A Change of Pace: Big Wall Freeclimbing in Yosemite

Mike Banach rappelling off Positive Vibrations

Mike Banach rappelling on Positive Vibrations

Yosemite Valley is to rock climbers what Mecca is to Muslims. Being a devout trad climber, I have been long overdue for a pilgrimage to the place where it all began, the home of the world’s most famous long, free routes. With exactly one week of vacation, a friend-climbing-partner, and a car packed with equipment, I set out to experience the soaring granite cliffs of the High Sierras, Tuolumne, and Yosemite.

There were some very powerful moments on this trip. On day one, climbing Positive Vibrations (5.11a) on the Incredible Hulk, I caught our rope in a crack and ripped the sheath when I swung to free it. Dangling 600 feet up on a rock wall, I had some rather grim visions of what possible outcomes; confidence was shaken, we decided to retreat. This very humbling experience prepared me for the very full week of adventure to come…

The next day, climbing in Tuolumne, was my favorite of the trip. I loved the variety of movement, the exposure, the acute sense of wilderness, and the endless high-quality rock. We climbed Lucky Streaks (5.10d) on Fairview Dome and had the route to ourselves, while groups jockeyed for position on the Regular Route. The climbing was unique, yet the wild and exploratory nature of the route felt much like Zion. We had a lovely day, enjoying the famous knob climbing, clean crack systems, and long pitches. After the climb, basking in the mix of fatigue and bliss, we drove down to “The Valley” and straight to El Cap Meadow.

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California

El Capitan looms above the Valley floor

We arrived to pay tribute just as the sun was setting upon the white flanks of the Captain. I had anticipated climbing in Yosemite for quite a while, and to be sitting at the base of El Capitan brought a flood of emotion. I felt the presence of the mountain in a way I have rarely experienced. The power of El Cap is a primal force, one that tests human durability. The character of the mountain is that of a hard nosed, tough, loving mentor that has inspired men and women for centuries. I thought about the character of climbing in Zion, how I was welcomed by Touchstone and invited to take my climbing to new heights, put through my paces, training on the walls of Cragmont, and seduced by Isaac to push myself to the top of Tricks of the Trade by whatever means necessary. Mountains have power, and we can share in that strength by simply asking for it. Laying in the meadow, I watched lights appear on El Cap as parties ended their day of climbing, and I felt a tremendous respect for El Cap. I am committed to return, to climb El Cap, and to learn a few of its secrets.

I had a great week of climbing, getting on some of the super-classic routes in the Valley and gaining some familiarity both on the rock and off. I experienced some of the local scene, joining a friend at a YOSAR party, meeting some of the DNC folks, and visiting with people at Camp 4 from all over the world. In comparing Yosemite to Zion, I must comment about the difference in food and lodging. Yosemite Valley has contracted out all food and lodging service to the Delaware North Company (DNC). As a concessionaire providing services to millions of visitors each year, it seems that there is little, if any, attention to quality. Options are pretty much limited to pizza, cheeseburgers, and buffet, or food cooked at camp. I may have overlooked something, but I was unimpressed with everything but the local beer from Mammoth Brewing Company (the Epic IPA is amazing). Food and lodging is expensive and there is not a lot of interest or investment from employees. In Springdale/Zion, privately owned businesses have more to gain in the pursuit of excellence. One can find spectacular burgers, pizza, steak, fish tacos, burritos, and chile rellanos (to name a few of my favorites), and great hotels, bed and breakfasts, or very reasonable camping options. Whether you are in Yosemite or Zion, you are going to pay more for services, because these towns rely on seasonal tourism to survive; in Springdale, however, I feel like you get what you pay for.

Two climbers on Nutcracker (5.8, 5 pitches), Manure Pile area

Mike & Julie on The Nutcracker

Without seeming too biased, I must say the climbing opportunities in Yosemite are greater than Zion (especially for beginners). While there are many similarities between these two awesome river valleys, incredible hiking opportunities, and unmatched natural splendor, each must be experienced, and I suspect that it would take a lifetime to know all the nooks and crannies of these unique national parks.

It is nice to be back in Springdale, feeling the desert sun and getting out in the canyons. Traveling has a way of stoking my desire to explore and fueling my daydreams, and this trip was no different. Stay tuned for accounts of Zion big walling, and as always, feel free to write inflammatory, congratulatory, or asinine comments alike.

High Sierras: The Incredible Hulk – Positive Vibrations 5.11a (13 pitches, we climbed 6 before a torn rope sheath prompted our descent)
Tuolumne: Fairview Dome – Lucky Streaks 5.10d (6 pitches)
Yosemite: Manure Pile – Nutcracker 5.8 (5 pitches)
Yosemite: Royal Arches Area – Serenity Crack and Sons of Yesterday link-up 5.10d (7 pitches)
Yosemite: Middle Cathedral – North East Buttress (original route) 5.10c (11 pitches)



About Calvin

Calvin Laatsch guides canyoneering, rock climbing, and mountain biking trips at Zion Adventure Company; he also consults staff and clients alike on Norwegian customs, smooth dance moves, and the latest in dirtbag fashion. Bring your binoculars with you on the Zion Scenic Drive, and there’s a good chance you’ll see Calvin WAY up a wall, testing his mettle in form-fitting jeans.
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2 Responses to A Change of Pace: Big Wall Freeclimbing in Yosemite

  1. avatar Luke says:

    Hey. I met two guys from Springdale up at the Hulk on the 5th of September (Labor Day Weekend). My partner and I were cragging at the base of PV. I’ve core shot two ropes up there. Sometimes the Hulk bites back. Good to meet you.

  2. avatar Calvin says:

    That was definitely us. The Hulk is certainly not a wall to be taken lightly.

    What a perfect weekend though; good people, perfect weather, and full value adventure.