I don’t know exactly where the road began, but I do have a memory of the Astroman topo pinned to my apartment wall in Australia. It was 2005 and I had traveled to Melbourne to become a better trad climber. Sure, I was there to study abroad, but really I wanted to dance up the faces of Mount Arapiles and learn how to place gear at my limit.
Many climbs, years, and goals later I’m living in the Bay Area. Yosemite is now my “home” crag and I spend as many weekends there as possible. Last fall began with a trip up Astro-Hulk, a rainy day on the Rostrum, a send of Astro-Boy and eventually success on the Rostrum. Yosemite requires mastery of wide cracks and despite a newly gained proficiency at hand-stacking I was unsure of my ability to climb the overhung Harding Slot.
After not climbing together for most of the summer, Keith and I were able to make October plans for Astroman. After getting a late start, we saw two parties on the route, with the lower one taking falls on the Enduro Corner. We figured out the Boulder Problem and then did the Enduro Corner, a masterpiece of thin hand jamming. Unfortunately, we could then see the next team struggling on the Harding Slot.
Eventually I had to start climbing and linked the pitches to the base of the Slot. This was our first time on the 6th pitch and I was thrilled by the sporty laybacking despite my thrutching on a lower wide hands section. When I arrived near the anchor, the team was still grunting up the slot and the second opted out of climbing and jugged the pitch. All of this had made me quite nervous and I climbed poorly, struggling on the moves up to the base of the Slot. I didn’t quite have the right gear and was unsure of how or what to commit to. I hung, and then desperately aided into the Slot. Once securely wedged I was able to squeeze up, happy to be chimneying. Keith cruised the start but slipped out of the slot and had to hang. It was now 4:15pm and we were uncommitted to a late night on the rock. It was time to bail, we were still only boys.
Over the next day and on the drive home we talked about the Slot. All the other pitches had given us no trouble, but I was unconvinced that I could lead it successfully. Keith was optimistic and had figured out some good beta. We decided to swap pitches and he would get the Slot for the following weekend. As the week passed, I was unsure of our chances, but we discussed this openly and decided it was better that success was uncertain. More of an adventure… (gulp)
Saturday morning we left Hardin Flat at 6am to drive into the Valley. It was still dark, but we were both well rested and focused. We had sorted gear already and were hiking up to the route shortly after 7. By 7:30 we could see the route and two people were atop the first pitch and I heard noises that suggested two more people might be near by. We were not, however, prepared for the six people that were ahead of us! Making matters worse, there were some fixed lines of unknown origin on the route.
I started climbing at 8 am and the Astro-JAM began. We chatted, crawled, and waited our way up to the Boulder Problem. I had the lead this time and sent the pitch once the next ledge became less crowded. It felt secure, a welcome change from the weekend prior. A few foreign climbers showed up and started jugging the lines that went all the way up to the Harding Slot. Everywhere there were people leading or hanging or following. A huge cluster slowly oozing their way up the route.
As I began the Enduro Corner, two more parties showed up on the route. We had now reached 14 people on the first 6 pitches! At the overnight ledge Keith and I got comfortable. It’s pretty easy to link the next two pitches but none of the parties above us had done this. The sun was out, the day was beautiful so we relaxed and eventually had a nice long conversation with the Canadian party behind us. Two hours passed before the clog had moved through the slot. We had expected the jugging climbers to continue up the route but they luckily decided to bail. It was go time and I quickly dispatched the next two pitches.
With the gear beta dialed Keith set off up to the Slot. He cruised the overhung layback and steadily worked himself up to the point of no return. Past the last good hold, he jammed his way into the slot. “I’m at the jugs” he exclaimed proudly. He was now fully committed and almost assured of success. Not long after he had wiggled his way to the top and it was up to me. I got up to the last hand jam and the small right foot, but I couldn’t move higher. Uncertain what to do, I frantically called for slack and down climbed to the ledge. Going back up, I used a different foot, squeezed my left hand in the thin crack and squirmed up higher. Over the next five minutes I fought, swore, and inched my way into the Slot, totally lacking Keith composure. Once in I had to calm my breathing before I could continue to the belay.
An hour earlier, sitting on the overnight ledge, we had firmly decided on bailing. We would try the Slot and then go back down. The hour was too late and we were sure to get benighted. Upon finishing the Slot it was the exact same time as the week prior, 4:15pm. Now the circumstances had changed, we had sent the pitch and the decision was instant so we charged up. At the next belay we ran into another party who were doing a the FA of Quantum Man. The party ascent raged on.
Keith then onsighted the Changing Corners pitch without much trouble and we had caught back up to the parties from earlier in the day. Jammed up again, we waited, chatting with the Quantum party. It was late, after 6pm when I started the changing corners. I had a few dicey moments, not wanting to fall, before making it to the belay and taking over the lead. A toally crazy and wild pitch! It’s hard to imagine Alex, Dean or Peter soloing this pitch. The moon had risen and it was now dark. I relished in the easier climbing and was forced to bump my big gear and run it out on the 60+ feet of #3 camalots.
Setting up the belay on the final ledge, I had a spectacular view of the wall dropping off below me illuminated by the full moon. The Washington Column is a big wall and I relished the 1000 feet of air on the perfect fall night.
Keith took over the lead for the last pitch and dispatched the scary crux by headlamp. A few balance-y moves were the final test between us and success. My foot slipped while following, 15 feet below the anchor on a mossy rock. My core tightened to maintain body tension and prevented the fall.
From the summit of the Washington Column we had a spectacular view of the entire Valley. North Dome loomed above, magically lit up. We had committed to the darkness and succeeded in climbing Astroman. The success was slightly surreal. Hours before we had given up but now we had met our fall goal! The adventure was more than we bargained for and the many hours of darkness added to the memory.
I think we will both go back to climb the route again, but for now we have peace with our accomplishment. It would be nice to be able to climb at the front of the line, unrestricted by external conditions.