I sort of had Diedre more in mind for our first day out. It's a grade easier, and I'd led much of it the previous summer. But, the suggestion made sense. As always, there were already several teams of climbers on Diedre, a moderate area classic. It's more of a highway than a route, and understandably so--it's an incredible climb.
There were three reasons I was a little hesitant about jumping onto Snake, a multi-pitch, 5.9 corner crack that has several interesting obstacles thrown in for additional fun. First, being a Florida resident, I hadn't climbed for awhile and I usually prefer to restart my engine on something easy. Second, I knew I'd be on the sharp end of every pitch since my buddy Frank is not yet a trad leader. And third, I was a little unsure about my general state of being.
Two days earlier, I had accompanied my son back home to Florida, flying from Vancouver to Miami then driving an hour north to our home. Early the next morning, I dropped him off at his mother's place, drove back to Miami, boarded another jet, and flew back to Vancouver. I arrived late in the afternoon, just in time to pick up a rental car and meet Frank as he arrived from Miami on a different flight. We drove north immediately because I wanted him to catch his first view of the Stawamus Chief before dark. (You round a curve on the highway and boom!, there it is, basking in the evening sun: 1,800 vertical feet of imposing granite. Itís truly an awesome sight!)
Anyway, I was a little cooked first thing that morning but, what the hell, it was time to get busy. The approach from the Apron parking lot is quite short but, if hiked at a good pace, it's just enough to give you an initial burn in the legs and change the air in your lungs. I welcomed the exercise, having sat on my butt for the better part of the previous two days.
We roped up at the base, did our cross-check, then climbed up a short wall and across easy slopes, traversing upward and left until we reached an obvious belay. Above us, a wide, right-facing corner ascended a steep slab toward a tree. I started up without trouble and found good gear placements at regular intervals. It was a nice pitch to warm up on and, at the top, I found numerous slings wrapped around the tree. I girth hitched one of my own as a backup and set up a belay for Frank.
[page] Once he joined me, we discussed the next pitch. We knew we needed to move left, up and over a considerable bulge to gain the slab above, but the route wasn't obvious. I determined that I needed to climb back down below the belay, then cross over and make my way around a blunt arÍte. No problem, except that the arÍte had few holds, nowhere to place protection, and nasty fall potential. There were several vertically oriented edges below the corner that threatened to dissect me if I came off. I considered my options for hand and foot placements, took a final glance at the edges below, then stepped out onto the arÍte. Several dicey moves later, I made a long reach up with my right hand and was rewarded with a positive edge. I quickly hauled myself up and hiked to a bolted belay on the higher slab. It certainly wasn't one of the longer pitches I've climbed but, nevertheless, it was an interesting one. Frank puzzled over the moves on the arÍte as well but, without the threat of crashing onto the edges below, he was less hesitant than I had been.
From there, we traversed across ledges and slabs toward the next belay. The final section of the traverse was a bit of a challenge: delicate, balancey moves with next to nothing for hands or feet. Once across, I climbed out above the thin section and placed a cam to keep Frank from a nasty pendulum across the slab if he slipped. A few minutes later, we stood looking up at the main section of the route.
I was surprised at how familiar it looked, although I couldn't remember many details. Five years earlier, I had seconded the climb behind a local guide. It had been my first multi-pitch adventure and I remembered being a little intimidated by some of the moves, as well as the exposure. I was excited to be climbing it again, this time on lead.
For two solid pitches of great climbing, you combine laybacking, finger and hand jams, and friction moves to make your way up the corner system. Somewhere in the middle I had a lot of rope out and began thinking about a belay. Just ahead of me was a horizontal crack that interrupted the slab under a flake. The corner crack had pinched off and I couldn't see any options further on. I decided I'd better build an anchor there and bring Frank up. It was an awkward set-up because the crack was mostly too shallow for decent gear placements. After fussing about for entirely too long, I finally put something together that I felt would hold us, so long as no one fell onto it! It wasn't actually that bad but I belayed Frank off my harness, just the same. (I usually use a Munter Hitch right off the anchor.)
Frank enjoyed climbing the pitch and managed to clean all the gear (even the nuts I had set with harder-than-necessary tugs). He threaded a clove-hitch into the locking biner I had waiting for him, got comfy, then began re-stacking the rope. I collected the gear from his harness and took a sip of water. I left the belay carefully, and paused to slot a nut as soon as the corner crack opened up again. And then, guess what? I climbed about ten feet further up, and there, plain as day above me, was a nice little ledge and a pair of humongous, bolted hangers. Did I feel stupid or what? I turned, looked down at Frank, and said, "Ah, Iím afraid this is going to be a rather short pitch. I'll be bringing you up again momentarily." Once Frank figured out what I was talking about, he shook his head and laughed. I swear I couldn't see the anchors from further below.
[page] With Frank feeling solid at the new-and-improved anchor, I started up the crux pitch. There, a series of thin moves leads you up the remainder of the corner, then you end up facing a traverse to the right under a huge, overhanging roof. I girth-hitched a long sling around a small tree in the corner before starting the traverse. The first moves under the roof are no problem, then you have to crouch down low, reach out, and sling another piece of vegetation. It's just a gnarly little thing, more like a branch than a tree, and it grows out of the crack running along the edge where the overhang meets the face. Still, it's just what you need, right when you need it.
Next, dropping your feet into space, you have to slither under and around the branches in order to proceed further. You then squat under the roof and size up the remaining section of the traverse. It's very exposed! There's a narrow (about six inches wide) sloping ledge, a blank section, then a couple of bomber under-clings. But, getting to the under-clings is a puzzle. The ledge is poor for the hands, and youíd swear there's not a single foot hold anywhere on the steep face below. I smeared out along the face several times, only to scamper back to the safety of the little tree before my hands greased off. I began to wonder how the hell I got through there the first time behind the guide when, suddenly, I spied the answer. Out on the face under the blank section appeared a shallow little dimple, an insignificant depression the size of a silver dollar. You almost have to catch it in the right light in order to see it, but its definitely there. It offered the promise of accepting the toe of my climbing shoe just long enough to allow me to move across to the under-clings.
"Well, son of a bitch", I thought to myself, "imagine that!" The problem was, however, that the dimple was way out there. It was a long, "iffy" reach with my leg, but a super-cool move when I got it. Then, off I went, past the under-clings, out around the corner of the roof, and up onto a sloping platform where three bolt hangers awaited me. I tied off to one of the bolts, unwrapped a cordelette, and built an anchor. I then re-tied myself with enough slack to lean back around the corner. I wanted a front-row seat from which to watch Frank solve the mystery of the traverse. And, with a little beta, he did!
From there, I climbed the final pitch: another corner with a nice, wide crack that you can layback most of the way up. While not difficult, it has some sweet moves and finishes in a little gully that leads up toward Broadway Ledge. Frank cleaned the pitch and we hiked up through the brush. I recalled that, when I first climbed the route with my guide, she offered me a little "sting-in-the-tail", a 10a pitch up a steep slab just below Memorial Ledge. I mentioned it to Frank and we decided to check it out.
[page] There are actually two bolted routes on the slab. The 10a, called Dessert Dyke, follows a narrow basalt dyke which provides occasional crimps and footholds. Form, however, is a 10c pitch that runs directly up the right side of the slab. Without remembering which route was which, I unwittingly started up Form. Now, Iím not a great climber, not by any stretch of the imagination, but on the same trip, I on-sighted an 11b sport route, led a 10c finger crack, and completed numerous other such climbs. And, unlike my buddy Frank, I happen to enjoy friction climbing! But, just who in hell were the crazy mutants who decided steep, featureless slabs are doable?
With some difficulty and considerable frustration, I managed to climb high enough on Form to clip the first two bolts. From a sketchy stance, I then scoured the slab for indentations or crystals from which to continue my valiant journey upward. I leaned my face right down next to the rock and peered sideways, left and right, through the lenses of my glasses. I saw nothing.! I then tried looking out over the top of the lenses. I still saw nothing. I shaded my eyes with a hand to cut any glare that might be hiding the features I so desperately sought. Once again, I saw absolutely nothing! "Bloody hell!", I thought, "I climbed this thing the first time I was up here... whatís the deal?"
I tried committing to some smears and fingernail crimps, but only managed to sneak up a few feet before sliding back down. I tried several more times with similar results. Confused by the difficulty, I was about to surrender and give Frank a go when I happened to glance across the slab and spy another other set of bolts running up beside a narrow dyke. The penny dropped.
"Frank," I said, "that would be the 10a over there. This here must be the 10c."
"Forget this," I muttered. Rather than lowering off and trying to clean the draws, I clipped a four-foot sling to the bolt beside me, then traversed across (not a particularly simple matter in itself) to the other route which, of course, was Dessert Dyke. The small crimps and footholds I found in the basalt made all the difference in the world. I climbed up to a rest, then took on the difficult final section which, without the dyke, called for pure friction climbing. I then hiked up to some trees, found a nice spot in the shade and set up a belay for Frank. He, too, did a fair share of grunting and cursing on that final pitch!
Broadway Ledge, where we ended up, gives you access to a steep trail that winds all the way back down to the highway. Perhaps the most dangerous part of the day's adventure was hiking alongside the highway back to the parking lot. The cars were flying past us at sixty miles an hour, and I just knew the drivers were busy looking for climbers on the cliffs above, rather than being careful not to turn us into road kill! But, somehow, Frank and I made it back to the car okay, and lived to climb another day.