Before New Years- frozen in a small cabin in Mexico- I wrote a list of goals for the next year. I split it up into sections – “climbing” , “professional” and “personal.” Of course, because my priorities can be somewhat perplexing, the “climbing” section came first. On the very top of the list I wrote “Touch To Bolt, ” vowing that I would at least try my dream route. In April, I surprised myself by not only trying it but, after 16 days of work, joyously clipping its anchors. Immediately below to bolt, I wrote my second goal- “Peace.”
Tuolumne Meadows has a particular aura about it. Its beauty is stunning and unique. Peculiar granite domes jut against a typical Californian blue sky, except when those sudden summer thunderstorms roll through dramatically, as if to remind you that you are still in the alpine. Once you gain some height, countless lakes rise into your frame of view and deep granite amphitheaters appear. In the summer, wildflowers pepper the landscape, offering a palette of colors to contrast from the dark mahogany and forest green of the lodgepole pines. In the winter, the pass is closed and the park is allowed to rest from the hoards of tourists which visit in the summertime. Snow makes traveling difficult to impossible. It becomes quiet and tranquil. 12,000 years ago the whole area was covered by glaciers, evidenced by erratic boulders and glacial polish at the top of the highest domes.
The first ever top-rope I got on outside was on a 5.6 crack on Puppy Dome in the meadows. A few years later I spent a glorious summer here ticking off a lot of the easier alpine objectives in the park and the surrounding wilderness areas. I came back two seasons ago to work for the park in the backcountry. On every day I had off, I went climbing. Tuolumne is a special place for me, not only for the climbing but for the relationships I built here. I wrote about this in a blog post dedicated to the summer of 2015 when I worked for the park- –
“The connection I have created with the landscape around me is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. These are no longer just features in an endless array of scenic vistas but rather are memories. Memories of challenging myself and growing closer to the people who are standing next to me on the summit, whose names are next to mine in the register, who share food with me and swap stories around a campfire. People who don’t mind- or who simply gracefully tolerate- when I pull out another map or guide and think of another idea for what we could do this weekend. People who laugh with me and calm me down when I’m scared. People whose brake hand never leaves the rope. People that I love.
For all of those features, peaks and ranges that inspire vivid memories, there are countless more that inspire desire and a need to explore. So much to see, to find and to experience. I am not particularly skilled and the things I do have already been done scores of times by others. I get very scared and I show it. But, I am motivated, excited and am fueled by an unadulterated passion to get out.”
Tuolumne is also rich with climbing history. Ron Kauk , John Bachar and other lyrca clad climbers made their mark on this place , mostly in the early nineties, with bold, hard first ascents. Climbing in Tuolumne is the real deal. To climb hard here you have to be confident, sure-footed and sometimes willing to negotiate the area’s famous run-outs. The climbing is also pretty unique. Yosemite Valley, 1.5 hours away but within the same National Park lies a vertical mile below the meadows and has a distinctively different feel to it. Whereas the valley is known for its cracks, Tuolumne is known for its knobs.
The epitome of Tuolumne knob climbing is Peace, 5.13c/d – a long ~45 m black streak on Meldicott Dome. You might recall watching Ron Kauk ascend this black streak in Masters of Stone. Or, you have probably seen the picture of him pulling the last hard move of the route as the wall gently begins to tip forward. Peace is one of the most striking lines I have ever gazed at; I recall ogling at it and Bachar-Yerian before I even knew they were routes. Beautifully, peace ascends the black streak perfectly- it never strays to the surrounding golden face.
I was drawn to Peace for many of the same reasons as To Bolt. Both don’t see many ascents when compared to other routes of the same grade. They are both crimpy, sustained and require good technique. Projecting them is also a challenge; having good skin and cold conditions are very important. Sending one would be a dream. Sending two – in the same year – was something I really didn’t imagine could or would ever happen. While To Bolt is definitely harder than Peace, it is the hard route of a bold, historic, climbing area; it intimidated the crap out of me.
In late June, I came to the meadows. To reach Peace you have to do a rather annoying 5.6 approach pitch to a huge ledge, and then do the first 5.10a pitch to the anchors. Logistically, it made the most sense to fix a rope from the Peace anchors that went all the way to the bottom ledge and micro-traxion the route before hauling a belayer up to the first anchor. My friend helped me fix it all up, but to our surprise we couldn’t even get to the anchor with his 200ft rope. We fixed it 2 bolts below the anchor, figuring it was probably 5.11 from there anyways. Then, I got to work.
My first go- on traditional top-rope- was surprisingly good. The route starts off with some viciously sharp, small crimps and stays intense until an OK rest right before the crux. I got to the crux (bolts 4-6) and eventually got through it. From there I onsighted all the way to the top. After the crux you have some enjoyable 5.12 knob climbing up until the wall starts to tip back and the route becomes 5.13 again;the holds get pretty bad and are far apart; the entire upper portion builds and builds until one long lockoff move forever immortalized by the famous Ron Kauk photo. When I stuck that hold, I immediately realized it was “the” move. In retrospect it was kind of stupid to just keep chugging along, because I didn’t really remember anything. But, I was in the rhythm and wanted to see if I could do it. Of course, by “onsighted to the top” I meant to the last two bolts we got the static line up to; there was still 2 more bolts before the anchor that I didn’t do.
I spent the next five sessions working on the crux on micro traxion. It is a vicious sequence of ~16 moves on some horrific holds that you have to hold in very odd ways. I kept on switching which two fingers I wanted to use while grabbing the two crux “die” holds, as we began to call them. I utilized the tried and true “nipple pinch” for some of the knobs. Really, there are multiple path through the cruxs, but I went with my favorite 5’4 recipe of doing everything- add in some more moves, make it a bit less reachy and season with some very bad holds. Each time I went up the weight of how hard the crux actually was dawned on me. I was committed to the process, but wasn’t sure if I had the same steadfast determination that kept me from wavering on To Bolt. Luckily, I was in the meadows- I wasn’t 6 hours away- and while the route was very hard on your skin, it wasn’t even nearly as bad as To Bolt. Keeping a schedule of day on day off was almost comfortable whereas in Smith it often bordered on masochism.
After my sixth time on the route, I pulled the static line, Tom belayed me up to the anchor, and I tied into the sharp end for the first time. I had linked through the crux a few times, but never from the very beginning. The mission was to see how far through the crux I could get and figure out my clipping stances. I’d also check out those last 2 bolts and hang the rest of my draws. In addition, I wanted to re-familiarize myself with the harder 5.13- moves at the top of the route.
Well that plan was out the door when, before I knew it, I was at the dike which cuts through Meldicott and offers an excellent rest. I had done the crux- just barely making it through and now I had 11 or so more bolts of climbing to go. There, on the dike, shaking my arms out, I was quiet but my mind was frantic. In theory, I could send. I onsighted the top before, and the two bolts I hadn’t done did look rather easy compared to everything else. But, I had only done the top crux a few other times since my first attempt- not always sticking the last move- and although I tried to pay attention my focus was always on the crux. Needless to say, I was VERY nervous. Realistically, I didn’t know how often I could actually climb through the crux.
I climbed the next section much more slowly than before. Then it started to get hard again. There was one point when I realized I was way off sequence and I really thought I had messed up. It took everything out of me to reset my body , grab another micro shake and set off to the big deadpoint I had been waiting for. Evidently there is a video out there of me climbing taken on an iPhone. It must be pretty funny since I doubt you can see me at all; it probably is a dark image of meldicott, some trees with some lovely birds chirping and then- out of nowhere- a whole lot of me screaming while re-setting. Also, clipping was often quite stressful; there were plenty of times when I forced myself to climb higher to what I suspected was a better stance. The route isn’t dangerously run-out, but it’s no Spanish sport pitch, either. As I set up for the last final deadpoint, I pasted my right foot on the slopey knob I knew I had used before. I gathered my energy and truly believed I didn’t have what it took. I was too tired. The nervous energy of essentially re-onsighting the top on my first lead attempt and trying to stay calm on what turned into a surprising redpoint burn was too much for me. I was powered the hell down. I even audibly mumbled “I don’t think I have it.”
I was wrong. I stuck the move and I threw my body into the no hands rest where our pseudo anchor was and tried to calm the hell down. If I could onsight the next two bolts I would send. The whole scenario was way too inconceivable for me to even begin to consider, so I just climbed. I got to the final bolt and then the confidence that I had been building while climbing the last two bolts evaporated when I saw the position of the anchor.
Imagine golden, glacial polished slab. Looking at it makes you feel clumsy and slippery. Even in the shade it was shiny. I knew if my feet even grazed it, I’d be off. The anchors were placed smack dab in a sheet of this varnish , in a recess in the rock as it started to become slightly slabby. I started up, stalled out and went down to investigate. I noticed some little breaks in the varnish where I could put my feet but couldn’t see anything in the way of hand holds. Would I really have to just lean into the slab on these foot chips, with no hand holds, and cautiously lift up ~45m weight of rope to clip in the anchor on my first real redpoint burn?! A small part of me was marveling at how cool it was that there once was a glacier where I was currently clinging to a rock face, but mostly I was cursing Ron Kauk’s name! If he had put the damn anchors in the previous , more logical no-hands rest that comes after a humongous journey of climbing, only a few moves after the famous deadpoint, it would be equally amazing, equally difficult and I could lower with an 80m rope. Who knows, maybe there are hand holds up there if you look hard enough, but in that moment I couldn’t find them.
I remember intentionally taking a deep breath, laser focused on the two foot chips I had scouted out. I left my comfortable knobby jugs and leaned my frame into the rock with no hand holds for support. I very carefully reached for the rope and in the longest 1 second of my life began the process of clipping. I pushed it into one of the gates and let out a little cheer.
Sometimes, you get away with this kind of stuff. I don’t know where it came from, but I was psyched. My self-confidence has been all over the charts as of late. Sending To Bolt and receiving the GRFP made me feel like I was walking on air. Other issues brought me down. Even rope-work, which confuses me, made me feel incompetent and dim-witted hours before the send. But, with Peace, it all just clicked.
Finishing the route within two months of clipping the anchors of To Bolt was a dream. What made this send even more special was that it required me to be in the flow state, but not so much where I turned off my mind and just executed sequences; I didn’t know the route well enough for that. I had to climb smart and make good decisions in a high stress situation. It was an interesting blend of redpoint climbing and amnesia flashing. I fought very hard. But I also believed in myself and my abilities the entire way up and climbed well- better than I thought I could.
Two days prior, we had gone to Puppy Dome, where I sent a 5.11+ crack that felt pretty damn hard. It took me almost as many tries as Peace. Walking out, we passed by Puppy Crack, the little 5.6 that was my first top-rope.
I sure have come a long way since then.
“The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may have previously demonstrated. The mind is the athlete; the body is simply the means it uses to run faster or longer, jump higher, shoot straighter, kick better, swim harder, hit further , or box better. Hoppie’s dictum to me , “First with the head and then with the heart,” was more than simply mixing brains with guts. It meant thinking well beyond the powers of normal concentration and then training your courage to follow your thoughts.” (The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay)
Now time for some flower power
(By the way, I must say seeing welcome wildflowers every season- recognizing more than I did the last- brings me a lot of happiness. Even on a crappy day, it makes you feel good to walk through the forest and feel in good company.)