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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 19+20: yosemite


Amy: Yosemite National Park lives up to the hype. It’s one of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve visited - polished vertical cliffs, gushing waterfalls and more rainbows than I’ve ever seen in one place. But also feels homey and familiar - the forests are a mix of pine, aspen, oak and cedar, the rock is granite, and the streams are crisp and clear from snowmelt. And there was a LOT of snowmelt. This past winter, Yosemite broke snowfall records, with snow up to 15 feet deep in some areas. As a result, many of the park roads and campgrounds were still closed when we visited in May. All the streams and rivers had swelled well above their usual levels, flooding large swaths of the Yosemite valley. Lucky for us, the wet spring worked in our favour - the park was much less busy than usual, and our friends Em and Dan had no trouble getting a campsite for us to share at Camp 4. Woohoo!

bill: driving into yosemite is a lot more bc-like mountainous pine tree covered terrain, overall not that interesting for about an hour past the park gates until you start to descend into the yosemite valley which is where it really kicks in. the valley itself is unreal. totally inexplicably beautiful. massive granite cliffs tower over the narrow, glacial cut valley. half dome and el capitan stand so much taller over all of the other canyon walls, dwarfing otherwise immense beautiful granite faces. wildly tall waterfalls cascade from every corner. there are too many things to look at, each more beautiful than the last.

we are staying at camp 4, the crucible of western rock climbing, where all of the greatest rock climbers of all time have stayed every season for decades. camp 4 has a very specific vibe; there are no families, no retirees, it is tent only so no rvs, “sites” are pretty loose and lackadaisically enforced (mostly just a huge number of tents strewn about at random), and the crowd is literally all 20 and 30 something climbers. there is a dense fog of pot smoke shrouding the camp every night and just walking to the bathroom can get you roped into an impromptu game of hacky sack.

there is excellent climbing right at camp 4. we started our yosemite climbing adventure with a 5.6 3 pitch 100m trad route called “swan slab gully” right out of our campsite. the rock here is granite, which is typically very grippy but after decades and decides of daily laps has become super polished in all of the high traffic areas. my first foot placement was akin to trying to walk on ice or greased teflon. the grades here are definitely harder than vegas and more akin to the gatineau grades we are used to (old-school grading but not joshua tree level sandbagged), though years of polishing has definitely made the popular routes more difficult.

in addition to james, we have also reunited with hannah, corbin, thom, and steph from mexico as well as em and dan and so we are rolling in a crew of 9 now which is amazing!

Amy: After our day of climbing (within walking distance to our tent!) we celebrated National Pizza Party Day as a group (thanks Hannah!). We rounded up some bikes that were part of a miraculously free bike share program, and hit the trails for Curry Village where all the restaurants are. We had 7 bikes for 9 people, so we made it work (I sat in the basket lol).

yosemite point

bill: the next day we hiked from camp 4 to yosemite point past yosemite falls, a 15km 1200m affair that involves lots of water crossings, waterfall mist raining down on us, and snow travel, but super worth it to get up on top of the valley and really take in the surroundings.

Amy: Over pizza, we had made plans to wake up early and hike the Yosemite Falls trail to get a view of the valley from above. As a group, we slowly wound our way up the steep switchbacks beside the torrent of water.

We made it to the top of the falls, then continued across a bridge spanning the gushing river, over some snow, and up to a higher viewpoint. We had a great view of Half Dome and realized the whole upper valley was still covered in a decent layer of snow! We had planned on pushing forward to the top of El Cap, but with the snow cover, we settled for our equally spectacular spot. We ate lunch, then hiked down. Great day.

1200m down

knob hill

bill: we went for a nice day of cragging at knob hill as a group, went up a bunch of nice single pitch routes from 5.7 to 5.10a, pretty chill day in a nice place with nice people.

Amy: I’ve always considered climbing a social activity, so it was nice to be together, cheering one another on! Everyone got up a few routes and we saw some cool lizards.


bill: because of all the flooding in yosemite and all the other campgrounds closing, camp 4 switched today from first come first serve to reservation only. yosemite reservations are absurd to try to get and disappear within seconds of being released, and so the vibe at camp 4 changed dramatically by the end of the day on sunday; no more hacky sack circles and stick and poke tattoo sessions, the population has shifted entirely to quiet families, adults and other people that actually know how to use a computer and can plan their lives more than 1 day in advance. nerds.

amy’s birthday

Amy: Thirty (sobs). It’s one of life’s biggest milestones. The threshold between youth and middle-age. The day you can no longer say “screw it, I’m in my 20s” to any irrational decision or poorly laid plan. Thank god I decided to move into a van before then 😀😂. Lucky for me, I was able to bid adieu to my 20s in the most epic place surrounded by friends. That softened the blow. That, and cake. To start the day: pancakes for breakfast with a side of triple layer chocolate cake. For a midday picnic at the foot of El Cap: birthday cake oreo cookies. And to finish the day: a chocolate cake baked in the oven of a tiny pickup truck camper in the Yosemite parking lot, complete with candles and oreo garnish (thanks Steph and James!). After a day of hiking, scrabble and frisbee, sharing cake around the campfire with a crowd of friends was the cherry on top.

bill: amy turned 30 today, so we had a big day planned of relatively chill activities. we tried our hands (and feet) at the iconic midnight lightning boulder (v8) just outside of camp 4 and got shut down on the first few moves, including some microscopic feet on extremely polished granite.

afterwards we walked up to the base of el capitan. tragically i fell on my free solo attempt of el cap, fortunately it was only 3 moves in. we ate lunch in the meadow across from the wall and watched the climbers working their way up the nose. the nose is the most popular route up el capitan and is 31 pitches, 914m, and goes at 5.9 c2 (the c2 means aid climbing in addition to normal climbing). it usually takes about 3.5 days to climb. this did seem like a reasonable life goal to try to accomplish at some point, but looking at the route maps it turns out a lot (like almost all) of the nose is actually aid climbing. aid climbing is when you put your gear in the wall, then attach a ladder to it and climb up the ladder with your weight on the gear rather than on the rock itself and is a totally different endeavour than regular rock climbing, and much less appealing to me. the only way that you can free climb (not aid) the nose is if you can climb 5.14a, which is basically impossible. oh well.

amy on her free solo attempt of the nose

glacier point apron

bill: amy, thom, steph and i headed over the glacier point apron to do one of the mega classic climbs i have been wanting to do in our time here: the grack. it is a 3 pitch, 150m 5.6 trad route up a beautiful splitter crack on a relatively low angle slab. just pure fun. the second pitch was about as pure and beautiful as crack climbing gets, you just feel like you are swimming up the rock, and it feels so solid you almost forget get you need to stop and place gear.

the crack was supposed to be a hand crack (which it was for amy) but for me it was a little off-fingers, but even though i hate finger cracks this was beautiful. it also represents a small step forwards in our trad climbing career, our tallest multipitch to date and three long 50m pitches of similar sized gear so i wasn’t afforded the opportunity to sew it up like i like to. lovely to climb with thom and steph also.

Amy: Another day of climbing with friends! What more could a gal ask for? We got some more bike-share bikes, and rode over to a very chill multi-pitch climb. Keeping the chill vibes going, we finished the day with beers, snacks and a shower in the village while we waited for Em, Dan and James to get down from their adventure of the day: climbing Half Dome! When they eventually made it back, we got some tips and packed our bags for an early morning. We were going to attempt to hike (rather than climb) Half Dome!

half dome

bill: we decided to hike half dome since we had the opportunity; as of memorial day weekend, it switches to a lottery based permit only situation, and we know from experience those permits are very hard to get.

the only caveat with hiking half dome before it "opens" is that you have to hike it "cables down". the final few hundred metres of the hike are extremely steep up a blank slab face, and so the nps has installed cables that in the summer they prop up to make railings and they put in wooden slats across the ground for traction. in the winter, they take the slats and the railing mounts down but leave the cables dangling. this makes for far more of an aid climb than a hike as you need climbing gear and experience to get up the last push.

the rest of the hike is no small feat either, it is just shy of 30km and 1600m of elevation so it is a very big day, the biggest of our trip so far. it ended up taking us about 10 hours of hiking all told. the hike itself is absolutely lovely. you start walking through the "mist trail", which is an understatement, you hike beside two raging waterfalls for a few kilometres and get absolutely soaked from head to toe in mist. afterwards it climbs through some lovely subalpine meadows.

climbing the subdome in the spring proved to be the crux of the day as it is still covered in deep snow and quite steep, we needed poles and microspikes. the cables section was very cool, you essentially tie yourself into the cable with your harness and couple prussik knots and ascend the cable, which is extremely physical and tiring, but very fun.

the summit is incredible and i had no idea there could be so much snow in california. on the way down it is essentially rappelling, and we glissaded (fancy word for butt sliding) our way down the subdome. very big day, but lovely.

Amy: Half Dome is one of Yosemite’s most iconic features, next to El Cap. It’s aptly named: the domed mountain looks as though it’s been sheared in half by a giant cleaver. We woke up early and hiked through a few kilometres of forest before hitting the first waterfall. We had read online to pack rain gear for this segment of the trail - advice I’m grateful we saw! We donned our raincoats and waterproof pants and entered the cloud of mist at the base of Vernal Falls. We were instantly soaked. A combination of mist and giant water droplets rained down in a torrential whirlwind, assaulting us from all angles. We could barely open our eyes, but in a few furtive glances, we could see sun rays peaking through the mist, and some permanent rainbows. Glorious. At the top, we both had massive grins plastered across our faces. What a cool experience!

Eventually, we hit more forest, then snow. We had packed microspikes for our boots to navigate this section safely. Finally, we stood at the base of the dome. It was BIG. We could see a faded path up the very vertical face. Up we go. This was the perfect fusion of our hiking and climbing skills. We tied some knots around the permanent cables, and hauled ourselves up the side of the dome, inch by inch. It was slow going and required some upper body stamina.

Eventually, we made it to the summit, greeted by a 360 degree view of Yosemite Valley. The upper layer was still mottled with melting snow. The area we were camped in was far below in a small pocket of green. We tried to find the summit sign to take a photo, but no luck. We slid down the cables and continued our slide down the snow, which is when we saw the summit sign tucked in a random guys' backpack. What the heck?! I ran ahead and said “hey we were looking for that sign!” He promptly handed it to me, and asked if I would take it back to the summit, clearly remorseful. We took the sign, but weren’t about to trek back up, so we left the sign for other hikers to take back up. After 10 hours, we made it back to the van. Hallelujah!

ranger rock

bill: i have been eyeing a climb here called "after six", a 6-pitch 5.7 190m trad route up ranger rock, which only comes with one problem; the first pitch is extremely, extremely polished and a super awkward corner crack, which has many people calling it "the hardest 5.7 in the valley". right beside after six is an alternative first pitch called "after seven", a 5.8 trad route up a face crack, which is a harder grade but looks way less awful. we decided on the latter since it actually looked easier. boy, were we wrong. the crack is shallow, flaring, insecure, and hard. i took my first fall on trad gear, fortunately my #3 held. the crux of the route is actually 15-20 feet of runout face climbing out of the crack and well above your last piece of gear (a small yellow alien - not very strong), and after falling earlier i got spooked and couldn't commit, so i bailed. on a sport route, you just lower off the bolt and go home, but on a trad route, you have to lower off of your gear which is still in the wall, which means either being out many hundreds of dollars or finding some way to retrieve it. there looked to be a way up to the top of the first pitch by going around the back, so we headed that way, but it turned out that getting there was not simple and required free soloing 5.5 slab, which was so much more dangerous than just committing to crux of the route. a solid reminder that a lot of the time it is actually just safer to commit and go for it than to hesitate. we collected our gear and bailed on climbing the rest of the route. overall, not a good day.

James and I hiked to the top of Ranger Rock instead

sierra national forest

bill: it is now memorial day weekend and by the time we got back to camp 4, the park was overrun. an absurd, disgusting amount of people have moved into the park, it is absolute chaos. in a time honoured tradition of climbers trying to dodge rangers and spend longer than the legal 7 days in the valley, we have just been sleeping in the parking lot for free for the past while, but there is no way that is going to fly this weekend, so we left the park and headed out to the sierra national forest.

this is about as close to calabogie crown land camping as california gets. tall pine trees, endless mosquitos, nonstop atv noise, and free camping. we hung out here until monday and waited for the crowds to head home, i ripped around on my bike on the network of offroad trails they have here.

Amy: The Sierra Nevada national forest was a welcome stop after a few weeks of Yosemite fun. We took the weekend to rest, recharge and catch up on chores, surrounded by beautiful old growth forest. We strung our fairy lights up and had a lovely campfire with Em and Dan.

bill: on the way back in we stopped at tunnel view and did a quick hike and caught this crazy rainbow waterfall which i didn't even know could happen

five open books

bill: we returned to yosemite after weekend to find it back to normal, much more chill. we only had time for one more big climbing day before we had to head out to san francisco, and there was one multipitch i had left on my list: munginella, a 91m 3 pitch 5.6 trad route. em and dan also wanted to climb this one, so we all headed up it as a group. this is exactly why i got into trad climbing, a real cruiser. ample gear placements, beautiful crack climbing, solid, hard enough to not be boring but not so hard that you ever think you are going to fall on your gear. lovely. on my way up the first pitch i got passed by two free soloists in approach shoes, so definitely a cruiser.

at the top, dan wanted to keep climbing but amy and em were done, so they headed down and dan and i kept climbing up from there, up a 4 pitch route called selaginella, 5.8, 171m. this was the hardest friggin 5.8 i have ever done in my life; the first pitch is a long offwidth corner, and so you have to wrestle your way up it, double hand stacking, chicken winging, and jamming your body onto the opposing wall to gain purchase. when you get to the top, it doesn't even feel like you deserve to be there because what you just did was so ugly. i was dripping in sweat and panting by the time i got up. only 3 more pitches to go. the next pitch was a squeeze chimney, just wide enough to fit your body in, but not wide enough to use your legs to walk up the opposing wall, so again, you squirm and struggle, slowly inching your way up the crack. i had to take my backpack off and drag it below me to even fit in the chimney, and it kept getting stuck every time i would make progress. the third pitch has this section right near the top where you have to climb under this overhang, where the full exposure of the whole climb really opens beneath you, right at the crux. this is the highest i have ever climbed off the ground, a grand total of 7 pitches and 260m, from up here the trees look like ants and you can hardly see the people anymore, very cool to know that you have climbed all that way.

after seeing how hard yosemite 5.8 can be, i felt a lot better about bailing on after seven the other day. we walked down back to camp 4 for our last night all as a group since em and dan are heading north and we are heading home for a bit. it has been really nice to have friends on the road and really nice to have a rope gun for all the hard stuff (thanks dan!) and we will definitely miss them! we will also miss yosemite, it is beautiful and we had a blast here, but we also ticked pretty much all of our to-do lists, so we will just have to come back sometime when we are stronger trad climbers and get on some of the harder classics!

Amy: Our time in Yosemite is coming to a close, and we are about to part ways with Em and Dan for the foreseeable future. We made a plan to do a big climb together as a group, which ended up being a blast. After working up an appetite, we searched out some margaritas at the bar across from our campsite and cheers’d to all our fun together these past few months. Feeling good (the margaritas were rather strong) we decided to make our last supper together - a giant pot of curry! We parked side-by-side to make a shared van kitchen, cracked a bottle of sparkling and ate and drank the evening away. We said our goodbyes in the morning, then hit the road for San Fran!


Amy: Before we go back to Ottawa for a few weeks, we squeezed in a visit with one of my old uni friends who lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco - Anais! She kindly took us on a walking tour around Stanford (where she’s doing her PhD), then around downtown Paolo Alto - the tech hub and rich part of the bay. We got some delish ice cream (olive oil and blue cheese flavours anyone?), then met up with her partner Tarik and caught up over a lovely dinner.

here is this week's video:




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