Maculated Returns to the High Country
Fshizzle Decides I Need A Lighter Rack and Team Speedy Discovers the Joys of SuperTopos
High Sierra Climbing, the newest installment of SuperTopo guidebooks, tells its eager readers that “Technical climbing skills are only a small requirement for High Sierra routes. Routefinding skills, hiking fitness, and general mountain sense are important” (18). The night before, a friendly and obviously mountain-savvy, woman had scoffed when I wryly suggested to TradKlime (who had recently ticked The Rostrum off of his Yosemite Valley list) that he consult SuperTopo for his next classic climbing choice. True, SuperTopo books aren’t for everyone. There’s the argument out there that the brainchild of Chris McNamara dupes newbies into climbs they aren’t ready for, increases traffic to the classics, and spouts too much information – and for my Rostrum sending buddy, this is probably true.
The thing is, it’s noon and Fshizzle and I are huddled together at the south base of Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows fighting the frigid winds and occasional flurries wondering what the hell happened to our companions that had hiked in before us. It’s been about two hours and there’s nary a sign of them. He chuckles, “I bet that somewhere out there, there’s a pair of sport climbers putting up a sick new 5.6.” Somebody should have checked the SuperTopo before they took off, and that somebody isn't here.
I was up in the meadows this freezing and cloudy day to fulfill a promise I’d made to Chris McNamara (he is no relation to me, as far as I know, though clearly he must be a superior individual to carry the proud “Son of the Seahound” surname) to do a thorough review of his new guidebook. The plan was to summit the West Ridge of Mt. Conness using the beta from the book. In my zealous invitation of friends to climb, I’d rounded up Dom (uninitiated into the RockClimbing.com fold), a good climber and beginner trad leader, CaughtInside, and Fshizzle (I entreated Holdplease2 but she told me she wasn’t into routes more than 600m from her truck) to run up the mountain in fine style. Unfortunately CI didn’t get out of Sacramento on schedule and arrived just after midnight in Camp4, our rendezvous point. While both CI and Dom were eager to rise and shine, I wasn’t. The weather forecast wasn’t looking good, and I figured that we’d have a 12 hour day ahead of us, not counting the drive up to the high country.
We got up around 7 am the next morning and I got to deliberating in the erratic sprinkling coming from the heavens above the Valley. While many consider the Valley a true climbing Mecca, there’s no better place than Tuolumne Meadows to me – rain or shine. There's something about the perceived remoteness - the steep and barren rocks, and the dome outcroppings. Since I was the leader of said expedition, I opted to go up there anyway; if the weather was truly unbearable, there was always sport climbing in Clark Canyon a ways outside the Sierra’s rain shadow (in case you’re wondering, the Sierra Nevada catches clouds and creates a phenomenon of the “rain shadow” in which the western tip of the crest receives rain, but the eastern is very dry because the clouds gravitate towards the peaks).
Now, because I had the great fortune to work a season in the Meadows, I drive 120 like a pro rally driver. We made it from Camp4 to Pothole Dome in under an hour. Everybody was looking a little green, but my Subaru was smiling as we rolled down the hill. And there it was, bathed in a grey and treacherous haze: Mt. Conness. The eagerness of my partners had me wondering if an ascent of Conness might be possible with the power of the headlamp for the return back to the car, but seeing this made me hastily pull over to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead and announce that we’d arrived.
“Take a good look, gentlemen,” I said, laying my rack out on the ground for organization, “that there peak is our destination.” I’d hoped that we would ascend the classic granite stairway and move on to Matthes Crest or Eichorn Pinnacle if the time was right, but one small step at a time. As I stuffed my sexy purple rainpants and my brand new rain shell into my pack, checked on my supply of Clif bars and the availability of my headlamp, everyone started to shake. “Brrrrrrrrrrr!”
Brrr indeed. It had to be low 40s. The swirling clouds were threatening, but I’d spent enough time in the Sierra since my youth to know that thunder was probably not in the cards, and the lightness of the clouds promised, perhaps, a clearing. Looking at the unhappy faces, we did a gear check. Dom came adequately prepared for the weather, but the other two were a bit short. In no time at all, Fshizzle was outfitted in my “capri fleece” (it came up a bit short on his arms) and wonderful ear-flap beanie, CaughtInside in my big puffy down jacket.
Left to right: CaughtInside, Dom, maculated, Fshizzle; gotta love self-timer shots on slanted cars!
As we crested most of the elevation gain of the trailhead, I was on the lookout for the climber trail that breaks off from the main trail. It’d been two years since this wide, sandy path had seen my footprints, so I moved slowly, eyeing each turnout. When I’d finally found it, CI and Dom were nowhere to be seen. Fshizzle and I called out to them a few times before they were rallied and returned to the fork. I was slightly amused because they’d neglected to check their information, but felt no need to stay with the team’s guide (me, as it were). I took off my coat and with the help of trekking poles easing my chronically bad knees, we were off again.
After the first quarter mile, they were again way ahead of us, though I wasn’t too worried. The trail is well-developed and when it isn’t Cathedral Peak is within eye-shot. As we climbed upward along Budd Creek amongst the fallen logs and fading fall fauna, Dom and CI waited again. “Go on ahead,” I urged. “But, will we find the route?” This is where I apparently went wrong.
Assuming that these two had committed to memory the grand sweep of the great Cathedral, I said,
“Just follow the trail. It’s easy to follow. You should see the peak at the part where it gets difficult so even then, it’s not hard to stay in the general direction.”
And the route?
“Yeah, it’s all the route.”
Which is true. The beauty of the southeast buttress of Cathedral Peak is that it’s all on, and it’s all beautiful, classic, and fun. No matter what the others got on, they’d have a good time. Fshizzle and I, both having more experience, figured we’d be the faster of the two parties, and even if they got started well before us, we’d finish more or less at the same time. Off they went, full of enthusiasm, vim, and vigor.
As Fshizzle and I neared the base, we noted that our friends, easily detectable by Dom’s day-glo jacket and my bright blue puffer on loan to CaughtInside, were nowhere in sight amidst the surprisingly populated base. We passed two amicable fellows on the way up, who confirmed that yes, it was indeed freezing up there and that yes, we were indeed crazy to attempt it. But I tell you, I, maculated, live for this stuff! Easy climbing in freezing weather!
Fshizzle, noticing my apparent lack of discomfort mentioned my only wearing a tanktop, I look at him happily, “Hey, I’m fat!” You see, I’m Irish farm stock. I’m built to haul loads, pop out lots of good little Catholic babies, and help out around the chilly Irish coast. Try as I might, poor little maculated will never be the sexy babe in the shiny Stonewear tanktop and sporting a six-pack, sending 5.12. She’s most likely right here – climbing around in freezing temperatures on easy technical terrain – and loving every minute. That extra layer of fat? Baby, that’s my insulation.
So we get to the base and unload our packs, eagerly putting on our rock shoes. But hold up, I say. What good kind of person and high country guide would I be if we started up this enticing mountain without waiting for our errant friends, or at least looking for them first? So I trounce around the base, looking up for the tell-tale neon aura of eagerness that Team Speedy exudes. So we wait. An amiable man in a green coat suggests that we pass his party as we look out across the valley, “No, no,” we explain, “We’re waiting for our friends.” I muse with those waiting about the moral value in climbing the enticing rock in lieu of waiting for our errant pals. They couldn’t possibly be irretrievably lost: CaughtInside is an intelligent and level-headed guy, and Dom skis in the back country – they’ll at least find their way back. I feel a twinge of guilt for not being completely sure they were aware of the ramifications of the trip they were embarking upon. I feel extra guilty that the most experienced members of the party were at the base; we should have at least split up to give the teams an equal edge.
Fshizzle nearly loses it soloing Cathedral
As I'm sitting there, employing Catholic guilt tactics on myself, I come to the realization: Ahhhhh, shoot, I don’t see anyone paying me!
Everyone always accuses me of being too motherly (I'm your basecamp cook, cleaner, and I tell you to be careful on that runout) – they’re grown men, if they got lost, they could find their way back. They could have waited at a questionable part in the trail . . . this is not my fault.
Finally we are the only two left at the base. Fshizzle was game to hang out with the illustrious maculated, but he was ill prepared for the unforgiving conditions of the High Sierra, so shortly we were sitting against the rock, me blocking the wind, his hands in my furry fleece pockets. A scant hour ago he had teased me about the presence of my aid gloves that have lately become a permanent fixture to my harness. His hands were now warmly encased in them.
We met a guy from Berkeley out with his partner and girlfriend who was having a tough time on her first outdoor foray. Kudos for her for being willing to attempt an alpine climb (if you can count a climb as well-traveled as this as alpine) right off the bat. Finally I decided that it would be allowable if we were to explore the backside of Cathedral peak, more or less the descent (not that I would know, the last time I was on this climb, my descent was on the west face in the dark of night). As Fshizzle and I cruised upward toward the summit, the gales and snow flurries were blocked and it became a pleasant experience altogether. We got higher and higher to the summit block when I looked up, “Is that a pin?” Fshizzle cocked his head at me, mockingly, but sure enough, on the easy fifth class ledges was a pin.
WTF!! There's a pin here??
Looking out towards the Meadows from the east side of Cathedral was amazing. Fshizzle remarked, “Why does it look like TV?” And to a degree it, did. The ridge was framed clearly and through it moved the clouds, covering the grassy valley and twisting lodgepole pines. After summitting we returned to the base, no sign of anyone, and we’d been there for two and a half hours. “We should really just solo it,” I said. Both of us agreed this appeared to be a short route and from experience I knew neither of us would have a problem moving fast.
Lieback for your life! I can't feel my fingers!!!
On the way back we came upon a woman hiking up to check on the route that she and her partner had decided not to do with the bad weather and all. “Have you seen two guys with bright jackets?” She hadn’t been paying attention, but it seemed to ring a bell. All was right in the world. I laughed at myself and the continued bad luck that Cathedral Peak seems to bring to me. Fshizzle, in his infinite wisdom, remarked he didn’t mind, that he enjoying just hanging out with me. Sadly, that’s not the only time I’ve heard that one, a particular ascent of Frogland coming to mind.
As we approached the parking lot, a bit lightheaded from the speed, my lack of sleep from being sandwiched between Dom and CI in a two-person tent the night before, and my lack of altitude acclimatization, I whipped out my camera. As our errant companions came into view (conversing with the group from Berkeley, it turned out), I cried out, “Don’t say a word! I need a photo of this moment!”
Everyone looks none the worse for wear. Dom asks, "You talking to ME? Holy Pasta!"
It turns out that they had determined that the peak to be ascended bore a striking resmblence to the formation of Unicorn, which lies directly east of Cathedral. But they would not have made this mistake had they followed my directions and the trail: “Well, we lost it, but we saw the peak and figured we’d pick it up along the way.” Need I reprise for you: “Just follow the trail.”
So just what peak was Team Speedy trying to ascend? They said they never came across the lake. Photo taken 7/02.
Well, although our motley crew was a bit tired and cold, our friends weren’t ready to give up. “I just have to climb something!” beamed Dom. It was quickly determined that one of my all-time favorite routes, with no approach to mess up, should be climbed. Off to Stately Pleasure Dome we motored. When we got to the base, Dom and CI eagerly set off across the slabs to Hermaphrodite Flake. After hearing my tales about the sheer joy I have enjoyed from chimneying through the flake (albeit shooting the mouthpiece of my CamelBak about thirty feet and spraying water everywhere on lead), they were energized to climb.
Fshizzle looked up at Great White Book and inquired about its difficulty. “5.6,” I ruminated, “but I can’t remember why I’ve never climbed it. I think it’s really hard to protect.”
“Pshaw,” CaughtInside remarked before heading up to Hermaphrodite Flake. Fshizzle concurring. I shook my head and pulled out the SuperTopo for Tuolumne Meadows, reading aloud: “Be aware that much of the climbing cannot be protected.” Both men laughed and Fshizzle pulled out my bigger cams and aliens and headed up the slabs. I duly followed, passing a man trying to negotiate the slabby traverse. Fshizzle, ahead of me, thought better of crossing and came back to find a more suitable way to cross. “Pish-posh” the self-proclaimed Queen of Tuolumne Slab commented, as I ran across the walk in patented “maculated-skittering” methodology.
The climb went swimmingly well, Fshizzle opting to chicken wing and thrash in the wide off-width for the trade-off of security versus speed and efficiency. Because, well, once again, the McNamara's were right. It wasn't very protectable. “Frenchy!” he taunted me as I walked up the book, occasionally arm-baring and chimneying as required.
View from the top of pitch 2. Not much else to do when your leader is climbing without pro.
I need to take a little break here to talk up something that very few people know about but need to: the pants made at Arborwear. Paul Taylor, pants scientist, has been my “pants mentor” for a few years ever since I’ve thought of designing a line of pantswear for climbers that looks good and actually performs well (with a fun name, to boot - no you can't hear the name). When I was at the show in Utah, I saw that Arborwear had a booth and stopped by. One of the reps noted that they had new tech pants out that climbers would absolutely love and I told them I would love to try them out.
When they came, I was so excited I put them on and wore them in 100+ degree heat, and yet never felt uncomfortable. Today I had my trusty Arborwear pants on again and in the cold my legs were never frozen – they adequately retained heat, resisted the wind, and dried quickly when sprinkles and snow would alight upon them.
They really proved their mettle on Great White Book when I was offwidth and chimney climbing in them. Aside from some poorly placed cargo pockets and a lack of reinforced buttock regions, these may be perfect all-around trad climber pants. They look as new as the day I got them in the mail, and they performed like a champ, what with gusseted crotch and reinforced knees. Try them out. You won’t be disappointed.
Anyway, as the climb progressed, confused shouts directed toward us from Team Speedy indicated that they had discovered the joys of Tuolumne. Dom called out to me, “CaughtInside wants to know where the next bolt is!” I smiled and calmly shouted back, “If you can’t see it, there probably isn’t one!” This goes along with the other small bit of beta I afforded them, “Just climb around, you’ll find the bolt, it might be ten feet left or right of you, but you can get to it.”
Dom looks up as CaughtInside tries to "find the bolts."
The third pitch of Great White Book found Fshizzle wiggling up 100 feet with nary a piece of pro. When he finally got to a #4 Camalot placement, I let out a whoop as he proudly displayed his wares. Shortly thereafter, I received the call that I was now on belay.
Fshizzle celebrates gear placement on the third pitch. Not for looooooooooooong.
Shimmying up the climb, I heard something click and the tell-tale sound of metal bouncing off rock echo off the book’s expansive crack. “Criminy!” I shouted, watching my harness-bound Leatherman become quickly earth-bound. Sigh. And just a day ago I had been proudly sharing that never, in the history of my climbing, had I ever dropped a thing. Somehow in this low-angle, 5.6 offwidth, my knife’s sheath must have come unfastened, upended, and shaken vigorously enough to dislodge it. Oh well . . . the climbing Gods giveth and taketh away.
But they weren’t done yet.
As I continued upwards, and arrived at Fshizzle’s wonderful #4 placement, I realized it wasn’t so wonderful, for me. It was fixed. Can you fix a #4 cam? If you can, he did. Hmm. So I sit there for a halfhour, leg jammed in the offwidth, wiggling, banging, and walking the lobes, yet completely unable to ascertain an exit for my darling purple cam. All the while, Fshizzle is crying downward, “I’m really sorry.” “Sorry.” “I feel really bad.” After fifteen minutes, he makes the big mistake, “You know, I am pretty excellent at removing cams.” I look up at him, “So am I.” Wiggle wiggle, walk, walk. Damn. He repeats this statement after a smattering of apologies. “Seriously, I’m a supreme fixed-cam cleaner.” I look up at him, “That’s your doom, then.” I leave the cam behind and go on up.
Minutes later he is getting lowered down to my precious. He sits there wiggling and walking. He’s not got it clipped to anything so I tell him I’d really rather he did. Nothing. Fine. Walking and wiggling. Finally I shout down, “Dude, I am tying you off.” And do so. I look down. Hey, it’s right near the edge, so I offer a “Woohoo!” of encouragement. Yet, ten minutes later, he can’t move it. I can sense the anger building as it travels up my pretty blue and green rope. No amusing banter now . . . total silence. Another half-hour passes.
“Uh, Fshizzle,” I offer, “You can leave it if you have to.”
At this point he stands up, clips a sling (which happens to have ALL of my gear on it, as it was serving as his gear sling) and starts a-yanking. I’m thinking about how not-smart it is that he’s got a fair amount of my rack attached to that yet not affixed to himself in anyway and it is moving jerkily . . .
"I am the cam cleaning MASTER!"
Finally Fshizzle gets so mad at the fixed cam predicament that he gives it one final hard jerk, and I hear something hit rock and slide, endlessly. “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDDDDDDDDDDDGGGGGGEEEEEE!”
Only he didn’t say “fudge.” He said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the "F-dash-dash-dash" word! (Thank you, Christmas Story)
“What?” I ask, “What?”
“I just lost your number one, too!”
“Seriously, it’s okay.”
“I’ve just lost more gear this week that I have in nine years of climbing!”
As he came back up the rock, my number four taunting me and giggling in its new home in the rock (so if you ever find a #4 at Great White Book inscribed with KMac, you know from whence it came), I decided that it was time to keep climbing.
As I crested the little roof, I let out a cry of dismay. This landscape was familiar: It was the very same top out I’d done for South Crack in the dark. I ran up the slab, set up an anchor, and we finished the climb. As we topped out and headed downward, Fshizzle offered another apology, “If you’d done that to me, I’d be yelling.”
I smile, “Well, let’s see. . . you can’t do anything about it now can you? And neither can I. So why waste energy being upset?”
”But I can’t afford to get you new stuff.”
“We’ll figure something out.”
”I’d let you into my rack for anything you wanted, but you don’t want my rack.” (I’m an avowed Black Diamond lover. He only likes Wild Country.)
“Don’t worry about it. Just get over it, I have.”
We walk back along the road, enjoying the lovely chilled air.
“But I can tease you about this, right?”
We ended that day with warm plates of fish tacos, seared ahi tuna and seaweed salad, and one very eager employee at the world’s best gas station adamantly insisting that Tioga Toomey’s mango margaritas were not in fact chewy or icky tasting. I dropped another poorly spent $15 on those darn things and yes, the margaritas were indeed chewy and too fruity, but man, did we all catch a buzz. Cheers!
All hail the Mobil Mart
maculated enjoys being cold, climbing long, easy routes, playing with aluminum in all shapes and sizes, and saving lives. She is also dirt-poor, so donations are accepted in the form of cash or gear. Also adoration is welcomed.