you can, because every ounce will weigh you down and make you move more slowly.  He took out my harness bag, notebook, the plastic bag I keep my chalk bag in, my multitool, and a few other things.  It didn't look like much, but it was more than a pound. 

Mark Taping my Hands

After that, Mark took athletic tape and made tape gloves for my hands.  Royal Arches is a lot of crack climbing, and the tape was to keep my hands from getting too cut up when I was jamming them in the cracks.

Crack or Chimney?

When we got to the bottom of the climb, we had two starting options, either a crack that was rated 5.8 or a chimney rated 5.6.  I've heard that chimneys are often underrated (especially in Yosemite, according to Mark) and I'd never done one before, but the crack looked really hard, so I decided to do the chimney.

Janelle led the first pitch, which was about 45 feet.  She was actually unable to place any protection for the first 15 feet, so if she fell, she would hit the ground. She's a really good climber, so she didn't fall.

The Chimney

The first 15 feet of the pitch is just two rock walls about three feet apart, then there's a chockstone.  Above that you can place protection between the wall and the chockstone.  Then it was just a bit of hard scrambling to the top of the pitch.  When she got to the top of the pitch, she set up a belay and threw two ropes down for me and Mark.

I started before Mark, and it was hard to get started.  I had to have my left foot on the wall in front of me and my right foot on the wall behind me.  Then I pressed my back against the wall behind me and kind of balanced on my feet and pushed my forearms out to make enough pressure that I could move myself higher and then move my feet up.  When I got to the chockstone, I could rest for a few seconds.  Then it was some rock and actually a tree that I could pull myself up on to reach Janelle.

Mark climbed behind me and "cleaned" the pitch.  That means he removed all of the placements that Janelle had put in while she was climbing.

The next three pitches were 3rd and 4th class scrambling, which means we still needed to use our hands and feet to move up.  In a few places I had to "mantle."  That means I was at the top of a steep scramble, but there were no good footholds, so I had to get my hands on the top and push up.

Janelle Smiley
After the scrambling there was a finger seam that Mark lead climbed. A finger seam is a small crack that you can only fit the tips of your fingers in. I went up after him, and it wasn't too hard for me.  My hands are small, so I could fit most of my hands in.

The finger seam was pitch five, so we were about 300 feet above the ground when we got to the top.  I was a little worried that I would get more scared the higher we went, but the height always seemed the same.  I could look down at the trees below the climb and the Ahwahnee Hotel at the base of the mountain, and it didn't look like I was getting that far away from them.

On pitch seven or eight, there was a hand jam that was a little big for my hands.  I could usually put a fist in the cracks and either squeeze it to make it more secure, or turn it if it was a little wider.  At spots this one was too big for my fist, but too small for a turned fist.  I had to stick in a fist and put my other hand (open) in the crack above the fist.  Then I slid my upper hand down to make them both fit tight.  Thanks to the tape gloves, that really didn't even hurt too bad.

Mark let me clean most of the pitches, and that was a lot of fun.  The climbing we were doing is called traditional or trad climbing, because it was one of the first ways to climb with a rope.  To attach the rope to the wall, we were using cams.  These are spring-loaded devices that have four pieces of metal with teeth on them to bite the rock.  Each piece of metal is attached to a wire, and they are attached to a trigger.  If you pull the trigger, the pieces retract and you can put it in a crack.  When you let go, it expands a little bit and stays there.  The rope is attached to a carabiner on a piece of webbing looped around the cam.

Cams are pretty expensive, so you don't leave them behind.  To clean the route, you pull the trigger to completely retract the pieces.  If the person who went before you made a good placement, you can just pull it out.  If they made a bad placement, or the cam was too big for the crack, it can be really hard or impossible to get it out. Sometimes you have to leave it there.  Thankfully Mark and Janelle made really good placements, so we didn't have to leave anything behind.

Pitch twelve was a 5.10b.  In the gym I climb 5.7 or 5.8, so this was WAY too hard for me.  Most people avoid it by doing a "pendulum swing."  This video isn't us, but it shows what that's like.  The person in that video is being belayed from one side, but I was being belayed by Mark from above and Janelle from below.  Mark controlled how far down I could go, and Janelle controlled how far left I could go.  It took two tries, but I ran across the bare rock and grabbed a little lip that let me pull myself up.  I thought this would be the most fun part of the route, but it turned out to be more hard than fun.

On the next pitch we had to choose between an overhung 5.9 section, or an exposed 5.7 crack.  We picked the crack.  When I was about to start the pitch, Mark told me that this was the last hard part of the climb, which it was.  I didn't fall, but when I was cleaning the route Mark said that if I needed a good handhold and there was a cam placement above me, I could grab it and pull myself up before I removed it.  I only had to do that once on this pitch and three times on the whole climb.

Before we left, Mark also said I could call for a "power belay" if I needed it. That just meant that he would pull on my rope and help me get up the pitch.  I didn't have to ask for that, though.

The next two pitches were a mixture of 5.5 and 5.4, which is really easy.  It was a piece of cake to get to the top from there.

Mark Smiley
It's strange, because on Royal Arches there is no "top."  You get to a certain point and there's a rappel anchor you use to start the descent.  Mark really screamed when we got to the top, and I couldn't believe I'd done it!  From the first day I looked at how hard this climb was, I was almost positive I'd have to turn around early on.  Knowing that the gym where I climb has hard ratings made me feel a little better.  And once I got on the climb and felt what 5.7 in Yosemite was truly like, I felt a lot better.

The real reason I got to the top, though, was Mark and Janelle.  They knew EXACTLY what was up next, so they could tell me how to prepare for it and what kind of climbing I would have to do.  They also taught me an awful lot about how to build good anchors, how to be careful with your rope, how to be alert for rockfall, and to be alert for a rope when it comes down.

As Ed Viesturs says, though, getting to the top is optional.  Getting to the bottom safely is mandatory.  That was playing in my mind while we were on top, because we could see some clouds coming in from two directions.  It looked like here were storm clouds to the south over Glacier Point, and also to the west over Middle Brother.

There was only a 20% chance of rain in the forecast, but as I learned from the guys in the campsite behind us, even 10% can mean a storm.  They were caught on the Nose of El Capitan for two days due to horrible storms with lightning, hail and rain.  We met them as they were unpacking their stuff, and they said for awhile they didn't think they were going to make it.   A bolt of lightning missed them by only a few hundred feet, their portaledge broke, and they had to share a sleeping bag when it got too cold!

Starting the Rappel

That story was in my mind, and I was scared that we would get caught.  Mark and Janelle were both aware of the clouds, so we tried to rappel as quickly a we could.

It was hard for Mark to go too quickly, because we were roped together.  I'm not afraid of heights, but coming over the lip the first time was horrifying.  I was looking 1,400 feet down to the ground.  And because the rope had to go over a lip of rock, I was afraid it would break. The lip was pretty rounded, though, and Mark uses Sterling Ropes, which I know are really, really good.

I got used to rappeling after awhile, and once we were about halfway down I started to have fun.

My dad took the picture called "Starting the Rappel" from the bottom of the climb.  If you zoom in and look at the edge of the rock just about in the middle of the picture, the tiny dot is me and Mark.

The descent took us about an hour and forty minutes to get all the way down.  I think it was nine rappels in all, but there was also a lot of waiting. Once we got to the end of each rappel, we had to anchor ourselves in.  Each rappel point had two permanent rings bolted into the wall. We each had a webbing tether that we hooked from our harness to the anchor while we got the rope set up for the next rappel.  When it was ready we clipped into the rope and unclipped from the wall.

For some of the rappels there were ledges with sturdy trees on them.  The trees would have webbing wrapped around them with rappel rings on the webbing.  In those cases we used those instead of bolted rings.

One of the times we used a tree anchor, the rope came over the edge and knocked loose some rock.  One piece was about the size of a football, and I think it fell almost 100 feet. Mark screamed "rock!" because there was a party of three guys from Scotland below us.  We only had a split second to get out of the way, and it was coming right at us.  Mark and I jumped to the left and Janelle moved to the right.  It seemed like it would land between us, but it hit Janelle's arm and then hit her leg.

Janelle Checking Her Leg at the Bottom
I was kind of unaware of what had happened, because I was trying my best to get out of the way.  Then we realized she had been hit.  In a few minutes, though, she was ready to move down again.

On all the other rappels Janelle would go first, but on the last two Mark and I went first and Janelle limped down the wall after us.  We were really lucky.

Back on the Ground
Dad was waiting for us on the ground where he had watched the whole descent through binoculars.  He said he had seen the rock come off the ledge, but then he didn't see us for a few minutes.  He was pretty worried that someone had been hit.

My Hands after the Climb
When we got down I was exhausted. My feet hurt, my hands hurt, and I was ready to rest.  We got the shuttle to the Yosemite Facelift presentation.  They were showing a movie about the second ascent of Wings of Steel on El Capitan, and then there were talks by Chris McNamara and my friend Mark Hudon!

The auditorium was packed when we got there, and the only seats were right up front.  While we were waiting for the movie to start, we overheard someone yell "Hudon!" to someone sitting right behind us.  We turned around and realized that Mark happened to be sitting two feet away.  He's sort of a legend in Yosemite, and he comments on the blog pretty often, so it was really cool to be able to meet him.  He was a really nice guy, too.

I crawled into the tent about 10:00 and fell asleep right away.  I think yesterday was probably the best day of my life.  I definitely want to start doing some more big wall climbing, but maybe things where you can hike down the back instead of rappeling down.

I'm sorry this was so long.  Thanks for reading and thanks again Mark and Janelle!


  1. That's just awesome LRC. WAY TO GO!

    1. Thanks, Michelle! I'm so happy you're still reading!

  2. WOW. You have had an amazing experience with what sounds like amazing and positive people around you. You are one lucky little dude.

    1. Thanks, Hunsta. The Smileys are some of the coolest people I've ever met. I was really lucky to meet them.

  3. What an awesome accomplishment LRC!! Congratulations! Great job on writing this post also!

    1. Thanks! I had a good teacher.

    2. Well, that's very sweet, but I think you have a natural talent!

  4. CONGRATS! That definitely sounds like it was an amazingly challenging, fun, and rewarding day. I really enjoyed reading about it - thank you for sharing your experience!

  5. best post ever, lrc. so happy for you.