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Yosemite Tales 2: Colossal Cathedrals and Miniature Meccas

Camp 4 sat motionless in the dark morning cold as Kris opened the creaky cooler. I sat up, straightened my hat and reached into the depths of my sleeping bag to find my socks. We stirred the warm coals in our neighbors’ fire pit and had a silent breakfast.

Kris leading pitch 5 of the East Butress of Middle Cathedral

The 1100-foot East Buttress of Middle Cathedral is one of the Valley classics and we knew that an early start and a little luck would be necessary for a quick weekend ascent without getting stuck behind slower and larger parties. Head down, I lumbered behind Kris up the boulder field gully approach. As we neared the base of the route we could hear voices, “Yellow rope on belay!” We had the early start, but not the luck.

There was a group of three already on the rock. We would have to either ask to move through or take the “crowded variation” and engineer a pass on the fly. As we turned off to scramble to the pitch 1 base, Kris remarked that there was a patch of snow just up the gully. I didn’t see the snow or hear Kris’s observation as it was 6:30 in the morning and I was sore and crankypants.

Kris on Pitch 6 of the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral

We warmed up as we got going. My hands, downright arthritic and swollen from the previous two days, began to thaw by the end of the second pitch. The sun started to chase grey from the valley and a couple deep breaths reminded my lungs that I was no longer sleeping.

The East Buttress has an incredible amount of continuous 5.7 and 5.8 climbing with a delicate 5.10 crux. It is a great route for an aspiring 5.8 leader, as the 5.10 section can easily be aided and good pro can be had anywhere. For us, it provided a fun opportunity to decompress a bit after two days of harder climbing. The varied route consisted of many cracks, dihedrals and faces. We sped up to pass the group of three after the 4th pitch on the 5.10a crowded variation and kept up the pace to the top. We finished the route in a short 4.5 hours and took in an amazing view of El Cap.

El Cap viewed from the top of Middle Cathedral

The above picture is not cropped nor zoomed. My camera could just barely frame the granite monster from a peak a mile away. The adventure that followed is a story in its own right. Check back soon for that story.

A Blue Jay takes a break from rummaging to watch Kris boulder

Along with massive granite faces and towering pillars, Yosemite hosts some incredible bouldering, much of which is imminently accessible right behind Camp 4. After three days of plodding skyward, we decided to stay a little closer to Earth and beer for our last day of the trip and enjoy some of the classic problems.

Kris demonstrating how to float on an incredibly difficult V4 slab

Kris knows the area well and has sent many of the testpieces. He was kind enough to return to a few of his favorites and let me flail to my heart’s content. Kris (re)sent the above V4 slab. I was close, but called it quits after my nerves were sufficiently shot. The problem was fantastic practice for balance-intensive, desperate footwork. I would love to have that boulder in my back yard to hone my slab technique.

Kris on Battle of the Bulge (V6)

We moved on to a more powerful line on better holds, Battle of the Bulge. Again, I made progress on the problem, but had to pull the plug upon diminishing returns. Bouldering is largely about projects and checking out so many cool problems in an afternoon, even ones we didn’t lay hands on, was like visiting a Chuck E. Cheese’s. Though the fun never stops, at some point you have to leave. (Does anybody remember Showbiz Pizza?)

Water flying by from Yosemite Falls

We grabbed lunch and hiked to the base of Yosemite falls. Kris said that of all the times he’s visited the Valley, the waterfalls are the strongest he’s seen. The three-tiered Yosemite falls is the tallest waterfall in the United States.

Yosemite Falls and a stream of people

Hiking to Yosemite falls illustrated both the iconic and ironic nature of Yosemite. If you lost sight of the waterfall, you might mistake the journey for a stroll through downtown Denver. The path has been paved and made wheelchair accessible for miles. Candy bar wrappers and Pepsi bottles litter the walkway. Large, fully accommodated bathroom facilities border the trail. Scores of people walk to the base of one of the singular most breathtaking natural monuments in America without entering nature.

The path to Yosemite Falls is only a metaphor for The Valley. Restaurants, shops, bars and even a hotel with valet parking sit on The Valley floor. Parking lots are consistently filled to the brim. Traffic jams are common. We ate at the restaurants, sat in the traffic jams and drank at the bars.

But back at camp 4, a little known boulder problem known as Midnight Lightning sat undisturbed – a reminder that even in its growing popularity, climbing is still a rustic adventure that hasn’t been encroached by too many commodity comforts. The escape was just a stroll away.

Getting started on the legendary Midnight Lightning (V8)

After three days that included more than 2,500 feet of climbing, my fingerprints no longer existed and my body was sore. I couldn’t keep my hands dry and every move required a massive amount of effort. But even in that fried state, I had a blast working through the opening sequence of the notorious problem. Maybe the next time I find myself interacting with the imposing granite walls of Yosemite, I’ll start fresh with the miniature meccas.

E.F.R. - Great post, Adam. Having grown up in California and visiting state parks, there’s a lot of unreal within the real – asphalt pathways prevent (the logic goes) the overall erosion of sites and areas such as Yosemite and the Redwood forest parks due to the numbers of visitors each year. I’ve always felt, even as a kid, that the parks were more like museums than opportunities to interact with nature. There’s a subtle rhetorical message, too, in these areas: Stay on the path, don’t adventure, you don’t belong outside the construction provided. I think this is one of the reasons Colorado, Wyoming, and even Alaska really appeal to me. There seems to be an opportunity to relate with nature that’s outside strip mall mentality.May 31, 2011 – 11:09 am

kris - Great summary, Adam. During my initial skim of the post I was surprised to see no photos of the Middle Cathedral “adventure”. Then I saw you were saving that for another post. Ha!

In general, I would agree that the more accessible natural wonders of California have been exploited – it’s bound to happen with the sheer amount of people claiming it their home (and visitors!). However, this sizable state does behold a vast amount of less-trodden beauty to those willing to put in the effort. The “tourists” don’t venture too far off the path leaving secluded beaches and peaceful stretches in the Sierras still to be found. Though I wonder… how long before the paths are created?May 31, 2011 – 6:25 pm

Sara Konecky - Yes, I remember, Adam! Where a kid can be a kid. :)May 31, 2011 – 8:14 pm

joe - Sweet post, i was out there a few weeks ago doing some routes. Im excited for the next ‘adventure’ post. Seems like those tend to happen more often in yosemite. Kris, i just heard they are closing Castle Rock State Park. Its either funding, or too many boulderers saw ghosts while climbing.May 31, 2011 – 11:58 pm

kris - Joe, I forgot you are back in the Bay. We need to get together! I heard about Castle Rock and a rumor that you *may* still be able to visit (?)… there’s just no room in the budget for ghostbusters anymore.June 1, 2011 – 3:10 am

Adam - Thanks, everyone. Sara – I’m glad you remember Showbiz Pizza! That animal rock band always freaked me out. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel.

I’ve always felt that places like Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and even Arches National Park face huge conundrums in dealing with the numbers of people who could “love the park to death.” On one hand, erosion, litter and waste will harm the area and therefore paved roads and trails, trash receptacles and bathrooms are installed. This makes the park more accessible and less “natural.” The result is that more people visit. It can be a cycle always justified.

At some point I believe that one of the principle goals of a national or state park – to educate and inspire people about nature – gets lost. I can go to Lake Tahoe, where the motto, “Keep Tahoe Blue” rings from every restaurant wall and t-shirt sold at the gift shops, and lose any sense of my impact on the area. At that point I go home without having a better understanding of how my actions affect nature. When Tyler worked there as a beach guard, he regularly witnessed people littering right next to a trash can. In one instance, he even discovered a diaper buried in the beach sand – literally 20 feet from a trash can. It’s one thing to go to the movies and leave your popcorn bucket for the janitor. It’s another to sit by one of the most incredible lakes in the world and leave your Coke bottle on the beach.

At some point, when we fail to interact with nature – when nature is simply on display – we don’t discern between the beach and the movie theater.

I don’t have a perfect solution to any of these issues, but I can recall one very small example of something I considered to be very effective at giving people an idea of how we can be good stewards. As raft guides in Moab along the Colorado river, we always served the clients lunch. Most people were on vacation from out of state and definitely were not accustomed to being on a wild river. Before we ate, we always gathered everyone around and gave a little speech about not getting crumbs on the beach. Crumbs would attract ants and then future users of the beach would have to deal with millions of expectant ants ready for their next meal. In four months of working on the river, I never had a problem with a tourist (including the kids), getting crumbs on the beach. I got the feeling that it wasn’t because they were scared of me, it was because, at least for those moments, they felt a genuine responsibility to preserve nature.

The important thing in my view was that in total, after a raft trip, most people walked away amazed by nature, not only because they saw it, but because they experienced it.

Well, I told myself I wouldn’t opine too much. Maybe I’m too cynical. After all, Sarah Palin would just shrug her shoulders and go shoot a moose out of a helicopter.June 1, 2011 – 10:35 am

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