Yosemite: Big Wall Climbs and Alcove Swings

November 16, 2016

I started looking through some photos from earlier this year and realised I have so many photos from trips that I have yet to post. They represent some incredible adventures so I would really like to share them through a series of photo essays. This first one is from back in May when the guys (Phillip, Emilio, Ray, and Christian) headed to Yosemite to climb the West face of leaning tower, which is one of America’s most overhung walls. For those of you that are familiar with the Valley but maybe not climbing it is a classic route located next to Bridalveil falls. This was their second attempt at a big wall and their first Valley wall. I went along to assist, drop them off and camp/hike while it took them 2 days to aid climb this 11 pitch route. We left LA late, probably around 8 after organising all the gear. After a 6 hour drive, we arrived just after 2 am. It was pitch black except for the thousands of stars illuminating the sky. The guys loaded up their gear, I took a before photo, and they headed out into the mist of Bridalveil falls hoping not to encounter a bear.

This first one is from back in May when the guys (Phillip, Emilio, Ray, and Christian) headed to Yosemite to climb the West face of leaning tower, which is one of America’s most overhung walls. For those of you that are familiar with the Valley but maybe not climbing it is a classic route located next to Bridalveil falls. This was their second attempt at a big wall and their first Valley wall. I went along to assist, drop them off and camp/hike while it took them 2 days to aid climb this 11 pitch route. We left LA late, probably around 8 after organising all the gear. After a 6 hour drive, we arrived just after 2 am. It was pitch black except for the thousands of stars illuminating the sky. The guys loaded up their gear, I took a before photo, and they headed out into the mist of Bridalveil falls hoping not to encounter a bear.

From there I drove Christian’s SUV to Camp 4. Having only ever driven through the Valley once before (prior to the controversial name changes and during the day) it would be an understatement to say I got completely lost. After making the loop around the Valley twice I finally made it to Camp 4 around 2:45. Now for those that don’t know camp 4 operates on a first come first serve basis. It is probably the most famous place to camp in the Valley, especially for climbers as it has fostered the countercultural dirtbag movement ever since the 1950s and the days of Royal Robbins and Warren Harding. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get a campsite for the night so my plan was to bivy in the queue and wait for the office to open in the morning. I really enjoy biving as a general rule so I didn’t mind. By the time I arrived there were already others in line to get a spot for the following day. Tired from the long drive, I passed out as soon as I hit the ground and I woke up around 6 to Ray, who had apparently started to feel the effects of altitude sickness on the approach to the climb and decided to turn back. After a couple hours of trying to hitchhike to camp 4, he had finally made it. I gave him the keys to the car to sleep while I got our campsite.

After setting up camp Ray and I drove over to check out the guys’ progress. Most of the weekend for us was spent between looking through the binoculars at the guys, driving around the valley, hiking, and eating. Two of the most memorable parts of the weekend were the alcove swing and our 2-hour hike up to Yosemite falls.

We decided to hike up to the base of El Capitan probably mid-day Saturday. We wanted to check to see if anyone had left a rope set up in the alcove. For those that are not familiar with El Cap the most prominent feature is called the nose, it is the where the wall comes to a point which famously looks like a nose. If we stay with this image, the alcove is the side part of the nose where it curves up around the nostril. Anyway, it is possible to climb up it from the base and sit on a ledge with a prominent overhang above which people climb up to and attach a rope which you can then jump off the ledge and swing out over the valley (see the images and video below).  There was, in fact, a rope left when we arrived so we decided to attempt the swing. There were two problems, however. 1. the rope was too short to rappel all the way down to the ground after swinging out, so on the return, we would have to catch ourselves and not swing out again. 2. Ray forgot his harness so he would have to use mine (which is basically weighted for a child so not the smartest idea). Luckily the harness held up and Ray successfully swung a few times. Then it was my turn and of course, I was nervous, especially with the idea of not catching myself on the ledge on the return. After some encouragement from Ray I went for it… and of course, I didn’t catch myself on the return. Instead, I spun out again and this time with less momentum which made it impossible to catch myself on the return the next time. Finally, I gave up and let myself stop against the wall with not enough rope to rappel the rest of the way to the ground. There was still a good 50 feet to the ground after the rope ended. The only option was to try to build up enough momentum swinging back and forth along the wall to try to scrape my way back up to the ledge. This might not have been so difficult if I had climbing shoes on, but of course, I didn’t. And of course, I couldn’t fully utilise my hands as one was fully engaged as a break hand as to not let me slip off the end of the rope (at least I had a grigri so that was fortunate). It took a lot of swinging but eventually I was able to catch my foot on a small hold and scramble my way up the wall. All in all a successful adventure.

Towards the end of the secondary day, we were feeling restless because we felt like we hadn’t done much besides watch the guys progress up the wall. So about 3 hours before sunset, we decided we were going to go for Yosemite falls. This hike is pretty straight forward, or I should say straight up. You hike from the Valley floor up switchbacks to the top of the falls (which is the tallest in North America). This is a 7.2 mile (11.6 km) hike with a 2,700 ft (823 m) elevation gain. I am pretty sure the park guide advises to give yourself 6-8 hours to do it, although I think those guides are always an extreme overestimate. Regardless, Ray and I did not give ourselves this amount of time, instead, we had about two hours to get to the top as we left without headlamps. We powered up the trail, passing masses of people coming down from the top. The only thing that really held us up with the really slippery bits, wet from the falls. I had to be careful with my footing since I had worn my Tevas. We made it to the top in two hours and it was seriously the best thing ever because everyone else, with the desire not to be hiking at dark, had already made their way down. This gave us an opportunity to enjoy the raging falls and watch the sunset in peace. After maybe 20 minutes at the top, it was starting to get dark so we figured we should head back down. Having already seen everything on the path we decided to run down the entire length and ended up making it down in 40 minutes, just as the sun was finally setting.

We picked up the guys later that night, maybe around 2. They were ragged and tired and in need of food and sleep. Ray and I took turns driving home, but not before stopping at IHOP at 4 am. It was an incredible weekend in the Valley.

 

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Erica
More about Erica

Californian living in the UK. Erica is currently pursuing her PhD in Historical Geography at the University of Sussex. She is a writer and a researcher, a dirtbag and an explorer. Heart of the Nomad is her creative space to contemplate the complexities of life and share pictures and videos from adventures.

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