Hero Worship

Quarter Dome / Pegasus solo hike/recon - 6/10-11/2006

I was totally out of my element, partway down the 4000' descent with a hopelessly overloaded pack, anticipating a long and pain-inhibited epic hike to return to my car. So why was I even here? The reasons were many - preparation for a possible upcoming climb, training for the Salathe', challenging myself, and even a little public service. But one reason stood out above the others - hero worship.

Step back to the 70s. I had wrecked my body in an ice climbing fall; became a paraplegic for awhile but had recovered to the point where I could walk with only a slight limp and was considering climbing again. Mark Hudon and Max Jones came to town with their slideshow "Freeclimbing - State of the Art", and I was mesmerized by the images and stories of climbing 5.12s and freeing big walls in Yosemite. And fascinated by the concepts as well, with their definition of 5.12 as something where you were constantly about to fall off, and on some routes, if your body wasn't just the right size, you could just forget about freeing it. They had helped establish the 5.12 grade (at Tahoe and Yosemite) before cams, and invented their own rules - pulling the rope between lead attempts, and "free as can be" on big walls. Surely my mind had ample room to wander and dream of climbing like that, even if the reality of my injury made it an improbable fantasy.

Mark and Max's slideshow tour was transformed into some classic articles, including the two part "State of the Art" and "Art of the States" (published in Mountain, a British climbing magazine), and also one whose title captured the essence of the ultimate Yosemite climbing - "Long, Hard and Free". In 1982, George Meyers' Yosemite topo climbing guide became widely available.It featured several "free as can be" Mark and Max climbs, such as The Crucifix, Mt. Watkins, Salathe' Wall, and one totally free Grade VI 5.12 - Pegasus (North Quarter Dome). With the new topo format, it was easy to visualize climbing the routes, without even going up on them, so it provided more opportunities to dream.

Pegasus in particular was a topo I studied, trying to imagine climbing 5.12 on a big wall and doing it entirely free. The crux pitch was the "All Time Finger Crack" (formerly the "All Time Nailup"), which ended with the notation of a pendulum left and the note "or jump". Several big walls have pendulums across blank sections which are often desperate to free or bypass, so the concept of having to jump to free it was wild. How far? To what holds? Was it hard, or just unusual?

North Quarter Dome is tucked away in the relatively remote eastern end of Yosemite Valley, past Half Dome and Mt. Watkins. A couple of my friends have climbed it on aid, with one describing the approach as "the worst in the Valley - going all the way to Mt. Watkins and then even further!" So, with my very weak hiking ability, I crossed it off as being safely outside my range. But I never stopped looking at the topo.

In 1994, Bill Wright did North Quarter Dome (as an aid climb), and wrote an excellent trip report - "Quarter Dome is Full Adventure" ( http://www.wwwright.com/climbing/tripreports/1994/QuarterDome.htm ). Bill enjoys doing routes he hasn't done before, as opposed to repeating the classics, which has been my style in recent years. He lived in the bay area for several years, and still visits regularly from Colorado, so he has really gotten out to a lot of the less-travelled climbs. And he has shared them with his detailed trip reports, first posted on rec.climbing (internet newsgroup, before the www) and now on his website. At first, I thought he was bragging with his trip reports, which were not exactly on traditionally newsworthy climbs. But after awhile, I got into them and really enjoyed them. I even met Bill once, when I repaired a few trigger wires on a couple of his cams. We never actually climbed together, partly because Bill was not free climbing at a very high level at that time, and partly because he already had several capable partners. One of our mutual friends once described Bill as "an aerobic machine on legs", and his reports on climbing in the Grand Canyon and doing the Pike's Peak Marathon back it up!

In the "Full Adventure" report, Bill and his partner were pretty much cruising up the route until the pitch before the "All Time Finger Crack". The aid version of this pitch goes up a grassy dogleg seam out on a blank face, while the free version goes up an arching corner to the left, with a heavy dose of bushes growing from the crack. Bill had a memorably epic battle leading up the seam, with some very marginal gear, a fall, and mandatory free climbing above bad pro, hence the "full adventure"! On the next pitch, his partner aided up the finger crack and pendulumed left. In the intro to the report, Bill stated:

"... I doubt it has ever been free climbed. ... the "jump" at the top of the All Time Nailup Pitch doesn't look too possible. This would involve a sideways leap of about ten feet from about ten feet above a six inch ledge! And you would be leaping from finger locks and a crack foothold! I doubt this could be achieved on the first twenty tries."
(Bill also doubted that other parts of Pegasus had been freed).
I was rather upset when I ran across this in the trip report. Mark and Max were free climbing icons. Their word and the topo were absolute truths in my view. I had met the guys, seen the slideshow, read the articles, studied the topos. Some of Bill's doubts I could rationalize because he was not a 5.12 free climber. He had just had a "near death" experience leading the previous pitch, and his mind was probably still in "aid mode", where your focus is only in the next 3 feet, trying to find something to stick in the crack that will save your hide. In times like those, things can become a bit compressed and it is harder to visualize stretching up from footholds and jams to reach into fingerlocks that are still out of range when on aid.

But Bill's description of the "jump" had me concerned. A friend of mine who has done the route (on aid) had described it as "a leap of faith", which had also made me curious. If it was really ten feet, then either Mark and Max were even more amazing than I already understood, or there was something strange going on. Bill later met Mark (due to the trip report), and they have climbed several times together since then. With the climb being 30 years in the past, Mark didn't remember the leap, but did recall in their "free as can be" style, they had not tried to free the pendulums on the Salathe' Wall and on Mt. Watkins. Memories fade over 30 years; was it because the jump was easy, relative to the 5.12 finger crack? The jump was not even mentioned in the articles, which one might expect if it was unusually difficult. The concept that the route was not freed (even if only the jump) and by implication the rating and topo were faked, was not something I wanted to believe. But Bill's trip reports were honest and straightforward, so this conflict was not easily resolved.

It was something I might have to check out myself. Few people go up there, and I had heard of nobody else who had freed it. In early 2006 a post on the supertopo.com forum with the Pegasus subject drew my attention. Bill Leventhal had been up on the route some time ago, but had been rained off below the crux. He wanted to go back, but had trouble finding a partner willing to do the approach, and was also wondering about the conditions of the route. Was it overgrown and would it need cleaning before being free climbable? He also asked if anyone knew of a second free ascent. I saw his quest as an intriguing opportunity to answer my own questions about the route, and after some serious thought I volunteered to join him on the climb, once things dried out in the summer.

But I was very concerned about my ability to hold up on the long and difficult approach hike, not to mention the descent. So I hatched my own plan for the meantime. I would hike to the top of the route, rappel down to the jump and get a definitive answer. In the process I could also check out the free climbing (vegetation) conditions for Bill Leventhal, replace a couple of bad bolts noted in Bill Wright's trip report, and gauge my (trail) hiking fitness. An opportunity to try this crazy project arose in June and I took it.

Projects that involve rapping, cleaning, and rebolting are often best done solo. And I figured few people besides myself were interested in hiking all the way up there to do those sorts of things. So I didn't bother trying to find a partner, although Nancy joked I could probably hire our son Skyler to carry my stuff up there! After my email exchange with Bill Leventhal, I had made a properly scaled topo, by combining the photo overlay from the guidebook with the guidebook topo and Bill Wright's topo from his trip report. I used this to estimate the distance from the top of the climb down to the bushy corner / grassy seam pitch, where I hoped to possibly clean out the bushes. It looked like about 3.5 x 50 meter ropelengths. So I rummaged through my motly collection of retired (and short) 9mm ropes, and measured out the equivalent to be five cords of various lengths, from 70' to 160'. On one rope, I duct taped over several core shots to "maximize length". On others, I cut out the core shots, remelted the ends, and took the longest remaining segment. Together they comprised about 500' of rope, and made up the majority of weight and volume in my pack. I added jumars, aiders, two cams, two nuts, a few slings and biners, hammer and bolt kit with four bolts, crack cleaning tools, free climbing shoes, sleeping bag, six cans of food, chocolate, two (empty) one liter water bottles, headlamp, maps/photos/topos and camera. This pack was not light, but seemed managable when I picked it up in the garage.

A 9:15pm departure from Palo Alto led to a 12:15 arrival at the sleeping spot, and a good rest until a dawn wakeup at 5am. The 5:45am sunrise had hit the top of El Capitan when I drove past, and I parked in the lot below Glacier Point Apron and joined the large number of early morning hikers heading for Half Dome. Following the topo map, I drank from natural water sources at about every 1000' of elevation gain along the hike; I am not very concerned about giardia when the flow rate is high or when it is from a spring. The last 1000' of gain was a rather epic struggle. After lunch and a short nap at the highest water source, I added the 2 liters of water to my pack and continued up the Clouds Rest trail. Tiredness from the already long hike turned into exhaustion, as I was forced to rest after every 50' or so of gain, either by sitting on a log or by standing. I hardly flinched when I startled a healthy looking brown bear near the trail; I didn't attempt to dig for my camera. Eventually I reached the end of a long switchback at 8000' where the final 200' of off trail gain was to reach the summit of North Quarter Dome. On this section I took numerous rests where I built cairns from available materials, to insure I would be able to find the trail on my return journey. Finally I reached the notch and found a nice flat and sandy sleeping spot under some trees near the summit. Feeling almost fully drained, I ate a can of cinnamon pears and took another nap in the sun, pausing partway through to wrap up my bare feet in my windbreaker to stop the ants from biting them.

After my nap, it was late afternoon, but June days are long, so I staggered over to the summit of the dome with a rope and some gear to locate the top anchor. Using the overlay photo, I found a likely spot, plugged in my two cams, tied in the rope and tossed it off. After returning for the rest of my gear and all but one rope, I made a backup anchor to a tree with the shortest rope, then tied the rest together and tossed them down the face. I started rapping down, with my jumars/aiders, bolt kit, cleaning tools, and extra slings/biners to clip the several expected fixed belay anchors along the route. I left my headlamp on top, judging that in my weakened state, I wouldn't tempt fate by trying to climb in the dark, and I didn't want to jumar up with the extra weight! As I looked over the edge at the Merced Canyon, I also realized I didn't want to do the epic base approach with Bill Leventhal. If I was this weak going up a trail, I'd be useless on the normal cross country approach. Hopefully any work I could accomplish on this trip would make up for my broken promise.

Quickly I located the first of several fixed pitons, at the base of the final 5.5 slab. I clipped it and tied in the rope, as each intermediate anchor would be helpful in reducing rope length, with its attendant rope stretch and dangerous fraying action over edges when jumaring back up. The upper three pitches all had some right trending arches, so I had to do a fair amount of tensioning back left to reach the anchors, but I managed it. I noted many more fixed pitons, as expected from Bill's report, and the usual rusty 1/4" belay bolts.

My primary goal on this late afternoon was to replace at least one of the two bad aid bolts which Bill had described. My friend Brad had also mentioned that he remembered some bolts stamped with "YC" (Yvon Chouinard) from when he did the first ascent with Tom Frost in 1962. I located the bolts, but could not immediately reach them, because they were so far left of the rap line that I felt I couldn't safely tension over to them in my hiking boots. At this point I looked down and saw the faded slings at the pendulum anchor at the end of the All Time Finger Crack, with the infamous jump not far below, so I gave in to my desires and headed down there to check it out. Going straight to the jump, I saw it was not ten feet at all. Five and a half feet. I could bridge in my hiking boots between the crack (flaring footjam) and the big sloping foothold at the right end of the ledge. And of course you do not jump from the pendulum anchor ten feet above; you go from the flaring foot jam and finger edge which are level with the foothold/ledge. The horizontal distance is about the same as the 5.10c lunge move on Rixon's West, and it felt the same - on both routes I could bridge across (I'm 6' tall) but it was too much of a stretch to just rock over onto the foot; better to make a very short jump onto that foot (or a short lunge to a handjam, in the case of Rixon's West). So, Yes! it had been freed by Mark and Max. I took a few photos to record my observations.

I cleaned up the pendulum anchor, removing all the faded slings, resetting the two pitons with my hammer, and removing a nut in the slings that had fallen out of a dubious placement. I jumared back up to the previous anchor, and rearranged it so that the rope could easily reach a few feet further left. Then I rapped down and barely managed to tension left to the upper corner of the 5.11d pitch, where I placed a TCU and clove hitched the rope to make an intermediate anchor. This allowed me to rap further down and left to reach the bad aid bolts. Sure enough, the top one had a homemade aluminum hanger stamped YC, with a 1/4" Star Dryvin bolt. The lower bolt was a clearly non-original 1/4" buttonhead, sticking out 3/8" from the rock; obviously a replacement bolt where someone had not redrilled the hole to match the length of their bolt. I didn't see how I would be able to pull out the lower bolt, because my "tuning fork" was not thick enough to handle the extra 3/8" gap betwen the hanger and the rock. So I extracted the YC bolt, where the tuning fork worked perfectly, and redrilled the hole to 3/8" x 2.25" as light of the day faded. Soon I had a new stainless steel ASCA bolt in place, so I anchored the rope to it and jumared back up to the rim. I was a little gripped on the old 9mm ropes, going over the edges, but convinced myself it would be fine, and that turned out to be true. After walking over to the sleeping spot, I got into my sleeping bag and feasted on my two can dinner. I hadn't brought a sleeping pad (to save on weight/bulk), but the ground was sandy, so I dug a shallow gouge for my hip, padded it with my hat, and used a rope as a pillow. It was a good night to catch up on sleep, although I was bothered occasionally by a mosquito, and I woke up occasionally, usually able to spot a headlamp or two on the Half Dome cables.

On Sunday morning, I woke up at dawn, but stayed in my sleeping bag, as it was fairly cold (with the sun blocked by Clouds Rest). I also wanted to consider my plan for the day(s) ahead. I had brought two extra cans of food, in case I decided I needed spent a third day on the climbing project or the hike out. But I had already eaten one of the cans on Saturday afternoon, when I needed to revive myself after the hike. I was unsure how weak I would be after the climbing, and how long I'd be able to last on the hiking. Fortunately I didn't seem to be short on water, and I was hydrated. With my plan still a bit unresolved, I had my can of fruit for breakfast, and headed over to my fixed ropes, carrying the last rope, plus a junk bar and 3/4 liter of water. My goals for the day were to replace 3 more bolts (including the second aid bolt if I could figure out how), and to clean the bushy corner. I started by moving the top anchor around left to the corner of the formation. This way it would be more directly over the lower pitches, so it would be easier to reach things, and the jumar out would not be so scary (less running the ropes over edges when swinging out right). I began the rebolting with the anchor at the end of the 5.11d pitch. It was a nice stance with one rusty 1/4" buttonhead and a good Lost Arrow piton, but no other fixed pins nearby and a flaring crack that would not be very good for cams. The bolt pulled easily by hammering the tuning fork under it. The hole was not even close to perpendicular to the rock surface (it was probably not original - Chouinard and Frost used pitons for anchors whenever possible), so I didn't bother trying to enlarge it, and drilled the hole for the replacement bolt a bit higher. Soon the new bolt was in place, so I had a little water and headed down to a ledge below the aid bolts.

I jumared up to the aid bolts and cleaned some dried moss from the crack holds above the upper bolt, where the 5.11d crux might be. I then jumared down and came up with a plan for pulling the lower aid bolt. I had nearly given up on this bolt on Saturday, rationalizing that it was strong enough, even though it didn't look very nice, and maybe I might damage it with an unsuccessful attempt at removal. But it was in the midst of some hard moves above some horrifyingly bad fixed gear (an ancient hex bashed into a shallow pod with unreplaceable tattered and faded perlon that might not hold body weight, plus a stopper with rusty cable, 1/3 bashed into a flaring pin scar), and the bolt looked bad to a casual observer. So I really wanted to fix it - it would be a big victory for me if I could find a way. I cleaned two 5/8" angle pitons from the crack below and used them (actually just one was enough) in conjunction with my tuning fork to bridge the 3/8" gap between the hanger and rock of the lower aid bolt. This worked well; soon it was out and I drilled out the original hole (the FA masters had drilled it perfectly perpendicular, no surprises there). The new bolt was in place, so I put the pitons back in place and headed down to check out the route below.

I reached a narrow ledge with two bolts, at the base of the All Time Finger Crack. The original anchor was probably the 3 fixed pins in place at the bottom of the crack, but these bolts were shown in the topo and allowed use of the ledge for a stance. I looked left and saw the top of the bushy corner, level with me. The bushes looked impossible to clean in the time I had available, and they were the type which would quickly grow back. I recalled the story my friend Brian Cox had told me, from when he tried the route in 1979, immediately after it had been freed. He had no topo at that time, so he was not sure which way they had gone. He had looked up at the bushy corner from the belay below and wanted no part of it, so he tried aiding on the dogleg seam. But he only had 2 Lost Arrow pitons which fit it, and he promptly dropped one of them, so that was the end of his attempt. The crucial part of Brian's account for me at this point was that the corner was bushy when Mark and Max did it. So they were able to free it regardless, and there was not any point in spending many hours making it temporarily cleaner for climbers in the next few years, only to have it regrow back to the original. So the cleaning plan was abandoned, and I went to work replacing one of the belay bolts instead. One of the bolts had a hex head and a Cassin hanger, so it was a bit of a mystery in terms of quality. The other was a rusty 1/4" with two hex nuts, fairly low above the ledge, and the obvious candidate for replacment. It came out easily with the tuning fork, being only 1" long, and I opted to put the new hole higher above the ledge, to make for a more comfy stance and easier hauling. My 4th and last ASCA bolt was in place, so I ate a junk bar, finished the water, and jumared out (with some stress and fear, but fortunately no bad rope frays). Before I finished jumaring out, I realized I could just toss off the old bolts and hangers, instead of carrying them out like I usually do. I had already saved the YC hanger and bolt from Saturday, but the rest (Leeper hangers) I sent over the edge; they would degrade happily down near the base. Such was my obsession with the weight of my pack for the descent.

Back at the sleeping spot, I ate my last can of fruit, and saved my last can of ravioli in case I couldn't complete the hike out. Everything (including my crushed food cans) was packed up, I drank and poured out the last of my water, and headed down to find my cairns. They were located fairly easily, and soon I was on the trail, moving carefully but ridiculously fast in comparison to my exhausted ascent of the last 1000' on Saturday afternoon. I did take advantage of the occasional rest log, to keep the damage to my feet and ankles under control. As the hike progressed, I drank at each of the water sources again. I was fairly fine on the descending sections, since I seemed to have plenty of quad strength, but the level and sandy sections were fairly tough. My left hamstring had an occastional slight twinge of pain, and I hoped it would not develop into anything more serious. My ankles were sore and had to be rested, but in the tight ankle brace and boots they were probably not being seriously damaged. A 30-40 second rest seemed to be about right, giving them a break, but still keeping them a little numb so that they weren't too painful when I would restart hiking. I steeled myself to expect the level and sandy section (with a few short ascents) in Little Yosemite Valley to be the crux, and it was indeed tough. But I made it across and even talked with a couple of hikers who were struggling with their own limits on the return from Half Dome. Finally I reached Nevada Falls, where I said hi to the hikers again and had some chocolate and water. Going down the Muir Trail was painful and slow, with many rests sitting on trailside rocks of the appropriate height. But I managed to reach the car before total darkness set in. I had survived it, and the faith in my free climbing heroes was reconfirmed.