Learning Kung Fu (Yosemite)

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My eyes whipped back to the front desk. Charles, the manager, saw it too. Unlike me, however, he wasn’t shocked.

“If anyone’s interested, there’s a fifty-year-old bald man free soloing the crack machine,” bellowed Charles with disdain. 

As sure as the March days grew longer, Elliott Robinson had sauntered through the front door of Sanctuary Rock Gym in full business attire. From the sheen of his black leather shoes, to the suit and tie, he would have passed for someone’s dad- here to pick up some offspring- were it not for the rock shoes in one hand, and the chalk bag in the other. I did take note, however, that several people were very enthusiastic to greet him. I eyed him carefully from across the gym, as he sat down to swap his fancy shoes for rock ones. The suit and tie stayed. Hanging the chalk bag around his waist, he walked right up to the horrifying, flexing, wooden crack simulator, and started climbing without roping up. Who the hell was this guy?

Following Charles’s remark, I saw an opportunity. I crept in below the stranger, trying to measure the man, his movements, and this strange thing called Crack Climbing. Finally, he came down, and I pounced. 

“Will you teach me how to do that?”

Several weeks later, I found myself sitting in the living room of my home of Monterey, California. A text from Monterey Bay Whale Watch declared that I was off for the next two days. Racking my brain, I struggled to think of who might be available to climb at Pinnacles National Park on such short notice. Suddenly, I remembered Elliott; he gave me his number, and claimed that he would introduce me to the magical side of Yosemite. Despite my history there, I had only recently fallen into the all-consuming world of climbing, and that extended as far as the boundaries of Pinnacles. A shot in the dark, with short notice. The text message flew into space, and I threw the phone on the coffee table while I poured over the Pinnacles guidebook.

Sometime later, my phone buzzed. Astonishingly, it was Elliott. He was game, but there was one problem. He was already in Yosemite, and was halfway up the Mist Trail on his way to the southwest shoulder of Half Dome. 

 “I can’t believe I have service here! I was thinking of third-classing Snake Dike in the morning. But a partner actually sounds pretty nice. Tell you what, if you can make it to the base of Snake Dike tomorrow morning with a rope and six quickdraws, we can make it happen.”

You are likely as confused as I was. “Third-classing,” as I would later find, is climber slang for free soloing: climbing something alone, and unroped. Snake Dike is a route, famous around the globe, that ascends the southwest shoulder of Half Dome for a thousand feet, until the angle of the dome eases, and one can (carefully) hike up for another thousand feet to the summit. Getting to Snake Dike would require a four-hour drive followed by a grueling five hour hike up the Mist Trail into the wilderness below Half Dome- whose summit I had never trod- with all the gear necessary for the mission. Alone.

Glance outside: the sun is going down. I scoured the internet for any information I could find, gathered the gear, and pleaded to my girlfriend. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I promised to do the dishes tomorrow night, when I returned. I had no clue about what I was getting myself into.

As an orange sun kissed the waters of the bay, I fired a message to Elliott: Leaving Monterey. I admired the scenery as I drove up coastal HWY 1, and Elliott responded almost immediately. The text boasted an image: the same sunset that I saw over the ocean was currently setting Half Dome on fire. The message said only one word: Motivation.

Nearly four hours later, I pulled into El Portal, driving down memory lane until stopping by the old soccer field on which I used to play. Our team was called The Purple Hurricanes. Crawling into the camper shell, I stuffed a pop tart down my throat and chugged a bottle of water. Maybe I slept. Maybe I didn’t. Suddenly, it was 3:00am. I knew the approach was long and strenuous, and confusing. I was alone. Better get moving. Minutes later, I pulled into the Happy Isles parking lot, where the Mist Trail began. I double checked, repacked my gear, and started up.

“Hiking up the Mist Trail,” the message sent. It was 3:50am. 

So quiet, and dark, at least in the trees. When the canopy broke, an immense moonscape revealed itself to me. I could appreciate the enormity of Illilouette Canyon, Panorama Cliff, and Glacier Point. Though I grew up in this park, I hadn’t done the Mist Trail in 9 years. Essentially, this was all new to me.

Back under the trees, the head torch clicked. Nothing can describe the nagging feeling that you’re being watched; that any second, you might turn your head to catch a set of big, yellow eyes gleaming in the darkness. Big cats or bears, I wouldn’t care for either.

Still, the first big guardian was around the corner. Vernal Falls, at 317 feet tall, was ejecting more runoff than it had in nearly ten years. Raging, white, and proud: Vernal roared. As millions of gallons of water gushed over the lip, mist filled the narrow canyon into which it flowed, the same canyon I was coming up. Hence, the Mist Trail. I approached the shroud with reverence and horror, all alone in the pre-morning dark. A head lamp was useless; tiny water droplets filled the air like monsoon blasts, and back-scatter covered all. The moonlight would have to do. Within minutes, my socks were sopping, as well my pants and hat. My gortex jacket held the moisture at bay, but things felt spicy. Just keep moving, I told myself, and don’t fall; below my narrow trail, class 5 rapids glowed and rumbled like a portal into hell. Step by step, I hiked as fast as I could without rushing. Not a good time to slip.

Four hours later, after 4000 feet of elevation gain, another waterfall, a sunrise, getting lost once, and miles of backcountry travel, I saw him. Perched on a precipice hundreds of feet above me, he stared down with a grin. Was this a movie? Here was this strange man who, on his way to free solo a thousand-foot cliff on the most sacred of mountains in North America, accepted an utterly-spontaneous plea. Sure, he said, come find me. I had come to learn kung fu.

 “I’m amazed!” His voice rang down, “I can’t believe you came!”

“It’s so beautiful,” was all I could think to say.

After scrambling up to his perch, he offered me a cigarette. I hadn’t smoked in a few weeks, but this occasion warranted it. 

“Anyone coming up?” He asked.

“Not a soul. Anyone on the route?”

“Nope. Let’s go check out the Diving Board.”

We skirted around the southside of Half Dome, and within minutes, came to one of the most fantastic drop-offs in North America. Perfectly situated, and half way up the right side of the famous Northwest Face, one already feels cast adrift on the monster. Below, the cliff was significantly overhung, providing a perfect drop 4000 feet to the valley floor; the Diving Board.

I stared across the void to North Dome, the Royal Arches, and to a cliff I was destined to love and hate: the Yosemite Point Buttress. I was seeing these walls like I had never seen them in my life. My vision of Yosemite, the land where I was raised, was warping. Things would never be the same.

“So how do we want to do this?” I looked up the massive dome.

“I can lead, no problem.”

“Let’s swing leads.”

Ideally, a pair of climbers will alternate leading pitches, rope lengths, to the safety of belay stations. With only 200 feet of rope, getting up the next 2000 feet would require at least eight leads. By now, I had led a handful of pitches at Pinnacles National Park, but none were in this league. I wanted to make this man proud; I needed to.

We piled the rope neatly, donned our harnesses, and I racked up. Elliott had said six quickdraws would be enough, but a quick scan for information revealed that most parties also bring a set of cams to protect a few sections where cracks split the dome. As I didn’t own any cams, I brought a small set of devices that I had recently purchased from a man named Tim for thirty bucks. Tric-cams, as they are called, are a much simpler version of a true cam; instead of a trusty spring-loaded axle, a tri-cam wedges itself into the crack with basic mechanical leverage. Hardly anyone uses them, and until now, I had never used one.

I stared up the dome. Above me, a left-facing corner shot up to an overhanging roof where I would have to climb out left, pass a bulge, and climb a crack up-and-right to a belay stance 190 feet above. Thank god I brought the tri-cams. Elliott smiled with a nod to confirm I was ready to climb, and up I went.

Right away, I was struck by geology; Pinnacles National Park is dominated by Volcanic Breccia, a mix of cobbles suspended in rhyolitic ash. There, a climber must tap each hold with his knuckles to judge the integrity of the rock before committing his weight to it. Here, granite reigned supreme. Cracks split the face, and I found myself inserting my fingers into small fissures while trusting my feet to small, rippled edges. I was now a Yosemite Climber.

However, I was yet to learn the fine art of an entirely different type of climbing. Sixty feet up, I reached the roof. The rope hung freely down the slab to Elliott; I had yet to place any protection. Studying the crack that ran along the base of the roof, I selected a pink tri-cam (of course) from my harness; I slotted it into the crack in accordance with the literature, and gave it a firm tug. Up came the rope, clipping into the carabiner of the tri-cam, and out I went. Soon, I found myself trying to traverse left on the face of an utterly blank wall. No edges. No cracks. Friction Climbing. To advance, I had to trust my feet completely on the mind-bogglingly steep surface, and hope they didn’t slip as I “walked” over to the next crack. A voice echoed in my head: the voice of Mila Rich, who I had paid 300 dollars to take me climbing at Pinnacles, and teach me everything she knew.

“Trust the rubber.”

Before long, I was 190 feet up, and safely clipped into an anchor.

“Off belay,” I shouted down.

Elliott wasted little time in waltzing up the crack, across the roof, and up to me. He grabbed some gear, and simply kept climbing. Out right, he zigged up the slab, and zagged a little left. 150 feet higher, he shouted down.

“Off belay.”

Already, I felt as though Earth was an otherworldly concept. Thousands of feet high, or hundreds, nothing mattered anymore. All around us, the High Sierra peaks gleamed in blankets of white. Immense snowscapes flowed between them, and a freezing wind reminded us that we didn’t have all day. Trust the rubber, and go.

My turn. Upon reaching Elliott, I retrieved the gear, and glanced at my phone. The “Supertopo” website mercifully offered a free map of the route, and I had downloaded it wisely. Referencing the features against the topo, I started out left. Again I found myself traipsing across a friction slab, until reaching a subtle ridge of rozy quartz that shot up the dome for hundreds of feet like the vertebrae of a great serpent: The Snake Dike.

Up the dike, I called off belay, and Elliott came roaring by. No tri-cams needed; the spine of quartz would be our only friend for the next four pitches. One rope-length higher, Elliott danced up pink crystals until finally calling down. Off belay. My turn.

Snake Dike is famous for three things: the approach, the beauty, and the run-outs. Normally, a climber will clip into cams or pre-drilled bolts to catch a potential fall. For every inch that you climb above the gear, you will also fall that same distance below the device until the rope catches. Large, vertical gaps between protection points are called run-outs. On Snake Dike, there are several places where the only protection is separated by 50 to 75 feet. Do the math.

As I crept higher up the dike on my lead, I looked down. Poor choice. The rope sagged below me for 50 until running through a protection bolt, and down to Elliot now 120 feet below. Further down, great pine trees had turned to grass, and the Yosemite Valley threatened to swallow me whole. Frigid bursts of wind had no trouble invading my many warm layers, and knocked me off balance. Only slightly.

“Elliott!” I begged.


“I don’t see the next bolt!”

“Should be there, just keep going!” I could barely hear him under the wind.

Gravity spun. Ground control cried Major Tom, and I did my best to ignore the breeze while each foot gingerly lifted my would-be corpse, inch by inch. A flash of light appeared, could it be? Yes, only fifteen feet higher, my metallic salvation beckoned me to climb. Just a little more. Please, God. 

Clip. I was safe. Eventually, my lead ended and Elliott caught up.

“Sorry that took so long,” said I, sheepishly.

“You did fine,” Elliott smiled. His smile was so warm, you’d never guess it was- at best- 40 degrees up here, without windchill.

The next few pitches swung by all too fast, and mostly uneventfully; after a few more runouts, some off-route navigation, and an anchorless belay, we found ourselves untying from the rope. Between us and the summit, the ocean of granite soared for another thousand feet. Though steep, the terrain was so easy that a rope was no longer necessary- though a fall would be catastrophic. In climbing terms, this is “Third Class.”

The summit held snow like beds of pearls. The last thousand feet had warmed up to us. Happy to be wearing normal shoes again, our feet crunched over the dome to the apex of The Northwest Face. There, we saw our first humans of the day. Despite the cables still being “down” for the winter, an adventurous few will sometimes scale the hikers route, pulling hand-over-hand on the cables that remain. Those cables were our only safe way down, but we were in no hurry. Panoramic views were obvious: mountains all around; a geat, gaping maw carved out below. 

My phone, removed for pictures, revealed that I had service. It was Mother’s Day, and my version of a surprise was wearing my Hawaiian shirt, the one she made for me, to the summit of Half Dome. Two thousand six hundred and fourteen miles away, a woman in Waimea, Kauai received my phone call.

“Hi mom!”

We laughed for a bit, and I told her where I was; what I had done; and what I was wearing. She laughed some more, and told me that my own father had never hiked up the cables to Half Dome either; he had only ever been up by helicopter.

Just like dad…

Eventually, it was time to go. Nine miles and five thousand feet of elevation separated us from our vessels. Two bears, two waterfalls, a sunset, four rest breaks, and seven cigarettes later, I shook Elliott’s hand. He said he looked forward to our next adventure, and I collapsed into my truck. I sluggishly buckled my seatbelt, and checked the time. It was 10:00pm.

“Shit. I still have to do those dishes.”

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