Sunday, November 16, 2014

Steck Salathe on Sentinel Rock : Solo

Photo by Dirk Summers link:
Sentinel Rock in the Morning. Photo by Dirk Summers
The Sentinel is a beautiful and powerful piece of granite guarding the southern flank of Yosemite Valley. It is 3000 feet from the valley floor to its summit. It is - The Sentinel.

The Steck-Salathe on Sentinel Rock is a classic rock climb in every sense. In fact, it is one of the "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America". Originally a Grade V route, meaning more than a day to do, now it is considered Grade III or just a day of climbing. It has for decades been rated 5.9, but these days its rating has become more like 5.10 minus. It has always been known for being long, arduous, sustained, a route with a wealth of stories of adventure and history. It is famous for its chimneys, its squeeze chimneys, and its off widths. 

Here is a brief of the Steck-Salathe's history. Four attempts are made on the route from 1947 through 1950. And then, from June 30 to July 4, 1950, Allen Steck and John Salathé do the first ascent. Theirs is an epic five day story of adventure, determination, and intense deprivation. In 1953 Royal Robbins makes the second ascent, he also does the third ascent and establishes The Narrows as the primary passage. Henry Barber free soloes the route in 1973. Peter Croft free soloes the route in 1992 as a cool down after he and Hans Florine break the speed record of the 'Nose in a Day" on El Capitan. Derek Hersey dies on this route on May 28, 1993 while free soloing it and no one knows the exact circumstances. His body is found at the base of the route several days after he has gone missing. On July 2-3, 1994 Allen Steck makes his 44th anniversary ascent of the route at the age of 68 along with Brutus of Wyde and Inez. In 1996 Brutus returns to re-bolt the route.

What follows is my story on the Steck-Salathe.

In the summer in 1977 I attempt the route with a friend from school where we had obviously spent too much time reading and dreaming of big wall climbing. We plan on spending 2 days on the route. We have a large haul bag. We fail miserably and retreat from the Wilson Overhang. Ours is a long day of just going up 3 pitches and a bit and then retreating back to the valley floor.

Ten years later I return to the climb by myself. It is now the end of the Summer of 1987. I have climbed most weekends for the past 4 years. I have climbed most days of this past summer; climbing with Paul Van Betten as we guided for Jay Smith's High and Wild Mountain Guides, climbing with Paul as we pushed ourselves to better and better climbing, climbing as I guided in the Needles of South Dakota, guided various routes up Devil's Tower and guided routes in Yosemite, routes such as The Regular NW Face of Half Dome, and climbing as I soloed routes like Dream of Wild Turkeys and Epinephrine in the Red Rocks of Nevada, the Devil's Tower in Wyoming, and hand-over-handed the lower girder of the trestle bridge over the North Fork of the Platte River at Fremont Canyon.

I had been resting now for a couple of days and inevitably my eye was drawn to The Sentinel. It is a beautiful rock, alluring in its majesty.

Note: Dirk's photo above captures this allure perfectly. I browsed the internet until I found a photo which would express The Sentinel's strength of attraction. Dirk is a climber and was very gracious in letting me use his photo. You can see more of his work here.

My intent was to solo the thing. Climbers would elaborate by saying free soloing, which means to solo without a rope, because you can also solo with rope and gear. Many climbers also use the term "3rd Class", in other words, to 3rd class a route is to climb it as if it doesn't need a rope. But why and how did I arrive at that decision to free solo the Steck-Salathe? It was 5.9 or so, and I fully understood the "or so" part. It had a reputation of being a tough 5.9 and I understood that. Like most Yosemite climbs, The Steck-Salathe follows a crack system, a system of predominantly wide cracks of chimneys, squeeze chimneys, flaring chimneys, and off widths. It was known for its nightmarish squeeze chimneys and maybe had a few, or perhaps more than a few, awkward off widths and flares. Off widths, squeeze chimneys, and flares (lions and tigers and bears! oh my!) can feel insecure and therefore a route comprised of them can end up with a reputation of being harrowing. But I liked squeeze chimneys and off widths and even flares, I felt secure in them.

If you are not a climber, here are some quick explanations of crack climbing. You ascend cracks by jamming body parts into them. Cracks wide enough only for fingers are finger cracks. Cracks wide enough for hand and foot jambs are called hand cracks and are generally considered the most secure. A crack too wide for secure hand and foot jambs but not wide enough to fit your body into are off width cracks; and are not generally considered secure things to ascend; one uses various techniques like arm bars, inverted arm bars, heel-toe jams, chicken-wings, foot-stacks, and various other esoteric techniques, basically you wiggle and wedge and grunt your way up. A crack too wide for heel-toe jams and other off width wedge techniques but only wide enough to barely squeeze your body into are squeeze chimneys; the technique is to wiggle and squirm ones way up them, this generally does not provide one with a secure feeling either. Flares are wide enough to get into but not wide enough to get into very far, they are not parallel sided, generally these are nasty undertakings, strenuous and insecure. Finally a chimney is a crack wide enough to fit your body into comfortably. Chimneys are nice, they feel secure. So, the Steck Salathe as a climb includes all of the above with a little bit of glaciated, i.e. polished, face climbing thrown in. Dingus Milktoast a seasoned Yosemite climber and his advice on preparing for the Steck Salathe: "To practice for the Steck-Salathé, crawl across asphalt parking lots in the summer, on your knees and elbows."    

But back to why solo the thing. Soloing is a test, yes obviously you are testing yourself; your skills, your nerve, your verve. But that is not why you climb without a rope. You are not climbing for an audience, there is none. There are no fans, there are no critics present. You are simply by yourself, climbing. You are physically working; you are working as you approach the climb, you are working up the climb, you are working to descend the climb. You are concentrating; you are concentrating on every move you make. On long climbs, you are concentrating on thousands of moves hour after hour. You are focused; you focus on every foot placement, on every hand placement. You are feeling; you feel every grain, every crystal of rock, you feel every heartbeat, you feel every bobble of perspiration, you feel your wet hands, you feel your dry hands, you feel every contact with the rock, you feel fear, you feel elation. You are an artist every move you make, reveling in every move you make. You are sharing; you are sharing your climb with the entire uncaring universe and you find that the universe does care. All this - is euphoric. That is why you solo.        

Having decided to solo the route, I prepared by studying the guide book and copying the topo, a graphical representation of the route. Below is a rendition of the topo and notes (the notes in black) that I copied from the guide book. The notations in red I added while writing this article. Solid lines indicate cracks, double lines indicate chimneys and the like, solid lines with hash marks indicate corners, while dotted lines indicate face climbing.

A rendition of my topo and notes (in black) that I took when I climbed the Steck-Salathe back in '87.
A rendition of my topo and notes (in black) that I took when I climbed the Steck-Salathe back in '87.

Sleeping in my truck as usual, I went to bed early and slept well all night. I always get up early, I have my whole life. That morning, like any other morning of my climbing summer; up and brewed some coffee, stretched and sipped some coffee, ate some raw oatmeal with powdered milk, raisins and apple slices. I drank a lot of water and ate more raisins. I took no water or food with me. I needed to be light and unencumbered. Besides, I always climbed better slightly hungry, hungry and wanting those moves. As a predator might hunt; hungry and attentive. I looked at the time as I left my truck. It was 6:30 AM.

The Sentinel: Approach, Climb, Descent
My approach, climb, and descent of The Sentinel, Summer 1987 

The image above shows my approach hike, the climb, and my descent back to the truck. It was about 1.5 miles to the base of the climb. The total gain in elevation to the summit was 3000 feet or a 6000 foot change in elevation day from valley floor to summit and back.

The following two images also show Sentinel Rock, the Steck Salathe route and my approach and descent.

Sentinel Rock viewed from the northwest showing the approach, the climb, and the descent.
Sentinel Rock viewed from the northwest showing the approach, the climb, and the descent.

Sentinel Rock viewed from the north showing the approach, the climb, and the descent.
Sentinel Rock viewed from the north showing the approach, the climb, and the descent.

That morning I wore my white Gramicci climbing pants, a white t-shirt untucked, my chalk bag around my waist with 9/16 tubular webbing, on my feet were my Boreal "Ninjas", climbing slippers half soled with FiveTen rubber, and on my hands I wore a fresh pair of hand tape 'gloves'. Dressing and taping, I felt like I was back in school, preparing for a boxing match. When doing so, I would listen to the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man".

Walking to the base of the climb, I felt like I was walking to a boxing match back in school; across the long quadrangles of granite, past the monolithic granite buildings of West Point to the six story high granite gym. I felt light, swift, and strong. I had no qualms, I felt strong, I felt confident, my movements were unencumbered, there were no doubts, there was no trepidation. I think I moved up to the base of the climb pretty fast. I found the start of the route with no problems. After all, I'd done this approach and I'd been to this spot before 10 years earlier.

Note: The photos below which I'll use to show the route are supplied courtesy of Steph Abegg. Steph is a prolific climber, mountaineer, and adventurer. Visiting her website is an adventure in readings, photos, and inspirations. In her words, "This website is an outpouring of my need to share my experiences and document the world around me".

The First Pitch - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
The First Pitch - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 

The first pitch is a beautiful crack. I started climbing without even looking back. The topo showed a difficulty of 5.7, it felt harder. My confidence was waning. It was an off width, squeeze chimney kind of thing and I was having trouble. I would face one way, try it, come down. I would go back up facing the other way and come back down, and again, and again, and I remember thinking, "I should not be here today". My confidence had waned.

Now, climbers often use the mental technique of visualization, where one would visualize one's moves and then execute. This rarely worked for me. If I visualized a move too much, I would be too scared to try it at all.

Instead, I found not visualizing anything at all would often work best for me. I call this technique the 'gift of blankness'. Sometimes I would finish a move and not even remember having done it. In other words, if you're having trouble with a move, skip that one and go to the next. Right?

Somehow I was past this difficult section and climbing again, all pistons firing.

Pitch 4, The Wilson Overhand - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
The Wilson Overhand - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 
Now I was back underneath the Wilson Overhang, an old nemesis. I knew I would be back here today at some point, and here I was, and now continuing upward, move after move, closer and closer, climbing confidently, but feeling slightly ill, slightly queasy, slightly sick, but not hesitating for a moment, just like in a fight. I remember plugging the hand jams, making the off width moves, reaching the overhang, jamming it strongly, hands inside the crack like battleships, strong and indomitable, my legs were fluid, my eyes searching for the right foot placements as I stemmed left and right, solid placements, never to slip. I pulled the overhang without a second thought and continued climbing upward, feeling warm and beautiful inside.

I climbed for hundreds of more feet to the top of the Flying Buttress. but I have no recollection of any move. I only remember feeling the pure joy of uninterrupted climbing; smooth, fluid, strong with the most gorgeous imaginable views of the earth and the universe all around me.

Continued Climbing up the Flying Buttress - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
Continued Climbing up the Flying Buttress - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 

As I stepped onto the summit of the uttress, I saw there was a party on the wall above me. I did not recognize them at first. But it turns out that this was a party of three guys from Yugoslavia who I had met earlier in the summer and who I had kept running into all summer long at one climbing location after another all over the West.

As I continued to explore this perch, this very cool place to be on this planet earth, I discovered something else. The top of the buttress does not connect to the main wall at the point I needed to be in order to continue climbing the Steck-Salathe. There is a notch of about forty feet deep or so and about 30 feet wide between top of the buttress and the main wall. There were rappel anchors. In other words, climbers use their rope to rappel into the notch so as to gain the main wall where the Steck-Salathe continues upwards. I had no rope. I remember saying to myself or maybe I said it out loud, "Well, this is going to be more of an adventure than I thought". Somehow the fact that there was a rappel here had escaped my preparations from the day before.

The Rappel behind the Flying Buttress - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
The Rappel behind the Flying Buttress - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.  
Looking at the photo on the right of the climber rappelling, I remember standing on that block. I remember getting down on my hands and knees on that block, I remember peering below, studying the rock, determining the best way, or if there was a way, to down climb the thing.

I looked right, I looked left. I made guesses, I made judgments, and finally I chose the right side. It was a hand jam, slightly overhanging, but a hand jam! I plugged into that hand jam like there was no tomorrow, as there very well might not be. "Whew that's over", I thought as I stepped up to the main wall, peered up, up across what seemed like acres of vertical, polished granite. There was some face climbing up ahead, very exposed, very shiny face climbing.

But, I like the open feeling of smooth face climbing. I like the precision required. All climbing is about technique and finesse. The better your technique, the better your finesse, the easier the climb will be. Yet, in a crack you can sometimes override poor technique with strength, not a wise policy, yet it happens.

On a face however, there is little room to fake technique. You are either doing it right or you are not. You do not want to make a mistake on any climb, yet mistakes happen and if you have a rope you sometimes can get away with mistakes. Without a rope, there is obviously no room for mistakes whatsoever. So, that is why I liked being on this face; I was climbing well, I was climbing without the merest shake or quake, I was climbing with confidence, I was climbing with precision. What's not to like? But eventually nerves may fray and when that section came to a close, I was happy to be back in a chimney, aerial though it might be.

Aerial Chinmeys approaching The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
Aerial Chinmeys approaching The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 
At the top of that face climb I caught up with and passed the party from Yugoslavia, three guys, all friendly, two did not speak English very well. One guy did speak English quite well and we had sort of become friends. His name was Dragoon; always cheerful, always smiling. I'd been running into these guys all over the place; in the Needles of South Dakota, on Devil's Tower, high up in Tuolumne Meadows, and now here at the top of the 10th pitch of the Steck-Salathe high up on the face of the Sentinel. What a small world! Anyway, we exchanged pleasantries and handshakes all around, and I continued climbing up away from that exposed face and up into the security of the last chimneys.

A very sad side note: They had slept in the notch and this was their second day on the wall. This climb for them was preparation for Half Dome, which they would do next week and which Paul and I had done last week. After Half Dome, they would attempt El Capitan. Also in two weeks time Paul and I would be on The Captain, climbing Salathe Wall. Early on the morning of our approach to El Capitan, just at the base of the climb, The Nose, we noticed in the light of our headlamps something horrible must have happened for there was blood everywhere, pools of it. That blood was Dragoon's. The day before, his party had fixed ropes several pitches up The Nose, in descending those ropes, passing a knot, Dragoon had fallen to his death. Paul and I had not heard. We would not hear the story until after we returned from our ascent of Salathe Wall when we heard that Dragoon's last words were, "I am falling now". I will always remember his beaming smile.

Approaching The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
Approaching The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 
So, now I am above that exposed face, back in the security of chimneys, and approaching what might be the most famous of all squeeze chimneys, The Narrows. I don't remember much of the climbing here, except I do remember clearly there was some anticipation of entering and climbing successfully The Narrows.

I don't even remember those moves of entering The Narrows. But, I do remember a little bit of The Narrows themselves. What I do remember is slipping.

Entering The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
Entering The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 

Well, squeeze chimneys are all about wiggling and squirming. And, sometimes you fight for 6 inches up only to loose an inch here or there. But, you don't want to loose 12 inches all at once. Grunting and groaning, and squirming and wiggling, with pure air below my feet, squeezed in tight with hardly any ability to turn my head left or right, and all by myself - suddenly I slipped about 12 inches. 

Entering The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
Entering The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 

WOW! Deep breathes, returned composure, and a new attitude to tighten up and climb with technique and precision. Nobody is watching but it's time to show the universe that I know how to climb this crack with precision - and I did.  

Looking down The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
Looking down The Narrows - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 

Steph Abegg's photo below shows the view of the valley near the summit. This was one of my many views from the summit.

The View Near the Summit - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg.
The View Near the Summit - Photo courtesy of Steph Abegg. 

On the summit, I was euphoric. So much so, I couldn't focus on anything because I was seeing everything. I must have looked around and enjoyed the view, but if I did it was only momentary. I had been moving all day and I continued moving to the descent gully and there my euphoria ended because the work just wasn't done yet. 

Most climbing casualties occur on the descents. That is because the summit has been achieved, the effort seems over, and one's guard is down. But as I peered down that gully, my eyes grew wide. It was strewn with house size boulders and the dead fall of huge tree trunks. No, my work was not over. I had to stay on mission and return to the valley floor safe. Thousands of moves later, down steep scree, over, under, and around boulders, over, under, and around logs, and down, and down and down. 

Once down off the steep slopes my gait grew lighter. Crossing the Merced River, gazing at the moving waters, I reflected as I always do of the timelessness of water trying to get to the ocean. That summer in fact I started kayaking. Crossing the meadow, my steps were floating. 

Returning to my truck there was a note under the windshield wiper. It said, "IronBob (my Red Rocks nickname since I was an iron worker), if you're still alive come to (I can't remember where) there's a cold pitcher (of beer) waiting for you".  

I checked the time piece inside my truck. It was now 1 PM straight up. I had climbed the Steck-Salathe on sight (almost on sight, I had done the first 3 pitches 10 years earlier), car-to-car in 6 and 1/2 hours. 

Yeah, it was time return to earth, meet my friends, and have some beers.


  1. Great reportage! This is definitely Climbing Porn!!

  2. Thank you kayakfari, thank you for reading it and thank you very much for your comment. I just reread it myself, and even though I am only reading a figment of my own memory, a figment that I myself wrote, it still moves me as if I were there, doing it today.

  3. Replies
    1. I have been noticing your climbing post on Facebook! So, feeling the need to climb more. I mtbike a lot, and enjoy it. I run some, but not enough. I kayak, probably too much. My team and I have an expedition race coming up in early February, and my son and I have an expedition kayak race coming up in March, so I'm probably not climbing this Winter. But come April, I need to get a little cragging in.