Day One In the Valley: Nutcracker

Well, 40-some hours of driving later, and we’re here: Yosemite Valley.

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Elam topping out on Nutcracker
Having scored a campsite at Tamarack Flats, we are only 45 minutes from the Valley (as opposed to 1.5 hours if camping outside the park borders). When you first roll in, the excitement begins to build. First, a park sign. Then, enormous granite domes in Tuolumne Meadows (a high-elevation area in the park, but outside the Valley proper). Ponderosa trees suddenly begin to overtake the landscape. A few tunnels, and then bam– the Valley. El Capitan stretches impossibly high on the left side, with Sentinel Rock, the Cathedrals and Half Dome reaching out from the right. The amount of granite expanse is not just awe-inspiring, but actually absurd to this Marylander’s imagination. Any one of the undeveloped side cliffs, were they on the east coast, would draw climbers from all over to explore. But not here: it’s about the big walls.

For our team, however, it was not yet about the big walls. Rather, it was about getting warmed up and used to Yosemite climbing, weather and crowds. To this end, we chose to climb a 5-pitch route on the Manure Pile Buttress, an aptly-named lump of low-angle granite stretching 500 feet tall (an impressive height, were it not situated between the thousands-feet-tall El Capitan and Three Brothers formations on either side). The route is called Nutcracker, so titled because it was one of the first routes in the Valley to be climbed with “nuts,” small pieces of metal hand-slotted into cracks for protection. Previously, in the 60s and 70s, pitons were hammered into the rock for protection. The “clean climbing” revolution of nuts (and later, spring-loaded cams) began when folks realized that hammering objects into cliffs seriously damaged the rock’s features. This probably doesn’t matter to most of you, so I’ll move on.

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Matt following on Nutcracker’s final 5.5 section
Nutcracker is famous for three things: ridiculously easy access, ridiculously large crowds and ridiculously fun climbing. We discovered all three. After a three-minute jaunt from the car, we broke up into two teams of two, with Voss and I taking the lead and Matt and Elam following immediately behind. Pitch One was a blast, with strenuous but easy 5.7 linebacking up a corner flake system. Voss led Pitch Two, a very easy 5.4  stroll up to a cushy ledge. We looked up, and to our dismay we saw a party sitting at the belay. Hoping that they would soon depart, I took up the sharp end and led a stunning fingers and thin hands crack up to a stance just below the belay for Pitch Four. The party ahead of us was very slow, however, and I decided to set up a gear belay to the left of the gentleman ahead. As Voss came up, the team ahead finally moved up, but alas! I see another team of three barreling up behind us. They had taken a variation to the start, and wished to pass us. I didn’t let them, but recommended that they take a variation to avoid the inevitable belay clusters. They agreed, and set off. I chatted with the belayer, who informed me their team had traveled here from Korea to attempt to climb The Nose of El Capitan (the same route that we will soon attempt). They had first attempted the route three years ago, but bailed after dropping a rope off of El Cap Tower (about a third of the way up). They had returned for revenge. I found this funny.

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Elam sinks his paws into the Pitch Three crux, while Matt belays from the expansive ledge
Voss was well into his lead of Pitch Four, a fun and slightly scary 5.8 with some friction moves (“friction” entails climbing on low-angle terrain with no hand or footholds, instead smearing hands and feet on the rock to prevent oneself from careening off). He crushed it, but again had to wait at the end of the pitch for The Slower Ones to clear out. After 30 minutes or so of waiting,  I joined Voss and set off for Pitch Five, an easy pitch punctuated with the hardest moves on the route: the Mantle Move. You leave the belay, place some protection, and are faced with one of those “just do it” moments. There is a big, high handhold for your left hand. There is nothing else. The idea is that you have to throw your right foot up level with your high hand (you are now nearly sideways) and “mantle” yourself up onto the ledge. The holds are great, but the position feels very committing and your brain is very aware that a fall here could break an ankle. Despite these mental heebie-jeebies, the move was well within our abilities, and each of us pulled through with no trouble. After that, it was an easy 5.5 jaunt to the summit. We made great time, crowds notwithstanding, and enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the Village before driving back home to our campsite.

Life is good here in the Valley, but things are going to get a lot tougher, and soon.

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