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New cragging on California’s Shuteye Ridge
From the tiny passenger window of Doug Englekirk’s Cessna plane, I fired off frame after frame, seeing for the first time the eagle’s view of Shuteye Ridge, its white, grey, and reddish granite domes covered in water grooves, knobby chickenheads, and puzzle-piece plates. We circled the ridge twice, soaring above the huge domes and cliffs, putting together the mysterious pieces of a majestic mosaic few get to view. I finally saw how it all fit together: the passes, drainages, mountaintops, and domes, interconnected by a maze of roads and trails barely perceivable. The door had been opened to the full potential of the ridge, and it was staggering.
I have a deep affection for Shuteye Ridge, located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, just south of Yosemite National Park. Moderate routes lead adventurous climbers up golden-plated faces, knobs, and cracks, while more powerful, technical lines venture over bulges and roofs. The thrill of going beyond the guidebook and roaming this ridge in search of “new” rock can be more rewarding than chasing the three-star pile-ups at mainstream crags. Years ago, I stopped climbing anywhere else during the short Shuteye season and devoted myself entirely to exploring the ridge with various partners, knowing the December snows would arrive all too soon and close the access roads until the following spring.
I wasn’t the first to fly over Shuteye in search of new rock. In 1973, Royal Robbins flew a reconnaissance mission in Doug Tompkins’ Cessna around the “Hinterlands,” the area comprising the Balls, Fresno Dome, and Shuteye Ridge. “It is a vast region with many individual rocks, where little climbing exploration has been done,” Robbins said. “Yet it offers some of the finest rock climbing in the country.” He brought his Modesto-based Rockcraft climbing school there in 1974, and he and his guides, Dick Erb and Roger Breedlove, among others, put up several multi-pitch lines on Queen’s Throne, Gray Eagle (which he referred to as Shuteye Rock), Red Eagle, Minerva Dome, and the Bastion. Other spirited individuals, like Jack Delk, added more routes during the 1970s and ’80s, and Shuteye began to really blossom with the advent of Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides. But the ridge has arguably just experienced its most prolific decade, as motley groups of local and visiting climbers put up hundreds of excellent routes from one end of the ridge to the other.
Shuteye Ridge is not for the faint of heart and has a way of sucking time and energy from ambitious climbers who wander off the beaten path. The area is vast, and with no comprehensive guidebook, Shuteye can be a tricky maze of rocky slopes, manzanita bushes, fallen logs, and pine forest. Many crags do not reveal themselves until you’re right on top of them. But despite the tough work, the rewards are great. With more than 60 formations spread over a four-mile ridgeline, Shuteye will be able to absorb any future popularity it finds.
“There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of first ascents to be done,” Robbins wrote in his tiny, typed 1970s guide to the area. “Shuteye deserves being a destination in itself; there is so much good climbing there… many great and small domes with a combination of surface features and rock quality which make them some of the world’s best rock for climbing.” We think you’ll agree.
Crags of Southern Shuteye Ridge
Big Sleep Dome
If you like Tuolumne slab climbing, stop by the Big Sleep Dome, which offers 1,000 feet of face climbing up high-quality granite. The routes are 5.7 to 5.9 and range from fairly well protected to quite runout. The first route went up in 1979, by Steve McCabe and Doug Matthews, and it wasn’t until after 2004 that modern routes were established. The slab is capped by a steeper headwall full of classic Shuteye chickenheads, and the view of the Sierra Nevada and surrounding Shuteye Ridge from the summit is a bonus. From the top of Big Sleep, you can access Crocodile Rock, or you can rap Afternoon Nap, which will require five double-rope rappels through chains. Directly north of the summit of Big Sleep is 12 O’Clock Rock, a 60-foot cliff that is a nice place to eat lunch and do some moderate short routes.
Ticklist: Big Sleep: Afternoon Nap (5.7, 5 pitches); Moonlight Madness (5.9, 5 pitches). 12 O’Clock Rock: Summer Snow (5.8), right up the middle.
Crocodile Rock and Voodoo
Crocodile Rock has a mix of trad and sport lines, some on very steep rock; placing natural gear is a must on almost every route. Routes range from 5.8 to 5.12, but the majority are 5.10 or harder. (See topo here.) The rock is excellent, with powerful, thin crimps and technical moves required on the harder routes. Most of the routes are 100 feet, but some are two-pitch adventures, so plan accordingly. Either rap (two ropes) or walk off. Lower Crocodile, a smaller cliff below Crocodile, has three fun 5.10 sport routes that follow amazing runnels and water grooves. Bring one rope and nine draws; rap in and climb out. To the west of Crocodile is Voodoo. This largely untapped rock has some moderate crack climbs. Approach from above or below.
Ticklist: Crocodile: Crocodile Tears (5.8), Cotton Mouth Cruise (5.9), Sunday School Crack (5.10a), King Lizard (5.11a), Crocodile Hunter (5.11c), Don’t Take it for Granite (5.11c), Belly of the Beast (5.12a). Voodoo: Voodoo Child (5.10d), crack on west face.
Between the summit of Big Sleep and the Shuteye Peak lookout tower is an expanse of smaller peaks, domes, and cliffs, some offering two pitches up amazingly featured faces. Plate and chickenhead climbing is the norm on the highly weathered granite, and many routes go with all natural protection. The Pyramid, Tombstone, Boothill, Walkabout, and the Sundial offer amazing adventures in remote settings. Two ropes are recommended, as rappels are required from most cliffs. The approaches are mainly cross-country, and navigating the best approach is often the crux of the day. But the payoff is well worth it.
Ticklist: Pyramid: Vertical Dawn (5.10a), Sack Up and Rack Up (5.10b). Tombstone: Knocking on Heaven’s Door (5.9, 2 pitches). Boothill: Gunsmoke (5.10c). Walkabout: Rite of Passage (5.7), Walkabout (5.7), Bullroarer (5.11c). Sundial: Playing With Matches (5.9, 2 pitches), Slipping Through Time (5.10d, 3 pitches). Gargoyle Wall: Gargoyle (5.7), Lost and Found (5.8).
Eagle Beaks Ridge
East of Big Sleep is a ridge that heads out toward the San Joaquin River Canyon and the Eagle Beaks. North and South Eagle Beaks are fairly remote and require a long approach on either side of the ridge. Routes tend to be long romps up slabs and corners, with some smaller routes on the shorter faces. The Fish (a more casual version of Crocodile) is located about halfway along the top of the ridge, with more than a half-dozen routes up the 70-foot featured face, ranging between 5.7 and 5.10. (It has two of the best 5.10s in the area.) Other cliffs nearby, including the Drop-Off, also have good climbing. The approach to the Fish takes about 50 minutes, while the approach to Eagle Beaks takes more than an hour.
Ticklist: The Drop-Off: Neptune’s Net (5.7), Runnel Vision (5.10). Photon Block: Laser’s Edge (5.12b/c).
Climate: Shuteye season lasts from late spring to late November or December, when snow closes the roads and gates are locked. Summer can be nice, but fairly warm when the valley is cooking. Late summer and fall are ideal.
Camping: Rock Creek campground and water are one mile south of the Browns Meadow turnoff. Various other camping possibilities can be found along Browns Meadow and the other dirt roads leading to Big Sleep, and it is also possible to camp below Big Sleep along the rocky approach road and slabs. The creek below Big Sleep has water in early season, but after that, bring your own.
Getting there: From Hwy. 41, just north of Oakhurst, turn east onto Road 222 to Bass Lake. Drive to North Fork, passing Bass Lake on your right. In North Fork, you will come to an intersection (you’ll see a funky wooden Totem Pole at the stop sign). Go left on Minarets/Mammoth Pool Road, a scenic byway. Drive this paved, twisty road for about 23 miles. About one mile past Rock Creek Campground, you will turn left onto a dirt road (Browns Meadow)—if you hit the “Mile High Lookout,” you went too far. Drive Browns Meadow for a little more than seven miles. On the right, you will see a faint dirt/rocky road (a rock cairn/duck sometimes marks it). It’s easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled. Take this for one-quarter mile to a large open slab area where you can camp. If you keep going, the road dead ends in 200 yards. Allow about 80 minutes from Oakhurst to reach this point.
The trail to Big Sleep is located at the dead end on the right. The Shuteye Pass Trail (Beaks Ridge, Crocodile, the Fish, etc.) begins to the right of the pullout, just prior to the dead end. Follow cairns to a more obvious trail. Go left to Crocodile (obvious formation on left), or keep hiking into the Outback crags. For the Fish, instead of going left at Shuteye Pass to Crocodile/Outback, turn right, gain the ridge, and walk along this until you run into the cliff. The Drop-Off is just below the Fish.
Approach times vary from a few minutes to more than an hour. Big Sleep: 15 minutes. Crocodile Rock: 45 minutes (or climb a route on Big Sleep to approach). The Outback (Pyramid, Walkabout, Gargoyle, etc.): 60 to 90 minutes. The Fish: 50 minutes. Eagle Beaks Ridge: 90 minutes.
Rack: For Big Sleep, one set of cams, eight to 10 quickdraws, and half a dozen slings will suffice. Traditional routes at other crags may require a double set of cams and nuts. Two ropes are often needed for rappels.
Guidebook:California Road Trip: A Climber’s Guide–Northern California, by Tom Slater and Chris Summit, 2009 (recent info, but only selected climbs); Southern Yosemite Rock Climbs, by Mark Spencer, 1988 (outdated); Shuteye Rock, by Grahm Doe, to be released in 2012.
A. Italian Job (5.9) B. Leap of Faith (5.8) C. Crocodile Tears (5.8) D. Unknown (5.10b R/X) E. Cotton Mouth Cruise (5.9 R) F. Cannabis and Booze (5.10b) G. Lichen Lizard (5.10) H. Jeremy’s Route (5.11c) I. Top Rope (5.12b) J. Crocodile Hunter (5.11c) K. Bone Skin (5.11d) L. Belly of the Beast (5.12a) M. Don’t Take it for Granite (5.11c) N. Brother My Cup is Empty (5.9) O. Croc Rock (5.10b) P. King Lizard (5.11a) Q. Poacher (5.11b) R. Little Baby Jesus (5.10d) S. Dundee (5.11b) T. Sunday School (5.10a) U. Easy Living (5.8) V. Arrowhead Arête (5.8) W. Born From Revolution (5.9) X. Cold Blooded (5.11d) Y. Runnelicious (5.10a) Z. Runnelrama (5.10b)