Hawk~ won't trade freedom for safety
When I was in my 20s, I got a job driving schoolbus for disabled children. This eventually led to a job driving full-sized commercial busses (think Greyhound type busses) between Disneyland and LAX. After a year of driving the freeways of southern Cal, I was ready to move on. I did some research, and found a nice community college nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Columbia was the perfect place to return to school. It offered a 2-year program in Forestry Technology, and it was just an hour or so from Yosemite Nat’l Park. I wanted to study forestry because jobs in the field were plentiful in the mountains. And the proximity of the college to the mountains and to Yosemite was important because it offered me the opportunity to pursue my main interest, rockclimbing.
I got really lucky when we moved up from southern California. The college operated a bus between the campus and Pinecrest Lake, a resort in the Sierras, and I was hired as the bus driver. I did a daily run from Pinecrest to the campus in the morning, and back up the hill in the evening. Of course, that meant living in the mountains, and I was ecstatic. During the day I took classes. I also spent many an hour climbing on the 20’ to 60’ boulders on a corner of the campus.
Part of the bus job also involved driving fieldtrips for various classes. One day I drove the photography class to Yosemite Valley on a field trip. The trip was supposed to last all day, to allow the class to take advantage of the changing quality of light from morning to evening. Now, what an opportunity, I thought. So Preston, my climbing partner, and I grabbed our gear, stowed it away in the bus, picked up the class and went to the Park.
We arrived in the Valley about 9:00 and dropped off the class. The instructor, who was Preston’s good friend, instructed me to pick up the class at 5:30. Until then, we were on our own! What to do, what to do? Yosemite is the rock climber’s paradise. There are rocks offering very short routes, and there are rocks offering epic multiday big wall climbs…and everything in between. There are easy climbs, there are hard climbs, there are “do people really go there?” climbs. We decided on a climb well within our capabilities…technically, a fairly easy climb…but one that gets the climber up off the ground a ways. We wanted some adrenalin from the exposure, but without the extreme pucker-factor of something dicey. We chose the Harding Route up the Glacier Point Apron.
Back then, the Harding Route was infrequently done. (I’ve no idea about its popularity today.) It is rated at 5.7 for technical difficulty, and as a Grade III for length and commitment. A Grade III is a full day. Not a sunrise to sunset day (like a Grade IV), but still a full day all the same. The Harding Route takes a line up the right side of the Apron. A lot of it is a series of right-facing open books. It starts almost literally in the parking lot near Curry Village, and tops out at Glacier Point Terrace, 1500 feet above. The Terrace is a broad ledge about halfway up to the top of Glacier Point. There is a rudimentary climber’s trail from the Terrace that runs down to the Valley. Once the route is complete, one either descends by picking a way down the Terrace, or by rappelling the route. This was in February, and there was a lot of snow and ice on the Terrace, making the Terrace trail extremely trecherous, so we were committed to doing the rappel.
We got started about 9:45. We knew it would get dark a little past 5:00. We roped up and did the first pitch (rope’s length). The next couple of hundred feet were easy so we moved together without belays. The picture here (not me or Preston, by the way, just a pic found on the ‘net) was taken on one of the lower pitches. After that point the the exposure became serious. Imagine being on a slab of steep rock, a thousand feet of space below you, two thousand feet of even steeper rock above you, and the bare granite extends for miles to your right and left. It’s like being an ant on a skyscraper. We were having a great time. At about the 1200 foot level, we found a ledge big enough for each of us to get a butt cheek on it, sat for a while to eat lunch and take in the view… Jeez, did we fall asleep? Sure seems to be getting dark a lot earlier than we expected… [insert rumble of thunder here]
High above, dark clouds begin to encroach upon the sky. Their approach had been hidden as they snuck up on us on the other side of the mountain. The cold air that came with them began spilling down the slab from the heights above, and the first drops of rain spattered on the rock.
“Down,” said Preston. “Down,” said I.
We had two ropes of 165’ each, and needed every inch. We set up an anchor, rapped down, set up another anchor, rapped down, repeat. The descent seemed endless. The open book crack system we had followed up, and now descended, served to collect the rain water falling on acres and acres of granite. The rain ran down the expanse from Glacier Point, and across the terrace, and into the cracks that comprise the Harding Route that acts like a trough. Water at first trickled down, then flowed, then became a cascade. We were thoroughly soaked. Our ropes were soaked, too, and when they ran through the carabiner brake systems on our harnesses, it was like putting ‘em through a wringer. We slid down the ropes, spewing a rooster’s tail of water from the ‘biners.
We were cold. We were wet. Really, really wet. And when the first bolt of lightning struck high above, bathing the rock in a klieglight’s glare and sounding like artillery on the eastern front, were scared.
Instant pucker-factor of ten.
We did get down ok. There are a couple of moments that stay with me. I can still see the anchor carabiners shift as Preston begins one of the legs of our vertical relay, the gate opening as a loop of webbing gets sideways under load… and another anchor that was just a knot of webbing stuffed into a shallow crack, like a chockstone… and the feeling of nausea as we pulled the rope through an anchor, way up high, the rope falling at us at speed, soaked with water, heavier than we’re used to, our hands cold, hoping against hope that it doesn’t knock one of us off the dime-sized flakes we’re standing on.
Down in the parking lot, there is the class huddled under a tree next to the bus. “Where have you been?” They are outraged to have been caught in the rain. I looked at my watch. 4:30. They’re an hour early. Dammit, they’re cutting into my overtime.