good looks and cam hooks

The Molehill Becomes a Mountain: Braille Book

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Voss looks down the steep corner as Matt follows Pitch One
Day Two in the Valley. Confidence soaring from yesterday’s reminder that We Can Still Climb 5.8, we hopped on another moderate classic: Braille Book, a six-pitch route perched atop Higher Cathedral Rock, a formation directly across the valley of El Capitan. The route was established by Jim Bridwell, a notorious climber very active in Valley development through the 70s and 80s. His routes are famously bold, and his antics likewise (he also did hard drugs while climbing, which I cannot so endorse). We were stoked to get on a Bridwell route, but expected it be breezy after yesterday’s excursion. Boy, were we wrong.

 

Higher Cathedral Spire, seen from the summit of Braille Book
The approach is a 2.5-mile hike up steep talus. It is essentially boulder hopping for as far as the eye can see. An hour in, we realized that we hiked the wrong gully (an almost laughable mistake), and had to bushwhack our way across the base of the rock until we were reoriented. We got lost two more times, growing increasingly concerned as to how this “straightforward” approach was turning out to be anything but. Later, we learned that  there is a low-angle dirt trail easily leading to the route with no rock-hopping required. This discovery made us want to destroy something.

Voss cranking the final jug haul
Having thrashed through brush and boulders for two and a half hours, the approach was over and we had discovered the base of the route. Today, I was climbing with Elam, and Matt went with Voss. I took the lead on Pitch One, which was a mega link-up of the first pitch and a half for 220 feet (we used 70-meter ropes to make this possible). Protection was scarce, but the climbing was easy. Unfortunately, the sun was full-on, and I was dripping sweat by the end of my pitch. Elam took over for our modified Pitch Two, another link-up of the original route’s second and third pitches. This pitch was very exciting and strenuous, involving chimney stemming techniques. Chimneys are cracks large enough to fit your entire body inside, and are usually rather comfortable to climb albeit difficult to protect. This chimney fell right into that mold, but Elam crushed the lead and kept his head. Following his pitch, I felt exhausted and increasingly doubtful about my cardiovascular shape.

Elam stares down 900 feet at the airy Pitch Four traverse
I took a quick sip of Gatorade, took a breather and set up on the third pitch (Pitch Four of the original route). This pitch was the crux of the route, beginning with 25-some feet of straight-on offwidth climbing. Offwidthing, for those who are not familiar, is the size of crack between 4 and 7 inches. This means that the crack is too wide to fit a fist, but two narrow to fit a whole person. The healthy medium is general groveling up the crack, very slowly, with one arm and one leg shoved into the crack and the other two keeping things balanced. I had never climbed an offwidth before, and was a bit worried. I was right to be worried, and the 15 minutes spent thrutching my way up that short crack were among the most exhausting of my entire climbing career.

The final pitch, another link-up of two normal pitches, was considerably easier, with a fun and run-out sprint to the summit to end the climb. We topped out in four hours, and the second team joined soon after. Spirits were very low as we began the descent, namely due to the botched approach, intense heat and physical nature of the climb. Nonetheless, I feel that we did a good job considering our gross inexperience with chimney and offwidth technique. The descent was beautiful, but long. As we began descending the talus, we found the aforementioned trail, and face-palmed as the rest of the descent breezed by. Because we took so long on the approach and descent, the sun went down on us, further diminishing morale. Soon enough, however, we found ourselves back in the village, eating pizza and reflecting on the day. Despite being much more strenuous than expected, in the end the climbing was great and we had a nice rest day ahead.

The gang at the summit
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