It had to be North Dome, really.
I first visited Yosemite in 1985. At that time I was not a climber. I had little idea what to expect, but the line on the map – ascend the Falls Trail, visit North Dome, descend Snow Creek – looked too tempting to resist. My friend Liane thought this plan so foolish that she came along herself to make sure I didn’t get into trouble. We were married the next year. North Dome is a special place.
I headed out west in early June this year to climb with Karl Baba. That’s easy enough to write. In fact, I’d admired Karl’s achievements from afar for a while; but it was a different matter to send an email. For those who don’t know him, Karl is someone who has made climbing his lifestyle. A long-time resident of Yosemite, he knows the area like the back of his hand and is able to design a climbing trip tailored to the unique abilities and aspirations of his guests. At least, that was what I found when I plucked up the courage to get in contact. `I’m free that week’, came back the reply, `it would be great to climb with you’. I was committed.
We climbed Commitment (5.9) and Selaginella (5.8) the first day, to shake down and for me to gain some more experience of crack climbing. Flailing at the start, by the end I found myself sinking jams even when there were grabbable face holds as an alternative. On the way back to Karl’s place we discuss how to attempt North Dome. I rule out the idea of hiking in from the Tioga Road as unaesthetic. The dome belongs to the Valley and that’s where I want to climb it from. On the other hand, a one-day push to climb Royal Arches and North Dome sounds like too much suffering. So we agree to climb Royal Arches starting in the afternoon – hopefully avoiding most of the crowds who should be off the route by then – bivy on top, and climb North Dome’s Regular Route (5.8) the next day.
After I have grunted my way up the first pitch chimney, Royal Arches is a blast. We have the route to ourselves, as we’d hoped. The climbing is varied – I am glad of our crack practice yesterday – but never too hard. I stick the pendulum on my second try, have some unpleasant moments climbing past the dubious tree on the next pitch (guidebook 11),and (at Karl’s instigation) lead the final pitch (16), a run-out, slabby traverse above a big drop. (I led a couple of other pitches too, but chickened out of one or two more. Only regret of the trip.) Time to fill water bottles at the spring. The `Forest’, where the spring is, sits under a looming headwall and it’s not clear how one gets through it; in fact, it is a hike. We bivy right on the rim, looking west down the valley; Half Dome is a brooding presence behind us. Dinner (eaten with a nut tool, in the absence of a fork), and campfire, and conversation. Under the brilliant stars, we talk about Einstein and about an astronomer named Olbers, who produced an uncomfortably plausible argument proving that the night sky should be as bright as the surface of the sun. We try to guess where the moon (nearly full) is going to show up over the horizon. I lose. Guess I’m not a practical astronomer.
We reach the base of our route on North Dome sometime not too early the next morning – I dropped my watch on Selaginella and, if Karl knows the time, he isn’t saying. The route has several different sections. Karl runs together pitches 1 and 2, which climb the face to the left of a huge, left-facing dihedral. Pitch 3 finds a weakness in this dihedral and moves out onto slabs on the right side. There’s a sequence of four or five moves through the dihedral which is not obvious from below. Karl takes his time through this, protecting carefully as he goes, and I am a little concerned by the time I start – especially since the Supertopo guide contains a description of the sequence (`up, down and around’), which in the heat of the moment I can’t remember and which I worry contains some vital piece of beta that I’ve overlooked. In fact, though, it all seems to make sense when you start moving. The situation is wild but the climbing is 5.7.
After a bit more crack and slab climbing one arrives at the best part of the route; two long pitches up a right-facing dihedral. Most of the route here is beautiful liebacking, but each pitch begins with a chimney where the crack has widened out a bit. The first chimney is a real struggle for me. At one point I resort to pulling on the gear. The second chimney is a little easier, but to compensate I have to make a balletic maneuver at the top of it, turning right around and at the same time switching from hauling to carrying the pack. `Awkward turn’ says the topo – if you’d seen me, you’d believe it. Beyond, the liebacks seem to continue for ever on polished rock. The situation is spectacular but it’s still a relief when the angle eases off slightly, I see Karl and realize I have come to the end of the 5.8 section. One more pitch and I am back on top of North Dome for the first time since that memorable trip almost twenty years ago.
To descend, we walk down the slabby drainage west of North Dome (a climbers’ trail heads down through the brush from the North Dome saddle and onto the slabs), back to our bivy site, then simul-rappel the Royal Arches. Adding to the sense of occasion for a Yosemite newbie such as myself, just above the Arches we run into Dan Dingle (FA of Crest Jewell and many other routes on North Dome). At some point on our way down I ask Karl how often he had climbed that route on North Dome before. `Twice before’. Then he adds, half-apologetically, `But they were both solo.’ What a guy.