Adventures on the DNB

by Clint Cummins

From the first time I heard the name the DNB, it always seemed a bit larger than life. The acronym seems to assume that the route is important enough that you should know what it stands for and where it is.

Some of my high school-era climbing mentors may have mentioned the name, but it was Andy Embick who first provided a compelling description to an impressionable freshman. "Yeah, the famous 5.10 mantle has a bolt right there so it's not too scary. A whole day's face climbing. Then you have to exit on the Powell-Reed ledges, unless you want to climb chimneys the whole next day." Developing confidence on Eastern face climbing, the DNB immediately became my main Yosemite Valley goal.

Sophomore year, I put the DNB into a computer climbing game which was my Nat Sci 110 project. It was right up there in status with Stoner's Highway and Astroman, the latest hot routes from Mountain magazine. The funny thing about that game was that I let Bob Palais play it, and he managed to do much better at it than I did. Yep, he even soloed Astroman, more than ten years before Peter Croft. Whenever I tried it, I cratered.

A few weeks prior to junior year, I finally made it to the Valley. I got to see the general line of the route, and it was awesome. I asked Chris Kaiser, a California native, about doing the route, but he had heard "it was pretty devious" and we were scared of getting off-route. We did manage to do the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, a route on the same formation as the DNB, but it took all of our strength in the 100 degree heat. The DNB seemed quite out of reach, but fortunately Chris was mellow enough to introduce me to crack-of-noon starts, hiding in the shade, and Hoppy's Favorite chocolate milk and breakfast rolls, later my ever-present Valley staples.

Years passed. The line remained awesome. Eventually I moved to California, and I started getting back in climbing shape. John Imbrie came out in October with plans to do Half Dome. We "hamburgered" our hands on Reed's Direct (only a few months later, Andy Embick, now known to some as "Dr. Pump", showed me how to use tape to prevent this). Undaunted by our poor showing, we went for the DNB as a test of speed. This seemed a bit disrespectful, as I never thought of it as a training route, but I was glad to have John, a strong face climber, there to help with the leading.

The start was an immediate problem. It seemed we had to pass the gauntlet of a flaring chimney with a hand crack deep inside to reach the promised face climbing above. Rated only 5.7, I was barely able to manage it, with much foot slippage and hand pumpage. The chimney also swallowed the haul sack, in spite of our best efforts to keep it outside. John also had a lot of trouble with his raw hands, but finally we cleared it. The next pitch was easy and got us to the base of the infamous mantle pitch.

I was the presumed expert on mantles, so I drew the lead. The 5.7 lieback was surprizingly hard, and the long reaches and runout 5.9 mantles which followed really raised the excitement level. I stared at the W-shaped hold of the crux mantle and clipped both bolts. I could press up on the hold without too much trouble, but I couldn't lift my foot up to it. The wall above was glassy smooth, and I was going nowhere. After a few attempts with different positions, I brought John up for a try. He didn't have much luck either, finding even the press quite strenuous. It looked tough for the kids, but I just had to try again, even though I had no good ideas. This time, I just jumped up into the press position, as my left tricep was too weak to muscle the move in the normal slow manner. I tried to bring my foot up, but it wasn't even close. Just then I thought of something crazy. Why don't I just grab my foot with my "free" hand and pull it up forcibly to the hold? A move only a cripple would have thought of, but it worked like a charm. Soon we were both at the belay, scoping the white, grey, and orange- colored wall above.

John took off on an inobvious and slightly runout traverse, and soon had polished off the pitch. The topo said the next pitch took the third corner on the right and then traversed back left under a roof. It looked wild, but I was at least consoled by the fact that the route had been soloed (only once, though). It was a beautiful finger crack with plenty of the multicolored face holds and incomparable textures that Middle Cathedral is famous for. A classic pitch, but as I neared the roof, it got hard fast. The crack got too small for finger tips, and several fixed pins and nuts appeared with ancient back-off slings. I desperately clipped the pins and tried to keep my hopes alive. Liebacking was the only way I could reach between finger pockets in the crack, but my tenure on the tips edges was bound to be short. I reached up from my highest edge and could not find the next one, only the remains of a dead bush. I pulled it out easily, but I still had to clean the roots out with a wired nut before I could get an edge, then back down a ways for a rest. Up again, barely able to crank the move, and I clipped a well-rusted fixed nut. I found a few sharp holds and tried to rest. Suddenly my feet blew and I was hanging from the nut, surprised it was holding. Only 5.9, huh? Maybe when that bush was healthy it might have made a great hold, but not now. (The next spring, Jimmy Dunn and Al Rubin backed off of this pitch after Jimmy's repeated proclamation of "this is not 5.9!"). I found an inobvious rest and started arranging protection for the traverse, which by now had that 5.11 look. I couldn't imagine myself soloing this, that's for sure. After placing the last pieces of my rack from wild one-arm positions on the traverse, and somehow managing to style the final undercling, I arrived at the belay with a real sense of accomplishment hardly dimmed by the fall. John followed without much trouble and we had some lunch.

He stemmed the glassy start to the next pitch and sped up the nicely rough- textured 5.7 remainder. I tried to lead the next pitch, but with its runout, high-stepping moves without good handholds, and drained from my previous efforts, I backed off and John did it. At this point we had done only seven pitches and it was starting to get dark. Unwilling to spend a "shiver-biver" in sweaters, and feeling that we did most of the face climbing, we got down in only 5 raps with one anxious moment when the rope jammed temporarily over a fixed piton.

Half Dome didn't work out, as I got a major blister a few hundred yards from the base, after carting our gear all the way up there. In retrospect, it was fortunate, because an early winter storm struck two days later, freezing two Japanese climbers on El Capitan. We would have been in serious trouble. The next May we made up for it by finally bagging John's first Grade VI (and only my second) -- the Salathe' Wall on El Capitan with Dennis Drayna, also known as John's batchelor party or "the Three Stooges" expedition. As Dennis described our three-man technique, "two people climb, while the third gets to play with gear."

The DNB had been a great climb, despite its incompleteness, with a lot of pitches right at the limit. I wanted to return in better shape and complete it somehow, but the question was how. The chimneys didn't seem like much fun and were out of character with the face climbing on the first half. Rappelling seemed better than "escaping" on the Powell-Reed ledges, which really would involve gaining 1000' with several fifth-class pitches. I had really enjoyed the pitches which were close to the airy right-hand edge of the buttress, and somehow a wild scheme began to emerge -- continue up the edge instead of traversing at the end of pitch six. After all, when Frank Sacherer freed the route, he eliminated some 100 pitons of aid, and I didn't see how pitch 7 could have been aided. Perhaps the original route had continued up the edge. There seemed to be at least a few cracks there, and I even saw one piton. These sketchy hunches began the second phase of my long obsession with the DNB -- this time with the idea of "straightening out" the route and extending the wonderful climbing of the lower half.

Almost two years later I went up again, this time with John Lockhart, my frequent climbing partner. It was in June and he really wanted to do Zodiac, but he allowed me two days to work on the new finish. We covered the first six pitches very quickly with my previous knowledge and better fitness, as he jumared with the pack. The first pitch on the new ground started easy up nice hand cracks, but it got tough as I did some hard runout face climbing over a roof to gain a dirty crack. A long shower of dirt followed for John as I cleaned out the crack and aided up it on wireds. It looked like hard 5.11 to free, including a short pendulum, so I was discouraged. The next pitch was only 5.8, though, and we arrived at a good ledge and dropped off the pack. John used a pin to protect a hard face move and quickly moved up the interesting dark grey rock. I arrived to find him at hanging belay high up in a large corner. I barely cranked off the headwall traverse moves which started the next pitch -- it looked loose but luckily wasn't. We left two ropes fixed to a tree and went back to the bivouac. Back at our high point the next morning, things looked discouraging. A loose and mossy chimney continued above the tree for at least a full pitch. We went up it a ways, but the route just couldn't go up here if this was to be an improvement on the DNB. It looked steep and blank out right, but over left seemed interesting. We rapped back down to a good ledge below the large corner and I set off left. It was a good crack with nice liebacking which ended just above a short roof. After loading the roof with wireds and Friends, I cranked the licheny fingertip liebacking moves above it and got a Friend behind a fragile flake. By pinching the flake I managed to traverse left to a knob and kept going to a long, narrow ledge. At the left end of the ledge, I struggled to place a bolt at full stretch. The bit kept jamming because I had no way to blow the rock dust out. Poor John was sleeping on the belay ledge by now. After finally sinking the bolt, I leaned out from it and scanned the possibilities above. It looked like glassy 5.10d to get past the bolt, and above the buttress seemed too smooth, with a traverse to the DNB chimneys or the mossy chimney both bad options. We rapped down and I was discouraged, but we did have fun on Zodiac.

The next spring we went up on the DNB again, but this time John wanted to do the original route. It was very cloudy as we got another crack-of-dawn start, so we took a second rope in case of the weather. All we had in our pack was some water, candy, and two trash bags for an "emergency shiver- biver". We simul-climbed the first two pitches, and the next 4 went very quickly, since I had them so wired. John flew up the seventh, and I struggled on the glassy moves near the end, above the only pro -- an old fixed #6 Stopper with sun-bleached perlon. The next pitches went well, even the 5.8 off-width, which was very low-angle, and we simul-climbed again in the chimneys. John led the 5.9 traverse on pitch 12, and it was only 11am, but the skies opened up. We rapped all the way down, getting soaked but saying fairly warm.

Later that afternoon, I didn't want to waste the rest of the day, so I set about cleaning dirt from a crack on a potential new route in the Church Bowl. I was a little too cocky, though, after doing all those rappels on the DNB without any hangups. I brought no jumars, and sure enough, my second rappel jammed just as it was getting dark. After some coaching by SAR Ranger John Dill, I made a lengthy attempt to prusick up the ropes with two one-inch webbing slings. This ended with near cramps on an overhanging wall, but I did manage to get under a roof out of the cold rain. The final result was an embarrassing but very welcome rescue by Bill Russell from the rescue team and John at 3am -- my second time as a rescue victim, and my first appearance in Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

Bad memories fade with time, and nearly every morning in Yosemite, I would look up at the DNB, hoping for some way around that mossy chimney. There was a corner system which led out right from the tree, and more systems further right. If only it wasn't too steep -- maybe some traverses could be done to link them up. I went up with Dave Coombs in chilly November when the route gets no sun. We barely managed to reach the small ledge midway up pitch seven when darkness fell. I had hoped to reach the better bivouac above, but we did manage to get into our bags and get some sleep. To shorten the bivouac, I placed a bolt at night just above the ledge to protect a mantle on a right-hand variation which I hoped would provide an easier free pitch than the dirty crack I had done before. The next morning I did the mantle and some easy ground above before stopping at a very thin, root-filled crack. It took a long time to garden and even then my tips wouldn't fit in -- it looked very hard to free climb. I aided up onto a nice big hold and drilled a hole for a bolt. By this time, poor Dave had been stuck in his sleeping bag on the narrow perch for more than 18 hours, and was voicing his displeasure. I went to hammer the bolt stud into the hole, and discovered to my horror that it was a .26" stud in a .25" hole. The rock around the hold started cratering and I attempted to lever the stud back out, but somehow using my finger as a fulcrum was a bad idea (lack of sleep?) and I drew a lot of blood. Down. The key free climbing pitch now looked fairly hard but quite possible.

The next May I was eager to go up again. Having seen snow stick to the crucial traverse area, it really started to seem possible. Joel Ager was visiting in the Valley, as was Dan Nguyen, but Dan refused to go up on the route unless I agreed to name it The Ho Chi Minh Trail. Joel and I went up instead with great speed (except for a slight delay at the mantle), but only two quarts of water. The pitch I had worked out with Dave went free with just one 5.10c move, and we placed a bolt to protect the hard move above John's bivouac. The pin he had used had been removed, and there were no nearby nut placements. This time I had a new sharp drill and a correct stud -- it went in very easily. Soon we were at the tree below the mossy chimney, peering out right at the potential traverse. It went free at about 5.6 on incredible knobs. A second traverse followed which was slightly harder, and I set up a belay below a flaring squeeze chimney. Again, I felt we had to avoid any such chimneys, and a way out right seemed possible, but we were running out of daylight, so I aided up a thin crack and cruised up easier ground to a reasonable bivouac ledge. It had been a long day and we had to go easy on the water. The next morning it took me four hours to lead the next pitch -- massive dirt mining up what will be a nice double cracks pitch in the future. Joel ran up the next two pitches as I followed dizzily with the sack. Reaching the Turret, we looked up at the final part of the buttress, but had neither the water nor the strength to finish. After "summitting out" on the Turret, we rapped down the right side and rehydrated.

On the rappels, I got interested in doing the Turret Route with a new start up the Left Rabbit Ear. In July, Nancy Kerrebrock and I made it to the Left Rabbit Ear, but the ant-covered bivouac didn't look too appealling, so we rapped off. Later in the summer, I went up with Dennis Drayna, and we were able to make it to a bivouac at the Turret. However, the pitch to Tree Ledge and all three Turret pitches had required aid (the last pitch being done by headlamp). Dennis tried to level a good bivouac spot in the chimney behind the Turret, while I checked out several different ledges and sawed down one large bush before settling into a good ledge near the outer edge of the Turret. That night we were entertained by two climbers who were trying to finish the DNB chimneys and do the Kat Walk by headlamp. They thrashed long into the night, eventually bivouacing on the Kat Walk above us.

The next day we managed to solve the key first pitch above the Turret by a blind traverse around a corner which allowed us to avoid an offwidth crack. The next pitch went up a solitary crack which started thin but turned into a corner and then an arch. My feet pedalled on lichen as I completed the arch and looked up at a singular white, blank, but short inside corner. I managed to aid it with a few moves and eyed some loose-appearing but solid holds for an eventual free ascent. The crack continued at a nice hand size and slowly narrowed to fingers, but we were on aid to facilitate cleaning out the dirt (Dennis, the victim here of yet another DNB dirt shower, remarked that it was the dirtiest he had ever been in his entire life!). Another arch, this time right, avoided an overhang and a few aid moves gained a belay at a large hollow flake. Above and right we could see the spectacular "Flake of Destiny", a wavy flake right on the airy edge of the buttress. It was definitely the climactic finish which the route demanded, but the start looked a little loose, and we were tired, and short on time and water, so we opted for a fairly nice 5.8 cracks pitch straight up above the belay. A final short but classic 5.7 hand/fist crack brought up to the base of Thirsty Spire and third class ground. Rather than hassle with the Cat Walk descent, we had left our pack at the Turret, and we easily rapped the entire route to the ground in 2 hours. We had covered a lot of new ground, finally reached the rim, and it looked like it would go entirely free.

A few weeks later, Dennis called to say that he had "a vision." Long accustomed to his schemes resulting in wild adventures, I prodded him for details. He wanted to hike to the top of the DNB via the Cathedral Chimney and the Cat Walk, and then rappel down the route, doing some additional gardening on those last pitches and caching water for an eventual free ascent. I had considered the same idea myself, and was determined to do it before the winter rains set in, so that the rains could complete the crack cleaning task. I managed to convince Dennis that it was a one-person job, so I did it myself. Due to some recent rain, I avoided the Cathedral Chimney and instead went up the Spires gulley, around Higher Cathedral Rock, and over the top of Middle. Some downclimbing and a two rappels brought me to the Cat Walk, which looked difficult. I was glad I didn't try to solo up/across it. Some loose and devious downclimbing and another rappel brought me to the rappel point at the top of the DNB. Down I went, furiously gardening as the light faded all too quickly. Water was stashed, and plans to rappel down the left side of the Turret were abandoned.

July 17, 1988. Bob Palais and I moved around in the pre-dawn gray, hoping our lack of sleep would not prevent success. Another year, and it seemed I had recruited another former HMC friend for an attempt. There was a hint of desperation this time -- my wife Nancy was pregnant and I wasn't sure how many more chances like this I'd get to free climb the route. Our mantra, courtesy of Joel -- "the Ho must go!" I was out of shape, but fortunately Bob was in fine form and we set a good pace in spite of our grogginess. Bob got a nosebleed while leading the undercling pitch, but he stopped it and fired the 'cling. I was marginal on my leads, with my uncalloused fingertips peeling early as I gripped the holds with occasional fear, not having enough confidence in my feet. We took a break for lunch below the 5.10c pitch, chugging the last of Bob's juice pouches and most of our 2 liters of water. We felt a bit tired already, and little did we know that this day was the peak of a heat wave, with unheard of 103-degree temperatures in San Francisco. I took a fall trying to rush the crux move and fell, but got it on my second try. We plugged onward without drinking and I gave Bob the spectacular knobs traverse pitch.

Above this loomed a short but wildly exposed pitch that we hoped to free climb. I couldn't see the knobs I had remembered from before, so I tried to start up the offwidth. No go -- I couldn't turn around to exit from it. The last resort was a steep arching lieback flake with plenty of lichen to spoil the footing. The protection was good, though, as I headed for a bush and even more lichen. My fingers dug into a dry dirt hummock as my feet threatened to blow from another rapidly disintegrating dirt clod, but the moves went free at about 5.10c. My mouth was mighty dry at the top, but we made it and I couldn't hold back a victory yelp. Bob cruised, and shortly afterwards, I also freed the double cracks pitch at 5.9. Unfortunately it was now almost completely dark and we were feeling desperately thirsty and weak. Bob managed to fire the difficult 5.8 traverse starting the next pitch, but couldn't figure out the supposedly 5.7 overhanging crack move above it, and he ended up entangled and cursing in the limbs of an evil dead belay tree! Perhaps being slightly less dehydrated, I managed to make the move by barely reaching for a dubiously thin "Thank God" branch extending from a tree above. Stemming the wide crack in the dark was slow but fortunately not too demanding in my marginal state. Bob wrestled the pack upwards and we reached the Turret. Our worst fears were not realized as we found the 2 liters of water I had stashed there and immediately guzzled 3/4 of it. We could have used a lot more, but at least we had sleeping bags, so it was a comfortable night.

Morning brought thirst as we finished the remaining water and headed up the already sun-drenched rock with visions of 2 friendly liters waiting for us at the next belay. It just wasn't enough as we stared at each other and the nearly finished bottle. The next pitches would be too tough without feeling healthy, so we regretted once again being short on water (2 liters each is not enough for 16 pitches in a heat wave!). We headed down with the upper route still to be free climbed.

Hope seems to spring eternal; Joel and I plan to finish it off this spring by taking several days and a real haulbag loaded with water. Even the FFA of Thirsty Spire itself is planned. Along the way, we'll establish several bolt belays to make future ascents and retreats easier, but I pity the party caught in a rainstorm at the end of the knobs traverse -- there's no way to rappel down the blank wall below! Yeah, 20 pitches doesn't seem so bad when taken as a wall, but I'm sure that it will soon be fired in a day and perhaps even soloed before the current craze dies out. The name? Well, The Ho Chi Minh Trail has grown on me, perhaps due to the jungle/commando bravado required by some of the efforts, although I have never been able to get Dan up on it. I hope to make several complete ascents of the route with my climbing partners from over the years, and when the time arrives that I can't summon enough energy to pull off the mantle, the undercling, and the thin cracks, I will still look up in the morning and climb it in my mind. That's the way it should be -- the same way the whole thing got started.

(This originally appeared in Harvard Mountaineering 23, 1989)

1998 postscript: Joel and I freed the upper Ho Chi Minh Trail at 5.10c by starting from the right side of the Turret. We also did a free ascent of Thirsty Spire at 5.11a. We did not add any bolt belays, except on a later trip -- one bolt at the belay above the crux DNB mantle, and another bolt at the belay above that. Later, Joel did all the pitches in a day with Jeff Kropp. I have yet to do all the pitches in a day, but it's on my "must do" list when I'm in sufficiently good shape.