Technically, it was morning but the night was still holding on. It was late October, the end of an amazing season of climbing in Yosemite. Daylight hours were precious and our head lamps illuminated the trail to Sentinel Rock.
I was on this trail at this early hour three months before, almost to the day. Back in July, twilight was already filtering through the Valley and we were sweating before we even left the car. This day I wondered if we had packed enough jackets because there would be no sun on the Chouinard-Herbert.
Casey and I hiked up the climbers’ trail, with the sun helping show the path. The air was crisp and multi-colored leaves covered the hillside. We made our final preparations at the base, sorted our gear, and tightened our climbing shoes. We scrambled up the ramps, quickly working our way towards the route.
We deviated from the topo, taking a more direct and fun variation, but eventually made our way to Chessman Pinnacle. Occasional marks of chalk showed signs of prior parties on the seemingly abandoned route. The Sentinel was ours, the shade and cold our partners for the day.
Casey took the sharp end off the Pinnacle and smoothly onsighted a less than straightforward pitch. The cracks demanded attention as they varied in size and angle before blanking out at the belay. Casey picked his way over the slab, approaching the first crux. As he worked past a smattering of fixed gear, he was looking good until his foot slipped. The crack was barely a finger’s width across.
As I started climbing my confidence was wavered and I had Casey drop a loop of rope to haul the pack. Unencumbered, I worked my way up the tips crux. Foot high, I tried to locate a good spot in the crack. My body tensed as my foot came off, but I recovered. I got my breathing back under control and reset my foot, quickly smashing my fingers into the crack and snagging a good fingerlock. Moments later I too was on the ledge.
The plan was to swing leads for efficiency, so I racked up for a face climbing challenge. Despite having already climbed five hundred feet, I felt rusty or perhaps just tired. The pitch was leaning and I had to transition mentally to the new style of climbing. Pitons guided me up the face. With plenty of gear left, I linked into the next pitch. I moved nervously careful not to pull the wrong way on the hollow and loose flakes. Finally at the belay, I relaxed on the spacious ledge. The two new ASCA bolts instilled some confidence and mellowed my attitude.
Casey swung through and easily climbed the next two pitches bringing us to the base of the my first 5.11 lead. I started up the offwidth, thrutching slightly and spending far more effort than then 5.8 rating implied. The crack narrowed down below a roof and I fought to keep my pump under control. Swinging my legs up over the lip, I slipped. My arm was still wedged in the crack, so I caught my self and struggled to avoid falling. Casey would show me an easier sequence when he followed, but for now I still had more climbing to do. My mind was fried and at the next hard sequence I gave up. The crack thinned out and I could see neither hand holds nor gear placements. I faltered.
After cleaning out some dirt, I fought my way up, pumped to the max, and eventually clipped the oddly placed anchors. Casey barely struggled, climbing smoothly with our pack to the belay. I tried to regroup, but it seems that my mental energy was gone. The hundreds of feet of climbing had slowly chipped away my armor.
The Afro Cuban Flakes were next and I worked up to the traverse. With the picture of Honnold fresh in my mind, I crimped and crossed up into the underclings. The flakes were loose and rotten so I traversed to a better stance and fired in an anchor’s worth of gear. But from here I was faced with the unknown. With my mental energy sapped and my arms filled with lactic acid, I hung. It is so funny how small mental shifts can be the difference between sending and giving up.
Inobvious holds and body positions lead over the roof and eventually I worked my way to the belay, resting on pins and gear to save my energy. I don’t know what I was keeping it for, since the next few pitches quickly flew by. Casey was able to fire the crux with my running beta and we linked and simuled to the top, where we were treated to warming rays of the setting sun. Sadly there was no time to dawdle or soak in the views.
The descent gulley was loose and long, but rarely technical and not as bad as the hype. We made good time and arrived back at our packs just in time for the darkness to surround us once again. Headlamps illuminated our steps as we trudged back to the car.
It’s been a while since I’ve gotten up in the dark and returned to camp in the dark. We got back to the car just under 12 hours after leaving it. I’ve waited a while to try the Chouinard-Herbert and was glad I squeezed it into this fall. I know I’ll be back!