By Anne Smith
For Memorial Day weekend, Jim and I decided to begin our wall training in earnest. The plan was to attempt two long, hard routes -- one Saturday and one Monday. Originally we were thinking of trying Astroman one day and the West Face of El Cap the other. However, a couple weekends ago John Scott mentioned to us that he thought Mary's Tears to the Crucifix on Higher Cathedral rock was the best long route he'd ever done in the valley. This piqued our interest and we thought it would be a good idea to do a route Jim hadn't done before. Then, last weekend the new Yosemite Free Climbing Guide came out and the Crucifix is given three stars (12b***R) and Mary's Tears, two stars. It was decided!
After starting the drive late, hoping to avoid most Memorial Day traffic, we bivvied at the Hetch Hetchy turnoff. We were up at 6:00, drove into the valley, packed, and left the van at 7:20, guessing that we needed a fairly early start (by sport climber standards!) for a reasonably but not excessively long day.
We racked up leisurely at the base and Jim began the first pitch at about 9:00. There are three options -- the 11b crux pitch of the route, a 10c thin crack/face, and an ugly 8 tree pitch. The 11b looked wet, slimey, and dirty, so Jim opted for the 10c variation. The only difficulty for him on this pitch was a stuck wristwatch in a jam, sending him onto a nut he had just placed. He reached the belay, hauled, and I followed, but spent a lot of time trying to clean the piece and eventually failed. Tick Tock. I led the next pitch, mostly 5.9 on slightly scary (ie loose) rock with a really nice 10b thin section and arrived at what appeared to be the belay. I fixed the line for Jim so he could try to retrieve the stuck nut, then managed to haul up the bag. Jim decided I need to go to cleaning school as he cleaned it without even resorting to the tool. The topo shows the 11a third pitch as dirty and seasonally wet with an 11a variation, so Jim decided to try the variation. He then wandered about on the slab trying to find it. No go. Eventually, he decided to go the standard way, and promptly discoverd I had stopped about 10 feet around the corner from the real belay, so I had to move over. Tick Tock. The next pitch was actually the nicest of Mary's Tears, despite a damp section and lots of plant life. There are two tricky wide/lieback sections; the topo shows the upper one as 11a but we both thought the lower of these was the crux. Despite Jim's ability to climb quickly, eg no gear on the 10a sections, the climbing was involved so no speed records were set on the pitch. Jim kindly hauled so I could enjoy the climbing. The next pitch was also supposed to be 11a, but I was starting to worry about our slowness and volunteered to follow with the pack if he'd lead. He never found an 11a crack and wound up moving up a through a 5.9 dirty nursery to a belay at the base of the Crucifix; this was the end of Mary's Tears. I followed, a bit slowly with the pack and joined him at the belay. We then decided a lunch/water break was required and moved the belay to the Northeast Buttress belay so we could eat in more comfort. After eating and having a bit of water, it was alreay 2:00. This was the slowest we had ever done 4 pitches together! We were also a bit dehydrated already -- it had been hot climbing in the sun and already a bit tired, I voted strongly that we finish the day on the Northeast Buttress. Jim was only just warmed up, though, and really wanted to press on as scheduled. He pointed out that we were bound to start moving faster, and besides, three of the five pitches of the Crucifix were only 10s.
P1: The "crux" of this route comes right at the start, a piton protected undercling on an overhanging wall. This was strenous but Jim knows what to do on a well-protected overhanging face with small though positive edges. The hardest part turned out to be past the thin moves, at which point there was a damp, dirty, slopey edge which, from below, appeared to be the end of crux hold. He stayed on, breathing hard, and established himself in the 10b flare. This part of the climb was quite classic -- chimney moves with occasional reaches into the corner to place gear. It couldn't be "zipped up" but protection was adequate. Working up a flare/chimney is not particularly fast, however. It was quite a long pitch; he then hauled and I managed to follow cleanly but a bit slowly through the flare.
P2: The topo shows a 10c fist section, followed by an optional belay, followed by a 10c ow section. (Warning: this is only optional if you have a 52 meter rope -- we did.) Obviously Jim's lead. Our arsenal included 2 #2 camelots, 3 #3 camelots and 1 #4 camelot. The "10c fist" came early -- it is overhanging and wider than the fists of any of my acquaintance. Jim struggled up this, panting, and left 2 of the #3s low in this section, intending to clean the top one but climbed too high and was unable to retrieve it. He nearly blew near the top of this section but hung on, walking the remaing #3 with him, as the angle kicked back. He continued to the optional belay and actually managed to place a #1, then continued upwards. The topo appeared to be incorrect, as the next section was actually thinner than the previous one, but the climbing was unrelenting and slow. He was so afraid of running out of gear that when he finally got to the belay, he still had the remaining #3 and the #4, a very good thing since those were the only pieces that fit in the belay. He hauled, and I managed to follow cleanly, in part by liebacking the overhanging ow section. At one point it was 80' between pieces for me to clean. This was the absolute limit of my TR ability. Jim said it was his most demanding crack lead to date, partly due to the effort of reaching down and back-cleaning. He said the Astroman "enduro pitch" is absolutely not harder. And certainly not better, either. Though dirty from apparently relatively few ascents, this is a Yosemite all-time classic.
P3: The topo shows a 10c section down low and a 10 section higher up. This pitch is laterally offset about 10' from the previous pitch, the topo has no indication/warning about the width of the crack, and it is drawn as though about half the length of the previous pitch. So, it seemed like a pitch I could lead. Slowly, with Jim's encouragement, I made it through most of the lower "10c" section -- solid hand jams over an awkward bulge, already as hard as the "11b" handcrack I led on the Rostrum a couple weeks ago -- but ahead was a nasty looking wide section which I knew I couldn't face, especially without trusty camelot #4, so it was back to the belay so Jim could try. He took the #4 from the belay and proceeded to fire the bulge, commenting on the unexpected difficulty and made it through the wide part, working very hard indeed. He was now out of sight and I just heard the occasional shouts. "Watch carefully" "I have no more gear" etc. Eventually I heard a gleeful shout about getting a piece in. He finally reached a bolt shown at the top of the crack and rather than try and find a downclimb, tension traversed down and right to the belay. A few shouts about exhaustion and he was off belay -- the pitch was not short at all, nearly the entire 50 meters. He hauled the pack and it was my turn. I passedd the lower hands section and immediately grabbed the gear at the wide part. It was already 7:00 and there was no time or energy to spend on trying to figure out a way to free this section. After about ten feet, the crack became thinner and more easily climbable, although the next 30 - 40 feet remained very hard indeed and Jim had done them with absolutely no more placements. The climbing was equally as hard as what had preceeded, (not counting the wide part I didn't try), and there had been no rest. Finally, a small crack (filled with dirt down low) appeared to the left and Jim had managed to place a couple 1" pieces in this crack and climbed it (still hard, still no rest) to the bolt. Another all-time Yosemite classic, but an unbelievably difficult and bolt lead, not having saved one of the #3s for the higher section. At the belay he told he it had only been a desperation lunge to get the crack out left in which there was luckily a hold amongst the dirt. He would have shattered all his PRs in airtime had he missed, but of course that wasn't an option. Before the next pitch, it turned out we had to move the belay over a bit further right.
P4: We were exhausted and it was 7:30. The designations on the next pitch were: 11c stem, then 10b lieback, then 11d, then "10d scary." What? This was rather unimaginable considering the preceeding 10c. We had a power bar and most of the rest of our water, then Jim headed out. He wanted me to lead, but not fully aware of his state, I thought we were definitely in trouble and needed the faster leader out front. Alas, all the hauling had given him arm-cramps. His right arm had become completely non-functional, which he didn't realize until partway up the pitch. This is a shame, as Crucifix is a difficult and classic enough climb that onsighting the whole thing would be something and was definitely within his reach if his partner had shared not so much the leading as the hauling. The "11c" stem is thin indeed -- insecure and very scary, with only one piece between the move and a marginal belay. (Any magnanimous parties interested in placing a belay bolt at the ledge?) He managed to aid by slotting a tiny nut over the bulge. The 10b lieback was epic with the non-functioning arm. He tried to find enough placements for a safe belay so I could take over but couldn't. As he was struggling and hanging on the 10b, I was busy surveying the bivvying possibilities. Not great -- at least we were at a ledge, outward sloping though it was. It would be a warm night but we were severely dehydrated. Luckily, the 11d isn't all that hard and he managed to do the moves, with hangs on the pieces he was able to place. The 10d "scary" turned out to be face moves on good edges; he was somehow able to half climb, half aid and reached the belay. I quickly began following, with the pack (we put the 9 mm trail rope in the pack as it was clear that hauling was out of the question.) Jim had cleaned the piece he'd used as aid to pass the lower crux, so I had to do the move, which I managed after a hang. It is certainly the hardest single move on the climb, although this climb is not about single hard moves. The 10b was really only 10b, and the 11d didn't seem too bad, although with impending darkness and another 10 pitch (who knows what 10 means on this climb?) which would absolutely have to be my lead, I hauled on gear to save time and strength.
P5: It was dusk -- if we ever needed a 5.10 pitch which was really 5.10, this was the time. There was a short strenuous section, really only 10b, followed by a short face section, barely 10 at all, and then the top! Jim followed with the pack, still having cramping problems, but we were both on top at 8:45, the closest we've ever come to an unplanned en-route bivy. Despite only one barely working headlamp, and Jim's prescription sunglasses, we made it to the base for our shoes then back to the car at 11:00. Whew. 12 hours for 9 pitches. We'd never moved nearly so slowly together.
Overall, it certainly is a *** route. It earns the "R" not because of the lack of placement opporunities but simply the impracticallity of bringing enough big gear. With about 10 #3 camelots, with which moving in the crack would be impossible, it would protect quite well. Having followed them once, I could probably lead the 12a and the 11d pitches, but the middle 2 "10" pitches -- not in this lifetime. For his efforts, Jim has perhaps one or two square inches of skin left on each of his forearms.
After showers (we thought these necessary as we didn't know whether we'd bushwacked through poison oak during the descent) and dinner we were in bed at 1:00. The next day the funniest moment came at about noon, when we were still sipping tea with breakfast and Jim said: "Come on, let's get moving before we lose momentum." We eventually headed to Lower Public Sanitation where I dogged through Final Cut, 12b, then Jim dogged through Black Fly, 13b. Back at the car, after a brief nap, Jim rallied so he could try his valley arch-nemesis, Mud Flats, 11d, as I was tired enough to agree to belay him. Unfortunately it was wet so it was off to dinner, packing for the West Face, and bed by 9:00.
The alarm went off at 5:00 and quite frankly I hadn't even begun to recover from the mini-epic. I've always wanted to do the West Face and would like to be in condition to enjoy it, so I whimped out and it was back to sleep. (Presumably Jim's disappointment was nothing compared with not doing Mud Flats.) Later, we drove up to Taft Point to check out what may be the finest (certainly the most overhanging) face climbing in the valley. The exposure and climbing are incredible, not to mention the views of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and the Tuolumne high country. It's necessary to rap down to the starts, with mandatory clipping in as one goes to stay close enough to the rock. We stayed off the 12a/b and the 2 12bs, saving them for onsight attempts when fresh, and tried Notes From The Underground, 12b/c** several times, then Jim tried Dread and Freedom, 12d/13a** once, and we called it a day. My muscles told me the West Face would have been absolutely out of the question. (As did a session of jugging practice up one of the overhanging faces.) As fate would have it, a rain and thunder storm began around 6:00, making even Jim happy with the "whimp-out" decision.
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