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Triple Play, 7/08

By Jim Herson

Spent a glorious week in Yosemite -- albeit on three separate trips. As a gentleman of a certain age I can assure you three times in a week takes stamina. While crushing my previous record of three days in the Valley, it wasn't the relaxing crank fest it might have been. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, no matter what I climbed I kept waking up to that recurring nightmare known as the hwy 92/880/238 tangled mess of asphalt. For a guy who couldn't find the Valley on the disheartening season opener, nailing the drive three times in a week certainly makes for a storied comeback.


As The Greatest himself so eloquently reminded us, "It ain't bragging if you can do it! It ain't bragging if you can do it!" Such bravado, measured against Ali's feats in the ring, is nothing less than unadulterated modesty. He was just that good.

And so it is with unabashed pride that I pulled off in a day what has eluded the Park Service for 30 years of mind numbing meetings, initiatives, lawsuits, and soul sucking studies: the spontaneous mass exodus of Valley climbers! I am just that good.

Triggering this stampede was, obviously enough, another inanely inaccessible, chossy Jim obsession. Bay area climbers, having been down this painful road many times, moved with surprising agility and laser focus to rip up their Golden Eagles and eBay their gear.

It wasn't as easy as I made it look. For besting the 4hr drive, 3hr hike, and 1hr rappel to work the 15' crux of my last obsession was no small feat. The five long agonizing years of aimlessly wandering about in the cold took a heavy toll on Anne. But my manic determination was handsomely rewarded when I stumbled upon a true diamond in the rough: Arcturus!

I certainly have no false modesty when it comes to ruthlessly selling bay area climbers on the proverbial whitewashing of the fence. So you can imagine the jarring blow when I hit the horn Friday evening to dig up an Arcturus partner and was completely and utterly rejected?! Did I no longer have it?! In retrospect I might have been better served with a more polished sales pitch than:

"Hey! There's a route on Half Dome. I think it's on the front. No topo but it starts with an 'A' so no prob finding it. Sounds mega huh?! The prolific first free ascensionist called it the scariest route he's been on but that's only because his partner broke his back on it. Can you be ready by 6pm?"

The uniformity of the response was elegant in its simplicity and enthusiasm.

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Don't get me wrong. These bay area climbers are a hearty bunch of chumps. They're totally down with the 9 hours of drive/hike overhead (each way) for these in-a-day threshings (you do the math). But it's the psychological torment of the intervening two months of complete physical and mental inactivity in which the mind and body sags, and all hard earned climbing sequences recede, that pushes partners to the brink. For you never know when that dreaded, panicked Friday 5pm phone call will come.

Living in constant fear of Jim's frenzied Friday evening call leaves Bay Area climbers clamoring for new -- decidedly non-Valley -- activities. While resistance is futile I'm in awe of the innovation and creativity and honored at the extremes that these climbers are willing to go to just to avoid me.

Once again that chronic overachiever Ann Lyons sets the gold standard, this time with her back-to-back ACL explosions. Never one to leave much to chance she also tossed in some cancer, a blown bicep tendon, and a herniated disc. She is just that good. But that does not diminish the other fine performances. Sarah's kidney stone was strong. Anne's shattered shoulder and blown bicep tendon were proud. Derek's near death lung abscess -- although a bit excessive -- was thinking outside the box. Greg's [quality] alcohol poisoned immune system, Annie's restraining order, Pete's harmonica, Chan's trifecta, Hans' fingers, Jacques' leg, Janet's appendix, Hal's connective tissue (all if it), Rob's Gameboy, Lenny's irrational exuberance, Ashok's rational skepticism, Adlai's pre-Astroman stress syndrome, Rita's recovered East Ledges repressed memory, Angele, Justen, Deb and Jason's Coloradoitis, Wayne's perpetual procreation, Tom's construction and the general explosion of bay area climbing pregnancies are among the hundreds of ingenious cop outs. Extremely impressive. And all for naught. I'm not easily deterred.

Ali's talents were a gift to humanity, which made his inevitable decline excruciating. That two-bit toothless drunk Spinks wasn't worthy of carrying the younger Ali's spit bucket. "Better to have loved and lost"? I think not! No one should have had to endure the heart crushing fade of the once brilliant Ali shuffle.

Such was the bittersweet precipitous decline of Clint. A greater Beta Master the climbing world has never known. Casually mention a passing interest in a remote East Timor rumored pile and Clint would cheerfully rattle off the topo, gear placements, and the entire bolt hole history. He is just that good.

And so you can imagine the second jarring blow when I asked Clint for the Arcturus low down and came up dry!?! Did Clint no longer have it? Not possible. So I sicked Erika on him. Erika, for kicks, had just spent five years painstakingly digging through Siberian merchant archives [you can imagine the lines for that one!] reconstructing Imperial Russia's rhubarb trade. That's the beauty of the PhD thesis -- they're self parodying and unmockable. You just can't satirize obscurity like Imperial Russia's rhubarb trade! Needless to say no one is as tenacious as Erika in tracking down minutiae. She'd make Clint talk. But even Erika could only pry out of Clint a nice email from Mike Anderson and a pitch by pitch description from Rob Pizem, the first free ascensionists. I appreciated Mike and Rob's help -- although Rob was probably still in a morphine haze from the broken back he suffered on route -- but really this is hardly what we've come to expect from Clint. I had some harsh but necessary words with Clint. Rest assured such shoddiness is an unfortunate event of the past.

Armed with no topo, no partner, and a morphine inspired route description I trudged to the top of Half Dome with 50lbs of ropes and my newly purchased Mini Traxion, the rope soloing device of choice for friendless climbers (a large market as you might expect).

I rapped in and spent some time swinging around looking for the climb but mostly wondering if the random exhausted Half Dome hiker I had recruited on top to drop the rope might just be a bit too eager to help and unwittingly clean the anchor at a non-optimal moment. He didn't and eventually I located the route and immediately christen the newly freed Arcturus unclimbable. I snapped the very first hold I touched -- which is pretty much the definition of choss. And not just any hold, but the reinforced (former) crux hold on the last 12+/13- slab pitch. Admittedly I didn't have my insanely powerful Tommy Caldwell glasses but I certainly didn't see a remotely possible alternative sequence. I saved the hold if anyone is motivated. I'll probably look around for an alternate exit or make it A0 but not that day as there was way too much other choss to check out.

Reading the instruction manual on how to thread this Mini Traxion thingie dangling off the hugely exposed Northwest face of Half Dome didn't have that big wall hone feel about it. And taking my first Mini Traxion fall on a 70M rubber band cord was somewhat puckering (hint: use a static line). Almost as puckering as watching the Mini Traxion teeth bite into the rope that I had just rescued from the trash pile that morning. I hadn't used the rope in five years but I just couldn't imagine why it was in the trash. I don't recall spilling gas on it while using it to tow the van? And you could clearly see that the core was in perfect shape. Nevertheless catching whippers in the Mini Traxion's serrate teeth while the Merced raged 4000' below was a bit disconcerting.

Overall a productive day having located, broken, and deemed excellent project material, the last few pitches of Arcturus.


Inspired by the Soviet space program, my partner philosophy is to get them up there at all costs. If they return safely so much the better although certainly not a design criterion.

Clearly Comrade Erika has the right stuff. Her tenacity and cast iron digestive track were a marvel on her first and only wall. But her powerfully selective memory and apparently amazing ability to block out pain and suffering puts her squarely on the A-team. Who would have guessed she'd so soon sign up for another round?!

That warm tingly feeling of well-being washed over me as I watched the horrified look of incredulous comprehension creep over Erika's face as she tentatively pieced together that she had just flown 3000 miles to slog 4 hours to a sketchy rap over wild exposure to belay a nut on a choss pile. I still have it! Rovian perfection in plausible deniability. Sure she knew we were going to check out a "gorgeous new free line." I was totally up front with her. Just happened not to go out of my way to mention a few 'details'.

Still tired from my first recon we slept in, had a slow hike, and slower rap but still managed to check out a few more pitches before hooking up with the regular route and climbing out. Erika's impressive performance on the zig-zags (hopefully) made the painful schlep worth the effort.

It's a sensitive subject but I want the record to reflect that I did indeed ascend Half Dome this time with a left and right climbing shoe. Unfortunately I also descended Half Dome with a left and right climbing shoe.

Before rapping in we carefully placed my hiking shoes on top of our shirts so they could dry while we climbed. Finding them AWOL when we topped out was not a highlight. During the endless 8 mile hike out I resolved never again to pack the excruciatingly tight project shoes for any climb with a potential descent. Never a short hike, the Half Dome descent was interminably long, arriving back at the car at 3am. For humanitarian reasons I've decided to forgo this week's pedicure.

Clearly an industrious bay area climber tried to preemptively nip the obsession in the bud. Either that or there's a marmot running around in sticky rubber. Either way it's now Arcturus 2, Jim 0 and I don't fold when in the hole. So please send me your weekend schedules. I'll feign concern for your pressing conflicts and then let you know which weekends to clear. Arcturus is certainly turning out to be a gem.


With the partner pipeline running desperately dry it was time to tap domestic production. And so 20 hours after returning home, Kara and I were once again grinding to a halt in that hwy 92/880/238 horror show. Team Pipsqueak -- Ian, Elizabeth, and Kara -- were reunited as they continued their summer sending spree and, more importantly, the much needed replenishing of dad's badly depleted strategic partner reserves. This time they crushed on the Tuolumne classics.

With all due respect to Jeff and Erika, they got dusted. As good as they are -- and they are just that good -- they can't touch Ian, Elizabeth and Kara for non-stop chatting.

Climbing is a reflective, meditative commune with nature, occasionally and only when absolutely necessary, punctuated with the bear minimum of belay calls: "On Belay" and "Gosh you're pokey." The pipsqueaks wouldn't pipe down. Apparently you just can't yuck it up enough with potty humor. They just couldn't stop cracking themselves up with Alien poop guns and cow steamers. Despite stick-in-the-mud-dad's constant but futile attempts to elevate the conversation, the kids were just one continuous nonstop poopy knee slapper.

Oddly -- and I take no artistic license here -- so was Erika. Well not poopy knee slappers but she did spend all summer on a scholarly deconstruction of poop facilitation. In particular the laxative power of Siberian rhubarb on early Imperial Russia. Which raises the paradox that if your thesis topic mocks the obscurity of all other thesis topics does that mean thesis topics are indeed mockable? Anyway I learned a whole lot about the explosive powers of various rhubarbs, the implications on early Russian rhubarb law, and general East/West rhubarb relations. No doubt Napoleon would have nailed the fierce Russian winter had he some cleansing Tibetan highlands rhubarb and not that binding Mongolian crap.

Last trip John brilliantly spun a three-day tale with just enough mutilated monsters and bodily fluids to keep the three tots running up the Half Dome trail trying not to miss a word of the story. It worked magnificently. The kids never noticed the 16 mile hike. Unfortunately it completely backfired this trip when Kara took over the story telling. Like Jacques' driving, Kara can't talk and walk. The more complex the story the slower the hike. From Ian and Elizabeth's perspective the gorgeous Tuolumne classics were an annoying interlude to Kara's gruesome death and maiming tales. No matter how small the belay ledge or scary the exposure they'd just sit there lost in their own stories oblivious to their stunning surroundings.

On Friday we climbed Cathedral Peak with just a very few tears and hysterics when we lowered the kids off the windy and apparently exposed summit block.

The tears seemed correlated with traversing so on Saturday we climbed the rather traversing Great Pumpkin on Fairview with many tears and hysterics when I accidentally added an apparently too thin direct finish. Whoops.

Panicked that the tears might mean losing climbing for good and that I'd be banished to a lonely life of Mini Traxioning, we headed to the classic Hobbit Book. Big smiles all around! The kids loved it!

Hobbit Book was packed and at one point the kids arrived at the belay laughing hard "Hey dad! What's a gumby?" I cringed as a sheepish John tried to look innocently away. Fortunately the very friendly enthusiastic new climbers ahead of us were just out of hearing.

Most of the tears were due to a poor belay. I went first with Kara and Ian tied in 15' apart at the other end. Then John would lead the second rope with Elizabeth and Sid tied in close at the other end. This allowed John to calm the hysterics and help Ian and Kara with the gear and climbing while Sid tried to keep up with Elizabeth who just smiled all day and sent without a whimper. The problem was Kara and Ian rarely had a good belay because the tension depended on the difficulty of the ground the other was climbing. Next time I'll see if I have double 9mm lying around in my trash/tow pile.

While the tears had the parents diced, the kids, lost in their story telling, had a blast. Kara can't wait for Conness in two weeks. And dad may indeed have weaned himself off his addictive dependency on friendly foreign partners.

Monday, after spewing a 1400 miles carbon footprint at $4.50/ga, I came home and went to the gym to get in a much needed climbing workout.

-Jim