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Sentinel Rock, Steck-Salathe Route (attempt)
Yosemite National Park

Author: Gary Clark

Participants: Gary and Lynn Clark

This was our third attempt on this infamous (in my mind, at least) "50 Classics" route on Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley. In 1992, we went expecting to be able to do the route in alpine style - carry packs with light bivouac gear, and drop them on a sling while climbing the chimneys. We made exactly one-half pitch in this fashion before I was thoroughly trashed physically and psychologically. Realizing that a 5.7 chimney had just made a fool of me, I looked at the topo and decided I had blown the strategy - there were lots of much harder chimneys to come! Next time, I'd either need to climb it in a day, or haul the bags.

Back home, I got advice from people who had done the route; most thought that a day trip was the only way to go.

Late June, 1996: We bivouac at the base of the route on the longest day of the year, which coincided with a full moon. By starting at first light, we figured our chances of getting up it in a day were maximized. The day began at around 90 degrees, and got hotter. By the top of the 6th pitch, I was approaching heat stroke. To worsen the situation, one of our water bottles had burst, so we were (1) almost out of water; (2) late in the afternoon; and (3) less than half-way up the route. Time to rap and reconsider strategy.

Late Oct. 1998: The plan this time was to return to a two-day climb, but make the hauling tolerable by building three special haul bags - long and skinny, so they had a chance of getting up the chimneys without hanging up. These were to be attached each to the higher, so they'd snake up the climb like a chain of link sausages. We left a comfy king-sized bed in El Portal in the early a.m., and drove up to the base of the 4-mile trail, now becoming quite familiar. Beginning the hike at first light, we did the 4th-class approach and began climbing around 9:30a. The pitches flowed past, but were no easier than before. This is a tough climb, and I admit to not enjoying much of it, other than realizing we were doing much better at getting up some of the hardest pitches with much less energy, and weren't wasting any time with off-route excursions. The Wilson Overhang on pitch 4 went dramatically better. Since I had freed it last time, I didn't feel too guilty in pulling on a few pieces to conserve energy, and got up quickly. The hauling was going well. The bags hung a couple of times, but were easily freed.

Similarly, an upper off-width pitch (#6, rated 5.8+), went better through a judicious application of #4 Camalots. I had struggled long and hard on this pitch last time. I hoped the style police weren't monitoring all this through binoculars, or we'd certainly have a citation on the windshield when we got down. Lynn resorted to jugging these pitches.

The only easy pitch of the day was the 7th, which took us to the bivouac site at the top of the flying buttress. This eagerly awaited site was a big disappointment, and we set to improving it as dusk turned to dark. Major rock fall (perhaps during earthquakes) is a problem on this route, as evidenced by the state of the bivouac. It was covered with boulders, some of which we could move, and some we couldn't. In about two hours of hard work, we had cleared and leveled a site that was big enough for one person in a fetal position. We both settled onto this, and suffered through the long October night. The highlight of this experience was the sudden arrival of a BIG millipede on the bridge of my nose, from some distance above. He may have survived that part of the fall, but I paid little attention to his continued safety as I launched him down the rest of the face.

We had bags, and were over warm, but other than that the bivy was quite similar to our earlier experience this summer on the South Howser Tower - neither person could move without waking up the other, our bodies developed kinks and cramps, and we slept little. The most notable similarity was watching the stars disappear in the west, and then gradually over the entrance to the Valley, long before first light. By dawn, it was obvious that a storm was on it's way from the Pacific Ocean. We packed and racked for a long rap session, rather than for the first pitch. I must admit that neither of us had major regrets - we were simply not enjoying the climbing (again).

By noon, we had reached the long approach ledge that diagonals across the lower face, and were hustling to beat the rain, now a certainty. The lower ledges have stretches of slick 3rd- and 4th-class rock that we didn't look forward to doing wet. We almost made it, and would have if a stuck rapell rope hadn't forced a full 50m jumar to retrieve.

We arrived back at the car in light but steady rain, which turned to a downpour as we drove out of the valley. Next stop a Best Western Hotel with a Jacuzzi in the room. I can't think of a bigger contrast to the night before. That's why we do this, I guess . . .


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