Royal Arches, Regular Route
By: Greg Opland | Climbers: Greg Opland, Inez Drixelius |Trip Dates: September 30, 1995
Photo: Gary Clark
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Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from a longer report.
Saturday, Sept. 30:
The next morning, it was all I could do to rein in 'Gnar' (Inez Drixelius) so she wouldn't go firing off to start up Royal Arches at 6:30am! I figured it would take us 4 or 5 hours to bag the route, and there didn't seem to be a reason to spend any more time waiting for Brutus and Slime on top of Washington Column than we had to, great view or no great view. We were playing support party for them and would stick around to see them off the top of Astroman, but didn't expect to see them until late afternoon at best. I have to admit, I was hoping that if the guys didn't make it before we ran out of daylight to hike the North Dome Gully, I could talk Inez into heading out ourselves. The idea of an uncomfortable bivy on the rim when I had a nice toasty down bag waiting for me in the campground was too much to bear.
Anyway...we settled on a more laid-back start and hiked up to the base of the route about 9am. Can I continue to be so lucky? My sixth of the Fifty Classics and I'm standing at the base with no other parties in sight! Go figure! What's all this "crowded" stuff anyway? As 'Roofer' (Michael Brodesky) and Eric (Coomer) would be charging ahead up the route to maybe take a shot at the South Face of North Dome that day, we racked up while Roofman led the first pitch. Eric followed shortly, which led to some serious bitching about trying to climb with the pack on his back. We should have taken that as a clue and hauled the pack up the chimney, but it never occurred to me. I led up behind Eric and Inez displayed monumental control, coming up the chimney with the pack and not uttering a word until topping out, at which point she told me it sucked (in so many words accompanied by the appropriate gestures and four letter epithets). Her finger was bleeding and there was also a growing spot of blood seeping through her tights on one knee.
Inez was feeling a little pressured at that point, with the prospect of trying to keep up with Roofer and Eric. I told her I didn't care one way or the other and that we could find the top by ourselves. I was kind of annoyed after Roofer told us he would help steer us up the route and then took off like his underwear had a pissed off cat in them. No biggie as they had lots of potential climbing to do that day. After Inez made some adjustments, I offered to run the rope up to where the next "actual" climbing was, a 5.4 crack on a small buttress. This was like walking on a sidewalk for the most part, 3rd and 4th class ledges. I think she simul-climbed with me for the last section and I gave her a body belay once I reached the base of the crack. She arrived with about 40 feet of rope gathered in one hand. Why was I belaying? I turned over the gear and off she went. Fourth class slab led up to the crack on the face. She pulled through this short section with no problem, and then scrambled up more ledges above. Once she found a tree to belay from, I came up the pitch and found her very comfy, sitting on top of a large boulder belaying me.
We whipped out the topo to check where we were supposed to go from there. Roofer and Coomer were pretty much out of sight up the climb somewhere, this being Roofer's sixth or seventh time up the route, and he was going for time. Some really nice looking corners headed up from there, but more ledges led off and up to the right. I remembered something about following the ledges until they nearly ended, and we decided to keep the traverse going. I climbed up and over the top of a corner above and then traversed over on the ledges above, stopping to belay at a tree just to the left of the 5.7 crack shown in the top for pitch five. I found out later, that I'd essentially soloed the 5.6 section marked on the topo for pitch four. Ooops.
As I hadn't actually placed any gear yet, I had dibs on the rest of pitch 5. Gnar set up a belay at the bottom of a straight up crack with squared-out pin scars. This was a bit slippery, but basically not that hard. I continued up around a block at the top and then finished out on a 5.6 crack and face section above. I belayed on a ledge near a large dead tree. The climbing was getting progressively steeper in this section of the climb. Above pitch five is a large cleft in the wall, with cracks leading up past trees. The chalk led out to the left of a dirty layback corner above the dead tree. By this time, we were really having a great time. As she led past one of the fixed pins, Inez commented on how old it looked. Indeed, it was an old ring-angle pin that looked like it had been in place since the first ascent. Rusted and battered, it spoke of steel men, iron character and ringing hammer blows. The climbing on the pitch was great. Up discontinuous crack systems to to kind of "reach across" move at the top to end up on a ledge with a good belay tree. Pitch seven was mine.
The next pitch was the fabled "Bear Hug Pitch." From the belay ledge, short tricky moves in a corner put me into a duo of parallel hand cracks running up the wall. The jams were excellent for me, but I think Inez found them a bit wide for her. She wasn't that thrilled with the pitch when she arrived at the belay. I thought it was the best one we'd done up to that point. When I arrived at a good ledge with a tree to belay from, I set up shop. I thought the pitch was kind of short...
When Inez got to the belay and took the rack, a pair of climbers were coming up on us quickly from below. Not being in any particular rush, we decided to let them on by. They were on their way to do Crest Jewel and had gotten a fairly late start. The lead climber came up on our small ledge and we said hello and that they could climb on through. He thanked us as he clambered over my belay tree and continued up. I couldn't believe how torn up he was. He must have had at least five or six places on his legs that were bleeding from cuts and rock scrapes. Off he went past us, across a bunch of broken rock, then out to the left up a nice looking hand crack. His buddy started simul-climbing when the rope went tight and the first guy yelled down something about "sewing it up" to protect them while they simuled. After passing us, the first guy must have gone at least another 60 feet before plugging a piece in. I'd hate to see him when he's not sewing it up...
The nice hand crack to the left turned out to be off route. As Inez led off from the belay, up a left facing corner, she decided that the crack over there was bad news and headed off to the right. She yelled something down about an offwidth corner but the rope continued to pay out and I could briefly spot her head poking over the buttess and ledges above me. About that time, we found out that I should have led past the ledge I was on and continued up to the next one to belay. Inez was running out of our 200' rope and not to the belay yet. Oops! To fix the problem, she set up a belay in the crack she was climbing and was going to belay me up. With about 20 feet of slack left, the rope jammed and I got to climb the next 40 feet of rock, carrying the slack on one hand. When I got to the next ledge and a belay tree, I unstuck the rope and put Gnar back on belay so she could finish the pitch. All in all, it was a minor irritation, but not that time consuming. The guys that had passed us were desperately trying to get back on route, and had to climb an extra pitch to get back on track. As I followed pitch 8, they were finally on to the pendulum pitch above.
I found the eighth pitch pretty fun climbing. The offwidth was climbable by just using heel-toe in the crack and face holds as it was more of a ramp than anything. From the top of that section, some nice clean cracks led straight up. I got a little grumpy with Gnar when I found the large HB Quadcam buried in the crack. I honestly didn't think I was going to get it out, but it eventually wiggled free. All-in-all, I didn't care for this piece as much as I like the smaller Quadcams. It just seemed to be "between" sizes somehow and prone to getting stuck. I finished the pitch, laybacking up the edge of a flake, and found Inez sitting comfortably on the belay ledge. I groused about the stuck piece as we swapped gear and Inez told me (paraphrased) to shut up and live with it. She was right.
The next pitch is the legendary Rotten Log Pitch, which has been sans log for quite a few years now. A left-facing corner out to the right of the belay led up to the pendulum anchor above, a long length of perlon rope with a loop tied in the end. The corner was easy climbing up to the pendulum and I clipped into the loop. I had no intentions of free climbing the slippery moves between me and the good handhold I could see out and to the left, so I asked for some tension and Inez lowered me as I pushed off left. I wondered if it's even possible to honestly free climb this section if you use the pendulum anchor for protection. There's enough rope drag there that you would almost certainly get some residual tension from the anchor, making the moves a bit easier. Just something to think about (way too purist, I'm sure). Anyway, tensioning across, I grabbed the good handhold and mantled up onto the small ledge leading left. Scrambling across, I set up an anchor in a small right- facing corner. Inez managed the pendulum with no problem, just hanging onto the pendulum loop with one arm while traversing over to the handhold. Kind of a monkey-move...she made it look easy.
Inez got the stuff and continued out on the ledge system to the left. This turned into a fourth class ramp leading down to a large tree on a substantial ledge. I followed and put her on belay for her "real" lead of pitch eleven. Left of the tree, she moved up a 4" slot, using face holds and discontinuous cracks. The cracks led to the flake above, which she led quickly liebacking up its edge. This put her in the large right-facing corner and she visibly slowed. Grunts issued forth from the corner, testifying to some awkward climbing. A few minutes later, she emerged from the corner latched on to the tree above and climbed through the branches to the next belay. Looking at the topo, it shows that you're supposed to continue around the corner from this tree, but the rope drag would be tremendous if you did. Inez belayed me up. The corner was grody and slippery. There was a good small ledge by the tree, so I grabbed some water and the gear. We decided to do a short pitch to get around the corner to the ledge shown on the topo. The wind was starting to blow by this time, as we got higher and more exposed to the rim of the Valley, and it would make it extremely hard to hear the belay calls if I went up a full pitch. I did an interesting little batman move up onto a block, sank one hand in a crack and then cranked around the corner. Some traversing to the left led to the right side of a small pillar on the wall. The chalked edge above, indicated that most climbers go up after coming around the corner, but we wanted to get the belay moved, so I continued left along a hand traverse, stopping at a large tree on a small ledge. Once Inez came over, I headed up the left side of the pillar. I was ready for the climb to be over, even though we'd only been at it for like five hours or so. Like a horse headed for the barn, I ran up the cracks until I started getting rope warnings from below. At about 195' out, I clipped into a length of perlon tied around a large tree and settled in to belay. On this, the topo (from the newest Reid guide...) was incorrect. It was nearly a full 200' from tree to tree like the book shows. I looked in my older guide and found that it showed the belay in a crack somewhere below the tree. Oh well...I suppose you could simul-climb in there a bit if you have a normal rope.
Inez came up the long pitch and we discussed the next one. As we were too high (the tree was too far up the cracks), she had to work her way down to a kind of ramp and then traverse over left to get onto the 5.5 section shown for the 13th pitch in the topo. Again, we did a 200' pitch and she ran the rope up to a sloping stance near a dead tree. I got up to her and then just kept going on by. The 14th pitch is shown as 4th class and I had a bit of pro on me, so I figured what the heck. This section goes up slabs and broken rock along the left side of some overhanging rock above. I don't think I put any pro in on the pitch, as every time I thought about it, I saw something better ahead. I found a pair of bolts with rap slings on it and clipped into a semi-hung belay. Inez trotted up and grabbed some minimal gear for the last pitch.
The 15th pitch is the one everybody talks about. "Slippery...bald... polished..." have all been used to describe its charms, but the most often heard descriptor is usually "RUNOUT." After climbing it, I'm convinced it's more preferable to be the leader on this one. The fall is better. Inez stepped down an easy ramp and wrapped a long sling around a boulder. More moves down and left led to a single bolt. A bolt? I didn't know about no bolt...from that, she moved very solidly over and into the trees along the left side of the slab, a runout of about 45 feet or so. Not too bad. I came on over, watching my step and avoiding the many pine needles covering the slab. Not one handhold, but lots of decent friction and footholds. I made the belay and got a celebration hug from Gnar. Climb over... sort of...
We made our way into the woods, following the well-worn climber's path through the layer of old leaves on the ground. This was kind of interesting, since it was kind of slippery and there's a 3000+ foot drop to the dining room table of the Ahwahnee Hotel if you lose it and shoot through the trees. We worked across and found the runoff from the spring. Gnar ran the bottles up and filled them while I checked out the path to the left. It went for another 25 feet or so and then just died off on slabs. Hmmm...looking around, I noticed a ramp that we could get to from the spring. That looked like the way to go.
We tossed a purifying pill into the bottles and shoved them back in the pack. The ramp wasn't as weird as it looked, and we scrambled up and out onto the Valley rim. We stopped there for a quick change over to sandals for the hike to the Column, where we hoped to meet up with the others. The hike was fairly pleasant. If every cairn marking the trail had had a dime on it, we nearly could have hired a helicopter to fly us back down to the Valley and had money left over for beers!
Things get downright interesting from the top of the Column on, because regular everyday climbers, doing the Royal Arches route, would now be starting to hike down the North Dome Gully intent on making it back to the parking lot for beer and Twinkies. But not us. As we approach the top of the Column, we begin to scan the skyline for THE tree. This would refer to the tree that held the care package for us and the other pair of our party, still presumably below thrashing and rending their way up Astroman. "How," you might be wont to ask, "did this care package come to be there in a tree on top of the Washington Column?" I'm glad you asked that. Way back in June, I had sarcastically mentioned someone hiking such a care package to the top of the Column, totally in jest at the time. Two weeks before, on a climb up the Arches/Crest Jewel combo, Brutus himself had placed the pack high in a tree, away from the prying eyes of man and beast. You might then be curious enough to add, "What was in the pack?" A fair and reasonable question. Three weeks ago, Slime and I had shipped a pair of hiking shoes apiece to Inez's house in Berkeley and she passed them along to Brutus to go in the care pack. Brutus had added four fleece pullovers, four emergency space bags, matches, a quart of water, a couple of hats, and a partridge in a pear tree. You have to watch what you say around Brutus. He's got entirely too much energy!
When we got to the top of the Column, Gnar pulls out the "care pack map" showing the approximate location of the tree in question. Before looking for the pack, we threw down our stuff and scanned intently over the edge of the east face of the Column to see if the guys were within eye or earshot. A couple of howls got no response, so we started the pack search. Using the map, it only took us about an hour to find it, since there were about six trees that looked like the one in the map. Inez started getting a bit worried at this point. Her "boys" were down on the face and we had no idea if they were on the way up or had bailed off somewhere below. Using all the clues and a few guesses on our part, I finally found the bag, about 20 feet up a pine tree. I climbed through sap-infested branches up the tree to bring it back to the ground. An adventure in itself. I hauled the pack back to the rim where there were lots of fairly flat spots around. We made another foray over to the east face for more yelling, but no response. A climber was coming up to the rim from the top of the Prow, evidently solo, but he hadn't heard or seen the guys that day. Not that surprising, as Astroman is in kind of a recessed dihedral system most of the way up the face.
At this point, we discussed our options. It was about 5pm by then, just enough daylight left for us to make it back down the North Dome Gully. Inez was intent on staying to see the guys on top, and I wasn't leaving my partner, so we stayed to face the inhospitable prospect of a cold night on the Valley rim. Next job, get some firewood together and pick out a bivy spot. We got some wood and located a decent spot that had been used before, a ways down off the side of the Column summit, out of the breeze. By this time, the kid on the Prow had topped out. Klaus (his name) turned out to be a very "together" and nice 18 year old kid from Montana who had just spent 3 days soloing the Prow. We gathered lots of wood, piling it over by the bivy site. On one trip, my Teva got caught on a rock, dumping me on my back in the sticks and rocks, and tearing a hold in the bottom of my big toe. That was fun. I changed out of the Tevas into my hiking shoes, wrapping tape around the hamburger that used to be my toe. It felt wonderful.
We head back over to the top of the Column to yell once again, and talk a bit with Klaus. It started getting dark and Inez's face got more and more worried the darker it got. At one point, she hears an "OFF BELAY" somewhere down the face, and yells. She hears Bruce's voice say that he hears her on top. She runs off to tell me that they're on their way up. Evidently just after she ran over to tell me, Bruce had yelled up that they needed a rope lowered to them. We found this out about 10 minutes later when all of us went back over to the edge. We started our "rescue" operation. I say "rescue" more because we were helping the guys get off than for any danger they were in. At most, they would have had to spend a rather nasty cold night shivering on a ledge below waiting for the sun to come up so they could finish the route. As it stood, they only had one penlight between them (John's headlamp was still on the ground) and that wasn't going to get them up the 5.10d runout, pin-protected, last pitch. After yelling up to us for rope, and hearing us reply, Brutus led the first half of the last pitch, a 5.9 section to the top of a pillar. Once there, he waited for the rope to come down.
We went to the bivy site and grabbed our 200' rope, some sling, and harnesses. Klaus volunteered his jumars and ropes if we needed them. Once back to the rim, we fixed a rope to a tree and Inez prepared to rap down to a large ledge 80' below the rim. At one point, I thought about offering to rap myself, but I'd once heard that it wasn't safe to come between a mother bear and her cubs, an analogy that I felt was fairly appropriate at the time. Inez went down to the ledge. Klaus followed her to help with what he could, while I stayed on top to belay everyone back up the pitch to the rim. Klaus actually got on the long rope and rappelled down to Brutus to hand him the end so there would be no missing it in the dark. He then jugged back up and then on up to the summit where we got ready to move the rap/jug line over to the left where the others could climb back out. I couldn't see a thing below, except for the bobbing light of headlamps at work.
Brutus came up over the edge onto the ledge below a few minutes later and John was belayed up after. Both were really glad to see the ledge from the comments I could hear from the summit. We moved the rap rope over to the right side where an easy pitch of climbing led up to the summit. We could only get the rope a ways down the starting ramp of the pitch due to an offending tree, so Slime led a ways up the ramp to where he could grab the rope and tie in. From there, I belayed him to the summit rim. "Glad to see you!" I told John as he made the last few moves. "Not as glad as we are to see you guys!" he replied. Bruce came next, followed quickly by Inez and everyone was on the rim safe and sound at about 9pm. A successful "rescue." They immediately headed off to the bivy spot to get some water and food, while we grabbed the gear and then went over. The two adventurers were pretty shredded from their day on the rock. They both seemed a bit "glazed over" for a while, trying to digest the difficulty and strain of the route they'd just climbed.
We all bundled up as well as we could. Klaus loaned me his Gore-Tex anorak, which I gladly pulled over the fleece I'd gotten from the care pack. It doesn't pay to be a wide body. I couldn't zip the fleece closed in front, so the anorak was a welcome sight to help keep the draft out. We cranked up the fire and sat around it nibbling on the bits of food we'd had with us. I can't help but think that if I'd really thought we were spending the night on the rim, I would have brought a helluva lot more stuff up with me!!! In hindsight, I guess I was just in denial about maybe having to stay up there and dropped the ball. Hell, it wouldn't have been that much work to take some really comfy camping stuff up there. I had a bivy bag and a lot warmer stuff down in the campsite. It's not like climbing the Arches was all that hard or anything.
As it was, we all hit the sack about 10:30p. I offered Klaus ten bucks for his nice warm sleeping bag, but he declined. Go figure! :-) The temperature dropped quickly and the fire was definitely a blessing. We all got into our emergency biby bags, a silver reflective mylar shell that made us all look like a collection of metallic burritos. These would become very uncomfortable as the night went on, as more and more condensation gathered on the inside of the bags from body heat. We had all abandoned the bags by early morning. Besides, we couldn't get any sleep since everytime anyone moved, it sounded like ten people wadding big balls of cellophane. I bet Klaus was sorry he chose to camp with us after all of that.
At one point in the night, I woke up freezing my ass off. I look over to the fire and Slime and Inez have moved closer and are sitting up in front of it, successfully blocking any possible heat I might have felt. In the words of Mike, "That's cold!" I debated for a minute, abandoned my burrito bag and moved over on the other side of the fire blockers, to get warm. I spent the rest of the night there and actually got like 15 minutes of sleep during one period. Morning came slow. We did a lot of sitting by the fire, not really saying anything, or even communicating at all. Seems like it would have been a good time for some sort of incredibly philosophical conversation, but I think we were all kind of drawn into our own little cocoons of suffering, content to keep silent and think of warmer beds and tasty food.
The sky started getting light by about 6:30 or so. We started to stir the minute it was light enough to consider packing. By 7:15a, we're on our way down. Klaus takes off on the "low road", smothered by the size of his huge Metolius haulbag, while Brutus leads us through the "high road." Bruce's version is a bit safer and less exposed than the lower slab version. We eventually hack our way over to the North Dome Gully itself and then start down, tippie-toeing down the loose rock and then the dirt slides before reaching the bottom slabs. Once we reached the bottom of the Column, Bruce and John stopped to retrieve their bivy gear. I offered to take John's pack to help out with the loads, but they wanted to complete the climb on their own, so Inez and I started back to camp while they repacked.
On the way, we made a couple of wrong turns and end up across the river from a camping area. We manage to leap across on rocks to get across the first one, but the second river crossing has no rocks, so we simply waded on in. This felt pretty good to tired and sore feet. We arrived back at camp to find that Eric and the Roofman had stashed our tents and sleeping bags and stuff (Thanks Guys!!!), so we only had to repack and head back to the Bay Area. We got our stuff realigned, popped open a bottle of champagne, and toasted a successful weekend!
Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.