Royal Arches, Regular Route
By: Ron Heinsman | Climbers: Ron Heinsman, Tim Bjorkman |Trip Dates: August, 1999
Photo: Gary Clark
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It's 4:05 AM and Tim is waking me up from a very poor night's sleep. We are camping up in Tuolumne with the rest of our wives' extended family for a family reunion. I had originally wanted to climb Royal Arches Route with Julie, my wife, but a few hours spent climbing The Great White Book yesterday with our son Mark has satisfied her desire to climb longer routes for a while. Tim is itching to get on something long, so the partnership is natural. We've climbed a little together before this trip, but this will be our first long route together. I had been plenty psyched about the idea when we talked about it last night, but at four in the morning, nothing sounds fun. Oh well, it will be fun, if I can just get out of bed.
In a few minutes we are on the road, cruising toward Yosemite Valley. Except for almost hitting a deer, our trip is uneventful, and we are in the valley long before normal people consider getting up. A short trip into Ahwanee Hotel to use the bathroom and borrow some TP just in case, and then we are hiking along the approach trail. I hiked up to the base of the route on my previous trip to Yosemite four years ago, and I remember the approach. There's plenty of light when we get to the climb. Surprisingly, we hear and see no one else on the route yet. I got to climb the South Face of Washington Column last week without running into another party; it'd be nice to have this one to ourselves as well.
I take the first pitch and choose the 5.7 variation pitch around the corner over the 5.6 chimney original route. After my disaster on a 5.6 chimney on the South Face of Washington Column, I'll avoid the chimneys if possible, thank you very much. It is straight-forward 5.7 climbing and I'm soon setting up a belay for Tim. He's up quickly and we start scrambling up the terraces, running it way out and simul-climbing. It seems more of a hike than a climb, and we make time quickly. The end of the terraces is quite obvious; there's nowhere left to go.
Tim is going to climb pitch five (of the topo in Yosemite Free Climbs), and he sizes up the initial 5.7 moves. Unfortunately he's not happy with the moves because he's plugged a good hold with the gear. So he peeks around the corner at the 5.6 variation and decides that even with the exposure, he'll take it. Soon he's scampering up the wall and setting up the belay in the trees. We intend to leapfrog pitches, so six is mine. I love moving over 5.5 rock because it means moving quickly because I feel comfortable running it out on this easy terrain. The belay is another nice one, as many are, with shade and a comfortable seat. Tim's a little surprised by my running it out and I overhear him commenting to himself on how bold this lead was. I'm laughing a little to myself as I think about guys like Bachar and Croft who free solo climbs like Astroman. Me bold? Yeah, right.
Tim's got pitch seven, which goes without a hitch. Pitch eight is mine and we are soon setting up for the pendulum pitch. Because of my experience on South Face, we decide it would be better for me to lead this pendulum pitch. We are working on getting up it quickly and I really am not even considering climbing 5.9+ face. I've got a happy surprise waiting for me at the pendulum; a fixed line is hanging there just waiting for me to swing across. Initially I clip in too high and have to drop down a little. I don't even have to swing, just tension across. I set up a belay using gear right after the pendulum. Tim enjoys the tension traverse as well, grabs the rack from me and heads off on the fourth class traverse.
I take pitch eleven which is memorable with the great tree climbing in the middle. Hey, whatever works! On pitch 12, Tim climbs left, through the trees and heads on up the last 5.5 of the climb. I'm really breathing easy now. The views are awesome, the weather is perfect, the rock is solid, and we've had the climb to ourselves the whole day. I'm feeling like this climb is in the bag
I've got the older topo and in comparing it with the newer one that Tim has, it seems I can combine the next two pitches into one and have the equivalent of pitch 13 on the new topo. This idea seems to work fine, even though it requires me to run it out on some loose rock. Tim climbs by me after seconding the pitch and heads on up to the belay before the final pitch.
We aren't looking at the topo at this point and make the mistake of setting up the belay in the trees instead of out at the bolts. I head on out for the final pitch. I find myself angling down the wall and eventually reach a very blank section not too far from the dirt ramp at the edge of the jungle. I survey the possibilities and decide that if I proceed, I'll probably need to have Tim leave in my last piece to protect him from a nasty pendulum fall. Unfortunately, my last piece is a $50+ cam and I have no intention of leaving that. I decide I'm off route and retreat back to some trees to the left of the bolts. I head out again on this pitch, this time staying high. After almost finishing the pitch for the second time, I realize that I'm too high. There is some consolation as I see a lot of slings around trees above me where others have done something similar. I head for some slings around a triangular flake. I holler back to Tim and find out I don't have enough rope to make the jungle, so I clip into the slings as Tim moves over to the bolts. I can almost spit over to the jungle now and I'm frustrated by the thought that I've gotten off route twice. Since I really don't know what to expect if I keep climbing and since I will need to climb really close to a flake that looks like only a tuft of grass is holding it in place, I decide just to have Tim lower me across on a tension traverse. I leave a biner on the slings and lower across. Tim follows and I lower him over as well.
The "jungle" really looks like a jungle. There's beautiful foliage and a sparkling spring with a serious amount of water flowing out of the wall. We suck up some water and take off our climbing shoes. When we had been planning for this climb yesterday, we had decided to rappel the fixed rap route. Somewhere near the top of the climb we changed our minds and decided to walk on over and "walk" down the North Dome Gully. After heading into the jungle just a few feet, we encounter a short section of rock to traverse. I think it must be a mistake, since a fall off of that little traverse would probably deposit me on the valley floor. I try to go around, but find no good alternative. Now since I'm partial to living, I decide I want a belay until I'm really back on "solid" ground. I uncoil the rope and walk until I run out of rope. Tim follows and then heads on up to the top of the rim. Now I'm finally willing to put the rope away "for good".
Tim is tired, really tired. He hasn't eaten well all day, and he tells me that he's wearing out. We take it a little slow and take a few breaks as we hike toward Washington Column. I'm quietly concerned by the time of the day since I'm very aware we don't want to be in North Dome Gully when the sun goes down. I try to encourage Tim to keep moving and I think he senses my concern. Eventually we crest up onto Washington Column and are rewarded with an awesome view of Half Dome. In my opinion, this is the only value of using the North Dome Gully for descending from the Royal Arches Route. We snap some pictures and then keep moving to find the start of the descent.
I am aware that unless we are sure, we should stay high and keep traversing. That advice is really good because the gully starts way further east than I would have expected. The start is pretty obvious, but I'm not happy with what I see. The top of the NDG looks like a dusty sand and gravel pit, just steeper. With every step we slide forward and fill our shoes with rocks. It's ugly, way ugly. I'm really regretting our change of plans now. If we had stuck with the original plan, we'd already be down, having pizza in Curry Village. Finally we leave the loosest of the gravel and get onto more solid rock. The path finding is enhanced by numerous cairns along the way, but you'd never see these little stacks of rock at night. Now I'm feeling rushed. The sun is sinking fast and this is the last place I want to be after dark. The frustration is setting in and a few mild expletives are escaping our lips. Eventually the path leads to the edge of a drop off with a tree at the edge choked with slings. Now I'm really not happy. I had decided to do the NDG to avoid rapping, but here I am uncoiling the ropes and setting up a rappel. It is straight forward and we are soon at the bottom of the wall recoiling the ropes. The cairns lead us on until once again we encounter a rap station. Now I'm more angry than I've been in a long time. Mostly I'm angry at myself for choosing this torture when I should have known better. This time when we hit the bottom, we don't coil the ropes at all, and I go on ahead to find yet another rappel. Before we are down we will have done four rappels. That's only five less than I would have had to do if I rappelled the route. Eventually it is obvious there will be no more rappels, and we coil the ropes for good. As we near the valley floor, Tim chooses to head off through the woods to the right as I continue down the boulders. He wants the easier walk and I want the light. It is almost dark now but I'm no longer worried we'll be stuck in the gully after dark. My path eventually empties out at the horse trail near a fence. I sit on the fence and empty the gravel, sand and dirt out of my shoes. Now I finally feel safe.
Tim is waiting ahead for me as I hike on down the horse trail back towards the backpacker camp. We stop in at the restroom to take a leak and drink some water before heading back to the car. After driving over to the store in Yosemite Village, Tim waits for me in the car as I pick up something to drink and a little something to munch. Unfortunately, the cash register computers crash as I'm standing in line and it seems forever until I'm able to checkout. The drive back up to Tuolumne seems way too long and we are both exhausted from a very long day. Finally at about 11:00 PM we roll into our campsite, happy to see our wives and happy to have climbed a beautiful, long route in one of the world's most beautiful settings.
Beta: Our gear consisted of a 10.5 mil. x 165 foot lead line, a 8 mil. x 165 foot static line for rappelling, a full set of stoppers, a set of TCU's, a set of Trango Four-cams (#3-8), a #4 Friend, ten shoulder length runners, and assorted biners. That was plenty of gear. I'd recommend getting some beta from someone on that last pitch before you get there (not me; I still don't know what I did wrong!). I'd also recommend rapping the Royal Arches Rap Route over the North Dome Gully. I might even recommend jumping off the cliff over the North Dome Gully! If you still want to hike down, "stay high and keep traversing" until you are obviously in the sandy gully. Then say your prayers and start sliding down. As an alternative, a fellow climber recommended hiking out behind North Dome. Have a look and see what you think.