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Yosemite School of Hard Knocks

A Valley first timer gets a rude awakening on the particular brand of greasy holdless granite that eats the unaccustomed for lunch.

This article originally appeared in a print edition of Rock and Ice. It is republished here for free. Purchase an Outside+ membership and you can access over 3,000 other top-shelf features and articles, plus receive a year of Climbing in print PLUS get our coffee-table special edition of Ascent.

By the time I was in my early 20s I had over a decade of experience, and was secretly proud of having taken up the rope earlier in life than most Stonemasters, and even their boss, Jim “The Bird” Bridwell.

Back then—this was the early 1980s—I could recite George Meyers’ Yosemite Climber as easily as a monk might chant the sacred texts. I could also identify all of the Valley’s rock formations, and their most famous lines. All this and I had never been to Yosemite! Instead, I grew up climbing among the crags of Catalonia, where I prowled the cobbles of Montserrat, or, farther afield, grappled with the fierce limestone of the Dolomites.

At last, in September 1995, my youthful ego couldn’t stand it any more—it was time to visit, and conquer, Yosemite. To belay me, I brought David, a mild-mannered climbing rookie.

Upon arriving in Yosemite, and before I could even read the Camp Full sign permanently displayed in the Camp 4 kiosk, I had a mental list of the climbs we had to crush over the next few weeks.

To acclimate to the peculiarities of moving on and protecting Yosemite granite, we would begin on easy stuff. I figured that by the end of the first week we would be sharing cliff-space with the big names. I saw it clearly: David and I, perched on a sloping ledge miles above the ground while The Bird and two of his boys hung next to us from a dubious anchor, rolling smokes and admiring their stylish vests. Just then, a peregrine would swoop past at 200 mph, dropping from the blank shield of overhanging granite that stood between us and the sky. (I didn’t know that by the 1990s, Bridwell and Co. had long since split the Valley in search of greater glories.)

Coming from the relatively crackless faces of Europe, we were unaccustomed the gyrations necessary to surmount that glassy crack on the Camp 4 Wall. The contortions nearly dislocated my shoulder, and our rack of wired nuts were utterly useless.Our pick for the Yosemite baptism was Doggie Deviations (5.9), and an apt kick-off since it was a Bridwell route—we would settle for nothing less.

“When the gear list says to bring cams,” I chastised myself as I belayed up David, “bring them, asshole!

My performance had sown the seed of doubt concerning my predestined subjugation of Yosemite. How could I have climbed so badly on a 5.9? Perhaps I had picked the wrong crack? It certainly didn’t have many holds. We spent the next two days toproping easy cracks on Swan Slab, a popular but greasy bluff dwarfed by trees adjacent to the Camp 4 parking lot. The uniformity of the granite and its holdless cracks were mind warping.

Dejected and with a month left in our trip, I scribbled, “Climbing gear for sale.  Everything must go. Blue tent, site #6” on a piece of paper. I was on my way to tack it to the Camp 4 message board when a British climber camped nearby called out a greeting.

Hey, Doug,” I replied. “How’re you doing? Climbing day?

Yes! I’ve been on Glacier Point, good climbing, long slabs … Do you know it?

Indeed. I had not been there and had forgotten about the stunning Glacier Point Apron. Meyers’ book had said that it held the “world’s best friction climbing.” Heartened by the thought of familiar terrain, I raced back to meet David in our tent.

Coming from the relatively crackless faces of Europe, we were unaccustomed the gyrations necessary to surmount that glassy crack on the Camp 4 Wall. The contortions nearly dislocated my shoulder, and our rack of wired nuts were utterly useless.

The blue California sky gleamed above the dark forest. Granite reflections from the massive Apron illuminated our uphill slalom between pines, buoying our spirits. We reached the Glacier Point wall, a vast slab of mirror-like rock, and followed the guidebook’s instructions to our objective: the Cow Left Route, a series of flakes leading to a ledge known as The Cow.

The Cow Left Route was rated 5.7, a conveniently low grade, and ascended a shining 100-foot sheet of nearly flawless granite. It began with an incipient crack whose only utility, we discovered, was to mark start of the route.

According to the guide, pro consisted of three bolts—two of them at the first belay, and one lone protection bolt that was lost amid a sea of granite. I thought I spotted it 50 feet up.

Doesn’t look over-bolted, does it?” said David. “I guess you won’t need the cams.

With an old pair of Boreal Fires on my feet, a set of wired nuts and cams stubbornly clipped to my harness, a knot in my stomach and the recent Doggie Deviations debacle dragging on my psyche, I stepped onto the rock. At that moment, a pair of California Quails, a plump bird half the size of a pigeon, walked nonchalantly from the bushes. Pecking the sandy ground, they were unbothered by our presence. One of them stared at me in a challenging way—over the shoulder, the head leaning slightly to one side, as if questioning my provenance—and started up the very same pitch I was supposed to climb. Walking casually, the birds wandered left and right up that slab, pecking here and there until they were but dots high on the wall.

“Fuck those fat birds!” I said to David. “Put me on. I’m climbing!” 

I took off up the incipient crack, where I tried to paste my smallest nut. After 20 calf-blowing minutes, I gave up. The bolt—the only bolt!—remained 40 feet away. With nothing to lower from, up I went. I studied the rock for the smallest irregularity, yet found nothing but granite burnished to a greasy sheen. What had the birds been eating?

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My foot slipped a millimeter and my heart lept into my mouth. I swallowed and it felt like I was eating a live toad. I would have suffered less inside an iron maiden than on this single pitch, and would have gladly retreated if that had been an option. Fearing for my very life, I at last clipped the bolt, and after an hour of terror, reached the belay anchor. After bringing up David, we looked at the happy birds high above us and elected to bail on the next pitch.

Deracking at the base, we couldn’t imagine how things could get worse. Just then, two girls appeared, chitchatting nonchalantly in the unmistakable, lazy-tongued English of the California sort. They were unbothered by our presence. One of them wore a small backpack, the other carried a rope. Both of them weighed 200 pounds.

This should be entertaining,” I said in a schadenfreude-fueled whisper to David. “Let’s sit down and enjoy this.

The two ladies unpacked, put on their harnesses and shoes, checked the guidebook and inspected the wall for a moment.

I think they are going for our route, David!

They have no chance, have they?

Maybe we should warn them? I asked, mentally rubbing my hands in glee.

My foot slipped a millimeter and my heart lept into my mouth. I swallowed and it felt like I was eating a live toad.

Before I could do that, the two girls started up The Cow Left, unroped, running rather than walking, sometimes leaning against the rock with only one hand. They didn’t bother with the crack or the lonely bolt. Sometimes they slipped a foot or so, but they never broke their pace. A minute later they sat by the first belay station. There, they roped up, and kept climbing in the most casual way I had witnessed—with the single exception of the world-class quails.

We sat there for a long while before David broke the silence.

Now, what?

I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I know why Jim Bridwell was dubbed The Bird.

When you’re definitively doomed, you sometimes get a last chance to rectify the situation. I recalled the words a friend once told me. You know,” he had said, “there are two kinds of people out there playing on the rocks. The ones going climbing, and the climbers.”

The question loomed: Which were we?

Early the next morning we were standing again at the base of The Cow Left. With a single quickdraw for a rack, I jumped on the slab and committed not to look down even once—to keep going no matter how many times my feet slipped, to swallow my heart, to pretend I was a fat quail—to trust myself.

And that’s what I did. Confidently smearing up the holdless slab, I clipped the bolt and cruised to the anchors and wished that the pitch had been longer. It took David scarcely a minute to follow. That day, we rapped and ran back up the pitch three times until we were able to use the rope only for the rappel.

Over the following days we climbed out of the well of despair, and even enjoyed El Cap’s East Buttress where we passed half a dozen teams. We stood on top of Half Dome and the Cathedrals, and paid a visit to many crack classics across our Valley of Climbers.

I’ve been in Yosemite many times since, and Glacier Point remains one of my favorite walls. I never again crossed paths with those two girls, or with those two plump birds. Nevertheless, I will always remember the challenging gaze of that quail, its head leaning to one side as if to say, Before going out to conquer something, you must first conquer yourself.

 Josep E. Castellnou wrote the guidebook to the fabled area, Montserrat, outside Barcelona, Spain.

THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN ROCK AND ICE NO. 227, JULY 2015. To read over 3,000 other stories and articles by climbing’s best writers, go to rockandice.com.