Sierra Double-Header

July 21-23 2008


random trip report
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Pictures by Karl Baba (climbing) Daniel Gonzalez (others)

Two Sierra-related things have been on my agenda: 1) a Tuolumne Meadows climb with Karl Baba; 2) a 'SETI@home day trip' with coworkers Matt and Jeff (both are outdoor types; we always talk about our trips but had never done anything together). At Erica's suggestion, I merged these into a single trip to minimize driving.

Monday 21 July

I leave at 7:30 PM and drive to Oakdale, staying at Jerry's Motel (cheap and bad). I bring my own pillow and end up leaving it there :-(

Tuesday 22 July

I meet Karl at Olmstead Point at 9 AM. We decide to try Fairview Dome Regular Route (5.9). However, when we arrive there's a slow-looking threesome on the 2nd pitch, and an even slower-looking group waiting to start. After a brief discussion we decide to try the nearby Lucky Streaks (5.10D). There's a party on the 2nd pitch but no one waiting, so we head up. We're climbing at 10 AM.

The first couple of pitches are easy and have nice belay ledges. Karl asks if I'm OK with the route - beyond the 2nd pitch one is committed to finishing the route, since downclimbing or rappeling is not feasible.









From the 2nd belay I see another party arrive and start up, but instead of following our route the leader veers off to the right and goes up about 80' unprotected. I get a little queasy just looking at him. Eventually he puts in some gear and they go up along the arete to the right of us. Turns out the leader is John Backer, a valley legend who has routinely free soloed 5.11 etc.

The third pitch has the 5.10D part, which is about 10' long. Karl decides to do the 5.10A variant a few feet to the right; it involves a sideways move off a side-pull (easy for me because of long arms).

The fourth pitch features a 20' traverse underneath a roof. The last 6' or so are dicey, and Karl elects to downclimb about 10' and go around. When it's my turn I go straight across, which is scary but easy; there are good underclings.

The belays for the last several pitches are hanging, and this gives me mental and physical problems. I can't get mentally comfortable putting most of my weight on the anchor, so end up squirming back and forth between various standing positions, my feet and ankles hurting, and a lot of tension in my body.

The last 2 pitches are extremely hard for me. They're mostly 5.8 or 5.9 hand cracks, but since I don't do much outdoor climbing they seem more like 5.10. and it takes a lot of energy to stay on the rock. Both pitches are sustained - there are no real rests.

Halfway up the 5th pitch my left foot slips and I have a pretty good fall - maybe 3' plus another several feet of rope stretch, but it seems like a lot more. I'm banged up - some blood from hand scrapes, and my right ankle gets twisted. I'm shaken and quivery. I hang for about a minute trying to get it together. I need to do the move again, and I don't want another fall. I gather some strength, and this time I get past it.

At this point I'm beat. We've been on the rock for 5+ hours. There hasn't been an opportunity to drink, so I'm pretty parched. I'm totally exhausted, and looking forward to being done.

We combine the last 2 pitches since we have a long rope. I don't have enough energy to be tense about the belay stance - I just hang from the anchor and relax, which is good.

Finally Karl pulls the rope up and it's my turn. I grit my teeth and start. I really, really, don't want to fall, so I climb ultra-carefully and take little rests whenever I can. I reach deep down inside for physical energy and mental composure. It's a long pitch. Finally I spot Karl. The last 30' are easy, but I'm so tired that they're a struggle.

At the top I pull off my shoes, gulp some water, and chat with Karl. I'm really happy - the route was just perfect; it kicked my ass (which is what I wanted) but I managed to do the moves. Karl is a great guy to climb with, and I have total respect and admiration for him.

We walk down the side of the dome and back to the start of the route, The party ahead of us (a couple of young guys, climbing bums in training) are there; Karl returns their #2 Camelot which they had given up on but he got out. Karl tells an interesting story about free soloing the Fairview regular route and almost being done in when he pulled on a piece of pro belonging to another party.

I say goodbye to Karl and drive to Lee Vining. It's a stunningly beautiful day. I pull over, dip my feet in the stream and admire Mt. Dana and Gibbs. I stop at the Mobil station and try unsuccessfully to call my wife. I had planned to camp at Mono Lake but change my mind and decide to keep on driving and find a comfy motel. As I near Bridgeport I'm getting a lot of painful cramps in my ankles, shins, calves and knees. I have to pull off the road and get out several times.

The drive north on 395, in the fading sunlight, is heart-rendingly beautiful. I stop in Gardnerville and reach my wife from a phone booth. I press on to S. Lake Tahoe and pick the cheapest-looking motel ($45). Big mistake. The room is musty, no AC, and the structure makes odd noises that keep me awake all night.

Wed July 23

I sleep in (to 7:30) and have a leisurely breakfast at Heidi's across the street. My twisted ankle is stiff but I'm otherwise OK. I stop at Raley's on the way out of town to get a sandwich and a Peet's coffee.

Matt, Jeff, Jenya and Daniel (from Spain) meet me at the trailhead at 10, and we're walking by 10:30. We head up to Horsetail Falls, which is full of water. The trail is mostly large rocks with high ankle-twisting potential, so I walk gingerly. The route up by the falls is supposedly marked by painted arrows, but these are extremely sparse so we improvise; parts are rather sketchy and steep, and my approach shoes seem to have lost their stickiness.

The landscape is hot and harsh, but above the falls in transforms into cool, lush greenness. The river divides into several channels with beautiful islands between them. We're able to navigate to the other side without getting wet.

At this point we abandon our original plan of climbing Ralston Peak, and substitute the more modest goal of climbing the ridge on the east side of the creek. This involves walking up some open low-angle slabs - very fun. At the top there's a lush pine forest with a lot of colorful flowers. We pick up a trail and follow it through the enchanted-looking forest. At the top of a little rise we see a mountain lake - Lake of the Woods, which was our other goal. It's enormous - we're on a little lagoon, and can see only part of the lake. The water is clear and cool. We jump in and swim - Jeff swims up and down the lagoon. It's extremely mellow and joyous. We linger 45 min past our turnaround time of 2:30.

The descent is fast. Route-finding is pretty easy, though just below the waterfall we get a little off course and wander through some manazanita. We follow another group and they lead us to a 10' chute that you downclimb, kind of tricky but I think that's the actually the preferred route.

A bit farther on we come up on a sad tableau: a hiker has brought up his dog (large, brown, old) and the dog had a seizure and is unconscious. A man is carrying the limp dog on his shoulders, and a small group is heading down with him. A little farther on, they have put the dog down on the ground. A woman has her ear pressed against his side, checking for a pulse. The distraught owner repeats the dog's name over and over, as if trying to wake him from sleep.

Our spirits, elated by the overwhelming beauty we've seen, and by the joy of walking through it together, are a bit dampened by this (for me it brings up the painful memory of my cat Joe's death). But in a way it deepens the experience. Timeless beauty, transient pleasure, suffering, and death are intertwined like voices in the great Chorale of Life.