A Gunks Gumbie Goes to the Valley by Steven Cherry


Yosemite Valley
May-June 1999

How do you write a trip report for a perfect week? On the excuse of
a business trip to San Diego, I arranged with Karl Baba for one of
his "informal" guiding experiences.
The schedule was two days in the Valley, go down to the conference, then
back for seven straight days of climbing. I had a million concerns, not
least were some ongoing nagging injuries, my bizarre diet (mostly vegan),
logistics (I didn't want to keep the rental car longer than necessary),
and the fact that, coming from the Gunks, I had no idea whether I could
climb cracks.

Our first day we tried to get up early for East Buttress of Middle
Cathedral, especially since it was a weekday (albeit a Friday) we
thought it was worth a shot. On the way, Karl mentioned that Central
Pillar of Frenzy was nearby--it was not only nearby but totally empty.
Karl led the first 5.9 pitch, whose crux was actually the snow cone
blocking the start. I had said I'd lead 2 and 4. When Karl started to
describe the pitches, I told him I'd looked at the topo.

For some reason I thought pitch 2 was 5.8 and pitch 4 5.9 (neither is the
case), and I found it pretty hard. "If this is Yosemite 5.8, I guess I
just suck at crack climbing. Maybe I'd better not lead the 5.9 pitch."
When I brought Karl up, the first thing he said was, "What's your hardest
onsight?" "5.9+." It had been just a couple of weeks earlier, and I had
bragged in email, but I figured he had forgotten. "Not anymore--the new
guidebook has it 5.10a." I still haven't seen this mythical guidebook,
but it set the tone for the rest of my time there--overachieving my goals
and expectations, and also getting on everything we wanted. With never
more than a reasonable amount of waiting we got on, among other things,
East Buttress (the next day), Moby Dick (center), Sacherer Cracker, Mr
Natural, Lunatic Fringe, Bishops Terrace, Reeds Pinnacle Direct,
Serenity Crack.

That first night set the tone for something else, as well, Karl's cooking.
He lives in the Park (Wawona) and each night we went forth and back from
there. He had not only stocked up on stuff that I could eat, but cooked
utterly fabulous meals, mostly Indian, or a least with an Indian tinge to
them, though there were also burritos one night and salmon or seafood a
couple of others (my non-vegan component is fish).

The first day also set the tone for the weather. It was perfect. Afternoon
showers, common the week before I came, never materialized. The only days
that weren't perfect 80 F and sunny were the days I was in San Diego.
Nights were pretty chilly, but I was all snuggly in my sleeping bag in
Karl's van.

My first goal had been to learn crack climbing, and I sure did. I came off
a few times at the final off-width section of Sacherer Cracker, and was
forced to learn to do it the right way or not get up it at all, which
served me well on the wide part of Reeds. Learning finger cracks on the
10c's allowed me to get up Serenity Crack's third pitch with cleanly.

My second goal was to learn my way around the Valley--other than going to
Middle Cathedral twice we went to a different area every day. My third
goal was to do a long free route and the East Buttress of Middle was not
only my first IV ever, it was my first route from "50 Classics." (And it
certainly kicked my butt, at least in that Warren Harding "as-I-recall,
at-the-end-it-was-in-much-better-shape-than-I-was" way.) It was a
revelation to see a truly efficient climber like Karl at work, and I
learned a lot about getting up a lot of pitches in a day, things that will
serve me well on the Grade III's back east. It was also infinitely cool
watching El Cap change as we got higher and higher, and as the light of
the day changed. I couldn't believe the way, for example, the North
America Wall could look like a perfect map of the continent at one time,
and seem like little more than a dark blotch on the rock at another. (In
his wall book, John Long talks about he and Ron Fawcett climbing up some
of Middle Cathedral one day just to look at the Nose before making it his
first Grade VI. The feeling of connectedness to a half-century of Yosemite
climbing was a continual undercurrent.)

A third goal was to get on a wall, and learn aid and wall climbing by
doing it, not just simulating elements on smaller cliffs back east. We did
that and more, getting up about two-thirds of Washington Column. We picked
Southern Man because it meant having the easier approach (and the
non-portaledge bivy) of Washington Column without all the crowds of a
trade route. Karl hadn't been on it, except to check out the first pitch
and a half above Dinner Ledge a couple of years earlier, so it would have
some adventure. We practiced for an afternoon at Rixon's Pinnacle (where I
found out that jumaring is something I should have practiced beforehand).

On the Column I led pitch 2, which was a clean and easy C1 but gave me my
first taste of hauling, and pitch 4, which was a bolt ladder (with some
bathooks) and part of 5, which I was linking (as everyone does). My first
ever expando flake slowed me down (to the tune of a 20-foot clean fall)
and I lowered and we called it a first day without fully fixing pitch 5.

The next morning we had the choice of, basically, me trying pitch 5 again
or finishing the route (with Karl leading everything at least through 8).
I chose to try again, got past the flake, but took another fall further up
when I tried to hook (and pecker) my way over the pitch's crux bulge. I
found out a lot that morning, mainly that I was still carrying a lot of
northeastern psychological baggage against real aid. (When Karl went up he
didn't screw around, using a knifeblade near where I used the pecker and a
large head where I tried the fishhook.) With a party above us switching
over to Southern Man, we switched to South Face, but between all the time
I had used still not completing pitch 5, and other parties still ahead of
us on South Face, by the time we got up 6, we had a choice of doing one
more pitch or getting off the Column before dark. Since we weren't going
to summit we decided not to epic.

My time on the wall was still memorable. Real, not practice, aid was new,
hauling was new, jugging was still new--heck, even the bathooking and
hangerless bolts were new. On Dinner Ledge we grabbed the "penthouse"--it
was really on our route and not anyone else's, but it gave us virtually a
private bivy ledge even though there were several other parties on the
Column that night. The clear night sky was huge with constellations I
could guess the names of and several planets shining brightly. We could
see a headlamp on Half Dome, and the lights of civilization (such as it
is) in the Valley.

A final goal was to achieve some sort of climbing breakthrough; trips out
of the Gunks always are for me. (My first 5.8 lead was in the Daks, my
first 9 at the New, and now my first 10's are Yosemite routes.) My first
weekend back at the Gunks I didn't push myself, but climbs of the level I
was I previously just consolidating (5.9's) are now, if still not routine,
straightforward.

One thing I didn't expect was to make real friends. Karl's housemate,
John, was as sweet as he was generous and pleasant. As for Karl himself,
we just hit it off right away. We're around the same age and equally
idiosyncratic (though differently). As well as bright and funny, he was
the perfect blend of guide and partner. I got to lead what I wanted
and got to climb harder than I could I lead. He adroitly taught some
great techniques and tips.

Most importantly, he was able to intuit what I could get up, and was great
about pushing me past whatever I thought my limitations were. The night
before our last day, I suggested we go up something long and easy (I was
thinking of Lucifer's Ledge). Karl surprised me by telling me we were
going to do Serenity Crack. I had tweaked a shoulder muscle on Reeds
Pinnacle that day, it had been my sixth straight climbing day, yada yada
yada. Serenity Crack had been high on our to-do list before and during the
trip, but it was three pitches of 5.10. "I'll let you off the hook, we
don't have to do Sons of Yesterday. But all week it's been 'we could do
this, we could do that, do you want to do this, do you want to do that.'
Tomorrow will be the excruciating pain and glory of Serenity Crack," all
delivered in his most solemn Baba-pseudo-East-Asian accent.

When it came to it the next day, Karl would have let me off the hook for
leading the second pitch, but he described it so seductively no mortal
could resist, and leading it was the climbing highlight of my trip, my
third 10a lead (there and ever), my second without any falls, my first
that was indisputably 5.10a in every guidebook. Unless the highlight was
just getting up the 10d pitch that followed, practically collapsing--for
lack of breathing--after the final finger jam.... Maybe it was the dawn of
understanding different crack widths on Sacherer Cracker, or figuring out
to turn around twice on Church Bowl Terrace, my second chimney climb that
day and ever.... Or maybe it was linking and leading through the first
part of East Buttress's pitch 9, tricky and a bit runout corner stemming a
thousand feet above the valley floor...


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Steven Racked up for the Wall
Karl following Steven's lead on the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock
Steven leading Second Pitch of the South Face of Washington Collumn on the Way to Southern Man

Below: Steven and I did the steep Reed's Direct (5.9) in one long pitch.