Jul 192011

Murali Achanta Photo

There are many routes that have a reputation. When you drive through Yosemite, the various formations call for attention. I’ve often stared at the tall dark face of the sentinel. Blank and imposing I first heard tales of a route that climbs up the bowels of this behemoth. In Camp4, one of Steve Roper’s many books about Yosemite, he describes the multi-day first ascent done by Allen Steck  and John Salathe in 1950. Endless wide climbing, multiple days on the wall, and dehydration.

Steep uphill approach = happy face?

To me Yosemite is synonymous with crack climbing and the proliferation of offwidths and chimneys define the area.  The Steck-Salath is a route defined by this style. With over fifteen hundred feet of climbing, most parties do this route in a long day. I however had heard tales of climbers forced to sleep on the route, bivy on the summit, or get benighted while lost in the  never ending descent gully.

With all of these thoughts in my mind, I was nervous about the route. Chimneys and off-widths can take a long time to climb and are always harder than the grade suggests.

Jonathan following the first pitch.

Parking our car at 4 Mile trail head at 5:30 am sunrise was right around the corner. The first 30 minutes of the trail were easy to follow and paved, something one could easily do in the dark. The summer heat greeted us with swarms of mosquitoes and the steep hike covered us in sweat. (Did I mention it was hot!)

The approach was simple enough to follow, with numerous cairns leading to a few hundred feet of easy 3rd and 4th class climbing. At the base I got the first lead which would set things up for the rest of the day as we swung leads. Climbing up the first pitch it was already 7am. Hopefully we had started early enough. The first three pitches flew by with linking and we were below the first crux in no time.

Great view of El Capitan! (and the cathedral rocks)

With some trepidation I set off up the Wilson Overhang. I went right side and tried to wedge my self in the inside of the crack. This gave me the security of gear but greatly increasing the difficulty of the climbing. Sweating profusely I pulled through, happy to be wearing knee pads as suggested by my friends.

Jonathan takes the sharp end on a lovely wide crack after the Wilson Overhang.

A blur of rope drag, tricky route finding and a touch of simul-climbing saw me tunneling through to the back of the flying buttress. Our topo stated “lunch ledge” or something similar and so we stopped. Jonathan announced it was only 11:30 am and I was psyched.  The next two block pitch was mine. At the end of the steep 5.9 pitch I was wishing for a #4 camalot as my number three umbrellaed in the crack…

Jonathan cruises the slab pitch.

A fun slab was next, a strange change of pace on a route full of cracks and chimneys. Luckily two of the three bolts had been replaced with shiny hardware  We had opted for a pack and were happy to be losing weight as we worked through our 5 liters of water.

As Jonathan squirmed his way up the flare bellow the narrows I soaked in the views. Being high up in Yosemite is spectacular. Having never climbed on the Sentinel I was stoked on the new perspectives on the valley.  Slowly wedging my way up the crack I fought hard to stay in. This was my biggest struggle of the day and every inch was a battle. Finally in the chimney, past the first bolt, I sped up towards the Narrows.

Pretty steep wall with the narrows chimney on the left.

Looking up from inside our dark belay I saw my fate. The squeeze was much wider than my torso but narrower than my legs. Looking out yielded a thousand feet of exposure all the way down to the valley floor. Up I went, gear on long slings hitched to my harness. It’s hard to describe the sequence required. I kicked, thrashed and inched up only to ooze back down. I was stable below the narrows but couldn’t quite get my wedged inside.

JP on the crux flare before the narrows.

Eventually I got my left knee stuck and used a combination of chicken wings and head jams to work my legs up inside. Once my full body was in the fissure I easily squirmed and pulled my way up. I reveled in the extremely exposed position when the chimney widened towards the outside.

Sweet view of upper AND lower Yosemite Falls

With the Narrows behind us we sped up on the final pitches, summiting just before 3:30 pm. With tired bodies but the climbing complete, we faced the finally challenge of getting down. The descent was not as steep (really only a few sections of 3rd and 4th class) but it went on forever. Two hours of mind numbing talus walking returned us to the car drenched yet again in sweat.

Our timing had worked out extremely well and we had climbed in the shade all day until the last pitch. With plenty of sunlight at 5:30 we oped for a river washing before cold beer and pizza for dinner.

Celebration was in order. We had a great day climbing and avoided getting benighted (my biggest fear). I see more climbing on the sentinel in my future.

Summit Glory! (I'm a little bit excited...)


Beta/ Gear suggestions:

With the knowledge of the route I’d be happy to do it again but would hope for a slightly cooler day so we could bring less water (which was quite heavy early on). It was windy and we both brought and occasionally wore long sleeve shirts on the route. I think efficiency is very important since most of the pitches felt much easier than the three cruxes. I found the flare below the narrows to be the hardest, followed by the Wilson overhang and finally the few moves required to get established in the narrows. I skipped the squeeze above Wilson by climbing halfway up the pitch, placing a piece, and then traversing to the flake out right. This more or less put me on TR for the tricky move required to get established on the flake.

We did P1 per the supertopo, JP Linked P2 and P3 with a 70m rope. I linked P4 & P5 all the way up to a piton at a stance. JP linked P6 & P7 which required a little bit of simul-climbing. P8 was used to move the belay through the tunnel and could be linked with P6&7 if simuling. I pitched out P9 and P10, but think they should be linkable with a 70m. You may need to simul ~10-20 feet. JP climbed P11 and I climbed P12 (the narrows). These could be linked without much drag (since there’s not that much gear) and would make a killer crux pitch. JP lead P13 and I linked P14 &15 and belayed just above the tree… JP lead us to the summit, which was a short pitch with enough 5th class moves that it was nice to use a rope.  This is ~ 12 pitches but two were short pitches used to move the belay and reach the summit.

1x Green, Red C3. 2x Yellow Alien, 1 Grey Alien, 2x .5 Camalot -> #2 camalot Single #3 camalot, #4 camalot and #5 camalot.  If you want more wide gear I suggest a 2nd #4 over a #3.

70 meter Rope

It could also work to have a single #3 and #4 C4 and an old style #4 (purple). The pitch below the narrows is the only place where the #5 is better than an old #4 camalot.

On the narrows I placed a bomber .5 camalot, clipped a pin, Placed a .75camalot and finally a green alien before the two bolt belay. A  #4 C4 perfect protects the opening moves and can be shoved very high so you are basically on TR to get into the slot. I hear other people place a second #4 on this pitch, but I didn’t.

  9 Responses to “Savoring and Surviving the Steck-Salathe”

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  1. Are you wearing a sling necklace in the last photo?
    Sweet trip report. Sounds like fun! Except all the photos have that way too hot for climbing summer haze look.

    • Nope, just crisscrossed slings. It was warm (80+) on the valley floor. Luckily we were in the shade all day and there was a nice breeze.

  2. i will chime into say that Luke is being modest, and he made this thing EASY to climb. This route was a blast, can’t wait to get up there again!

  3. Nice work guys……gotta do this route. The Valley is a gift that keeps on giving eh?

  4. Congratulations to you! Sounds like a great day, with just enough challenge to make things interesting! Love the photos and the inspiration. 🙂

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