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Climbing Royal Arches

Looking up the sheer wall of Royal ArchesThis was the longest and most committing rock climb I have done to date, it was also the first time I did technical rock climbing on one of Yosemite Valley's magnificent sheer walls, one of the most thrilling rock climbing locations in the world. This trip was planned as a practice run for our up-coming trip to Mount Kenya in Africa, where we planned to climb its Normal Route, with 25 pitches of technical rock in all. We would be using two 50 meter-long thinner ropes on Royal Arches as we planned to do for Mount Kenya. On October 16-17, 2005, Dirk and I successfully climbed the Royal Arches route (difficulty rating is 5.7/A0). It took an astonishing 18 hours, another first for me (the longest time on technical rock).

The previous night (Saturday 10/15), after climbing Pyramid Peak in the South Tahoe area with several friends (Eszter, Kassim, Steve, Kelly), Dirk and I headed south towards Yosemite National Park from Strawberry Lodge near South Lake Tahoe on Highway 50. Before the drive I had much hesitation about attempting such a long and committing route, especially since a fellow member of Summitpost.org website lost his climbing partner on it more than a dozen years ago. His story was heart-wrenching, and I became acutely aware of the risks of rock climbing one of Yosemite Valley's famous sheer walls. However, according to Dirk, the 5.7 Royal Arches Route is a long (15 pitches according to guidebooks) but very easy route, with much 3rd and 4th class scrambling. Therefore we would unrope for many pitches to speed up the climb. This very idea made me even more leary, as the thought of unroping on sheer walls like the Royal Arches seemed utterly crazy. I was very afraid of being stuck on the wall in the dark, especially if we had route-finding problems. From past experience of our climbing trips it seems route-finding and time management are our biggest problems, both of which tend to extend the time of our exposure to the elements. Since the previous day we experienced a light snow fall in the Desolation Wilderness area near Lake Tahoe, it is obvious the elements can be very life-threatening this time of year. Remembering the exact same weekend last year when my climbing party almost got stuck in an early snow storm, and two climbers died on El Capitain (just 3 miles or so from Royal Arches in Yosemite Valley), I was intensely uncomfortable with the idea of attempting such a long, committing route in this time of year. I resisted for a long time and finally agreed after Dirk promised to set a turn-around time of 4 pm, so that we would start getting down if we hadn't completed the route by then.

Saturday night we camped in Lee Vining Canyon, still about 1 hour from Yosemite Valley. On Sunday morning we got up before sunrise and started driving. Alas, Dirk drove my car into a fallen rock on Highway 120 before Tioga Pass, causing a flat. We had to change into the spare tire, which took an extra 40 minutes. This caused our hopes of getting an early start to evaporate. In Yosemite Valley Dirk had to visit a climbing store to buy a nut tool that he forgot during packing, then we spent more than an hour packing (I finished much earlier than Dirk). When we made it to the start of the climb, which involved fortunately only a 10 minute approach hike, it was already 10 am. During the morning while waiting around, I read through the Supertopo guidebook about this route. I found out the 11 rappels on the descent route would take 2-4 hours normally. Considering we always turn out to progress slower than guidebook estimates, I thought we should leave at least 4 hours for descent. That means if we get to the rappel route at 4 pm, we would be back on the ground around 8 pm, at which time it would already be dark. If we immediately drove home, we would get home after midnight. Obviously in my opinion there was no room at all for any delays in our schedule. Dirk, however, disputed my estimated times for descent. He thought 1 hour would be enough for the rappels, so our turn-around time could be later.

It took us another precious 40 minutes before we figured out the true start of the climbing route. The guidebook drawings were too confusing. The first pitch wasn't easy, but there were several easy scrambling pitches subsequently. The wall wasn't as steep as I thought, only about 60 degrees in the lower sections; and there were many big ledges, some even supporting big trees and contained loads of dirt. I started to understand why this was considered an easy route. Along the way 2 solo climbers walked past us both upward and downward, unroped. Dirk found the ease with which they climbed this route irritating.

Pitch 10 was where the truly difficult climbing began. Here there is a smooth traverse that would have been rated 5.10 were it not for the aid device: a rope swing (hence the A0 rating). The easiest way to traverse this section is by grabbing the fixed rope and swing over. I found the idea of it frightening, but after Dirk demonstrated it, and then trying it myself, it wasn't that bad. By wrapping the fixed rope around my fist several times, the hold was very secure. At this point it was already around 5 pm, and I proposed bailing the route by rappelling down. However, Dirk convinced me that going down the standard descent route with fixed anchors would be much easier and take less time than doing a lot of route-finding and setting up our own rappel anchors for 10 pitches. It became absolutely apparent what a committing route I have gotten myself into, and there is no way to get out of it now without finishing it. As the daylight gradually vanished, I became intensely afraid of getting lost or stuck on the wall overnight, as well as missing work the following day. The weather had been warm and sunny all day so my worries about the weather lessened; however since I only had summer clothes on me I was still worried about cold temperatures overnight, especially if we got lost or stuck on the wall.

On the 11th pitch Dirk climbed up a dirty and very difficult shallow crack that seemed to have never been climbed by anyone. Once I climbed up it I complained that this was harder than what 5.7 felt like, and it was probably off route. After studying the terrain around us and the guidebooks, Dirk agreed. Now the problem is what to do next. Dirk wanted to find a different way to get back on route, I insisted on rappelling back to the previous pitch. However, we were on a small ledge with no way of setting up a rappel anchor without losing expensive cams, other than using a 2-foot tall manzanita bush for anchor. Dirk was appalled by the idea of depending our lives on the puny little manzanita, but he found some old slings which the bush had grown over. The slings were apparently left by off-route climbers long time ago using it for rappel anchor when the manzanita bush was even smaller. After a lot of consideration Dirk decided to take the risk, and he wrigged slings around the bush very gingerly, taking care not to compromise the strength of the manzanita in any way. I decided to go down first on the rappel he set up, taking his advice not to make any jerky movements. There are serious risks with going either first or second on a sketchy rappel anchor like this. I was relieved when I got down safely to the previous ledge, and Dirk did also soon after.

Over the next two pitches the sky darkened completely, and I went from being extremely afraid of the impending darkness, to not being afraid anymore. In the 11th pitch we had to go over a big bulge in the wall, which made it very difficult to communicate, even filling our walkie-talkies with much white noise. On the next ledge, we took our time looking for the right way to proceed, now that it is dark and we will have to deal with it no matter what. I actually felt a sense of relief, knowing that timewise we've broken my expectations and I needed to make the best of it. That is, to safely, efficiently and accurately finish the rest of the route. The drawings on the guidebooks were confusing for the next pitch, Dirk even climbed up and down to assess the surrounding terrain (since darkness prevented us from seeing more than 10-20 feet using headlamps), but eventually my gut instincts of seeking the easiest way to go turned out to be right on, even if what's there looked a little different from the guidebook. The next few pitches went by slowly but we never got off route again.

At the end of the 15th pitch Dirk was elated to find the first rappel anchor, it was 11 pm by this time. He methodically measured rope length according to the length of each rappel indicated by the guidebook, making sure that we would not miss any rappel anchor under the meagre lights of our headlamps. Immediately our rappels took us onto a huge, nearly vertical, and featureless smooth granite wall. It was frightening, as there was no room for any error at all. If we dropped the guidebook we're fucked, Dirk remarked. I said not only that. Everything we had were totally essential to our safety, losing any one would mean serious trouble. This includes the rappel devices, the rope, headlamps, etc. If we had missed a rappel anchor, our only choices were either to climb up to the previous anchor using prussik technique, or stay put, then wait till sunrise. If we still couldn't find the anchor after daybreak, we would have to wait for rescue, as there was absolutely no way to climb from there to anywhere. Nor could we make any mistakes in setting up each rappel, otherwise the consequences would be certain death. Many of the rappel anchors were situated on tiny or nonexistent ledges where one had to be tethered to the anchor to keep from falling. On the plus side this is Yosemite Valley where many climbers attempt these climbing routes on a daily basis, and there is a good infrastructure for rescuing stranded climbers. In the wee hours of the morning while I waited at the rappel anchors, the lights of civilization from below were so tantalizingly close yet so out of reach. Every successful rappel brought us a sense of relief that civilization was a step closer. The night was fortunately warm and my fear of frigid weather was totally unfounded. It was like a very mild summer evening.

To the credit of our methodical work and the accurate descriptions in Supertopo's guidebook, Dirk found all the rappel anchors without glitch and we were able to descend safely after 5 hours. We reached ground happily around 4 am on Monday morning. I reached home around 10 am. This climb of Royal Arches was an incredible experience, one that broadened my horizons, but also one I would not want to repeat often.

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