Solo on Lost Arrow (Yosemite)

The truck came to a rest at Porcupine Flat, and I stepped out the passenger’s side to be greeted by the scent of pine. Strolling to the back, I dropped the tailgate with a slam, and the avalanche began.

Ropes, nuts, hooks, and cams…

Carabiners, jackets, and food…

Whiskey and cigarettes…

Piece by piece, I shuttled my gear over to the shade of a wiggling pine tree. Despite the chilly air, direct sun was too warm, and I was going to be here a while.

Satisfied that I had everything, I shook Nick’s hand in thanks.

“Good luck,” He said with a smile.

The green pickup melted back into the 120 highway, and an elderly couple watched me in curiosity while I sat on my knees, organizing.

“Doing some climbing today?” Inquired the man, his hands in his pockets, looking around the forest for some evidence of a cliff.

“Tomorrow,” I grinned, “today is just the approach.”

With everything stuffed, stowed, and strapped-down, I slung the fifty-pound beast onto my shoulders, and clipped the waist belt.

“Good luck out there,” the man and his wife cheered.

We waved goodbye and I started down the trail. The next four hours would be a carefully-paced plod through quiet woods over level earth. Waiting at the other end, was the northern rim of Yosemite Valley, and the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. Near there, the tip of the Lost Arrow Spire juts out from the valley wall, thousands of feet above The Lodge. 

The plan was to execute my first big-wall solo; climb the spire, and extricate myself from the summit, safely. Though climbing the tip would require only two rope lengths, its position and logistics land it a place in the same guidebooks as the Northwest Face of Half Dome, and The Nose of El Capitan.

The trail bobbed and weaved for mile after mile, but I was in no hurry. I passed the time by imagining the scene of the first man to ever attack the spire…

Climbers of the 1930’s had long dreamed of standing atop the Lost Arrow. Such large, freestanding pinnacles with distinct summits lured adventurers most in those days. However, it wasn’t until 1946 that John Salathe stood at the valley rim, alone, and looked to the spire with intent. Two other men, who had promised to join him, never showed. Perhaps they dismissed Salathe for his experience, having been climbing barely a year; or maybe his 47 years made him too old, maybe both.

“Oh vell,” he shrugged. I liked to believe his thick, Swiss accent was cheerful.

Alone, he tied several ropes to a nearby tree, and rappelled into the notch. Three hundred feet down, the base of the spire connects to the valley wall, already two thousand feet above the forest. From there, he worked his way out along a narrow ledge barely a foot wide. A crack appeared around an exposed corner, one that could be climbed. Getting to that crack required him to reach far out, and step over a massive void that would rattle climbers with vertigo for decades to come. With his Swiss cheer, he shrugged off the exposure and started climbing. He made it nearly halfway up the spire until a blank section of rock  forced a retreat. He returned a year later to summit with Anton “Ax” Nelson.

History weaved through my mind in black-and-white like smoke, as I sat against a tree, sipping water and nursing a cigarette. In two hours I hadn’t seen a single person, nor a squirrel or bird- though I could hear them, singing in the canopy above. The sun moved perceptibly through the trees so I decided to keep moving.  

Miles later, the forest suddenly thinned out, and gave way to a distant mountain range. To my left, I caught the massive face of Half Dome creeping through the trees. I felt like I had come to the ends of the Earth as I soon stood over Yosemite Point, and the entirety of Yosemite Valley below.

A familiar scene seized my attention. Several years ago, I climbed the Yosemite Point Buttress with my mentor, Elliott Robinson. The “Y.P.B.” was a serious route, rising up from the valley floor to here through a vertical maze of loose rock, chimneys, and wide cracks. We endured an unplanned bivouac on jagged ledge where strong, cold winds lashed us through the night. The next day, we ran out of water as temperatures soared and, upon summiting, were happy to strip half-naked and throw ourselves into the river above Yosemite Falls, drinking the unfiltered water like gluttons.

The tree that marked the end of the Y.P.B held my gaze while I remembered everything. Turning my head to the west, I was confronted by The Lost Arrow Spire.

“You’re back,” it seemed to say.

From where I was standing, I could have thrown an apple to a hungry climber on its summit. If I missed, it would reach terminal velocity, rocket down thin air, and someone could be struck dead, ten seconds later. I admired this view for a while before glancing at the sun’s position. Plenty of time until darkness, but I didn’t want to chance it. I stashed most of my gear in some bushes, and made off for the falls with my borrowed filter. I followed the path that Elliott and I took after the YPB, and within fifteen minutes, I stood over the river. Thirst had consumed my mind that day, and I smiled at how prepared I felt now. I found the pool where the two of us frolicked, filled my gallon, and leaned leaned back to relax. The sounds of water over rocks, wind in the trees, and the chirps of birds struck me: it was so quiet. A handful of tourists were over by Yosemite Point, yet here I was alone. On a normal summer day, a hundred tourists might walk right by this spot in the time I took to rest. 

Hiking back up to the cache, I spied a flat patch of sand in a deep gully near the rim. Twenty yards away, a sheer cliff gave way to the base of Upper Falls, and the cascades that separated them from Lower Falls… a room with a view! I set my camp up there, and returned to Yosemite Point to enjoy the sunset.

The High Sierra peaks gradually morphed in color from yellow and gold, to orange and purple. Half Dome proudly clung to its ruby glow, and I admired a group ravens soaring along the rim while I sipped whiskey and enjoyed another cigarette. A juniper tree jiggled golden needles in the breeze. As twilight moved in, that familiar wind began to rise, and I hustled back to camp to start a fire.

The fire danced, and I finished the whiskey with a few more cigarettes while the embers flew out horizontally, towards the cliff. The south rim was a silhouette in the stars, and Sentinel Rock had gone to bed. Satisfied, I put the kibosh on the fire, and darkness jumped in. Right away, I noticed the  cold. I zipped up my two jackets, and crawled onto my inflatable sleeping pad, wrapping myself in a mylar space blanket. The sleeping bag had been left behind to save pack space, and with my two jackets, gloves, and beanie, I figured the mylar would do.

The rising wind ripped it off my body right away.

“Damn it.”

Then again.

And again.

Already, I was shivering, and minutes passed like hours as I struggled to subdue the blanket. Finally under control, I started dozing off.

The blanket blew open again, and a river of cold air blew through me. My priorities were shifting.

Warmth was more important than sleep, so I abandoned the bivy to build another fire. Damn it all, I’d tend to those flames all night. I placed some rocks on the space blanket to pin it down, as the wind threatened to send it ripping off over the void. A few jumping jacks, and I hustled to the fire pit, thrusting in dead needles. 

With a naked hand, I held out my lighter and flicked it… and flicked it… and flicked it. Too windy; no flame would catch. I threw my body into wild positions, desperate to block it.

Spark, spark, spark… 

Shiver.

Spark, spark, spark…

I tried until my thumb rubbed raw; a fire wasn’t in the cards. More jumping jacks. What to do? If needed, I could simply pack up and make for the valley floor; hiking would warm me up. Then I noticed spotted a recession in the rocks, guarded by bushes, and threw myself into it. Still windy, but not as bad. I ran to the backpack and retrieved some climbing tape. With my knees, I pinned down the mylar blanket, and used to numbed hands to meticulously tape it together: Frankenstein’s sleeping bag..

I shuttled back to the hole and slithered in. Within minutes, the shivering subsided, and I dozed off.

The shivers returned.

The pad had deflated, and the granite beneath me felt like turgid snow. I rolled off the pad, and blew into the mouthpiece. It refused to hold air. I almost managed a laugh as one last idea crossed my mind.. I raced out of the bag, and ran around camp gathering armfuls of pine needles, piling them by the bivy. I must have looked ridiculous: frantically darting back and forth with heaps after heap. The pile complete, I slithered back into the bag, and stuffed it full around my body. Within ten minutes I was warm, and passed out.

The alarm on my phone caught me off guard. It was 6:00am, and dawn invaded the sky. I poked my head out of the sack, and was slapped with that same frigid breeze.

“Hell with that.”

Like a worried tortoise, I retracted my head. The wind would die down soon, I hoped. An hour passed, it didn’t. I knew I had to get moving; solo climbing with a rope is slow, and even two pitches could take all day. I thought of being caught on the spire at night, exposed to those winds again without my pine needles to save me… Elliott had told me of a friend who was trapped on the spire. He died of exposure.

I reached out of the bag and snatched my stove. Coffee brewed, and breakfast was re-hydrated biscuits and gravy, with sausage. A frozen hand a traditional post-meal-smoke, and I crawled out of the bag. Hiking to the route would warm me up.

A long while later, I was nearly done organizing. My “rack” included a full set of cams: spring loaded devices that expanded into cracks to protect falls; a full set of “offsets,” whose special shape allow them to hold into odd cracks; two sets of nuts, for wedging into constrictions; a large hook, for clinging to tiny edges; and a myriad of slings, carabiners, and other devices for climbing and managing ropes.

I carefully laid out my two ropes, each 200 feet long, and joined them to produce a single 400 foot shot. I piled it neatly to ensure no twists or tangles that could leave me dealing spiderwebs in space. Finally, I tied one end to a hefty juniper tree with a bowline, crept over to the rim, and hurled the rope over the edge.

I sauntered back to the tree, donned my rack, and lit another cigarette. Physically, I was ready to go.

I sat down and peered through the smoke, and over the void, to Sentinel Rock. John Salathe’s ghost again caught my attention. On Sentinel’s massive north face, he and Alan Steck spent five sweltering days pioneering its first route. Early on their fifth day, Salathe used the last of his water to moisten his dentures enough to insert them. On the descent, Steck threw himself, fully clothed, into a shallow pool.

Eventually, the embers of my cigarette reached the filter; I had nowhere else to go. I set up my rappel, and started down.

The rim plummeted beneath me, and I was hanging in space, alone like Salathe. However, I was nowhere in his league; my equipment was refined, and I wielded decades of knowledge about the route. Thousands of climbers had trodden here; no contest for most adventurous. Still, it was fun to pretend.

Three hundred feet down, I reached the notch and spied the narrow ledge, marking the start of the route. At its terminus were two bolted hangars to serve as an anchor. At the the bolts, I pulled down on the rappel line until it was tight against the tree- now three hundred feet above- and tied it off to the anchor with some carabiners. This left me with 100 feet of rope, which I would use to climb to the next anchor. 

I gazed up the tower, and back to the rim. My rope hung like floss in the breeze. I looked down. From here, I could have spit on anyone at the base, though the wind would blow it right back in my face. Then I noticed something else: No vertigo…  No dropping stomachs or stretching hallways… Just a breathtaking expanse of nothing between me and the treetops; something beautiful to be admired. A hundred feet down, a raven patrolled the edge.

I leaned out and peered around the corner. There it was: the same crack that Salathe discovered seventy three years ago, shooting up, towards the summit. It was a stretch to reach it, and I had to lean over the void, but I was safely clipped in. Besides, I relished the position. Removing a small cam from my rack, I stepped out, and slotted it into fissure. As it hung there, holding the crack, I clipped it with an my “aider,” a small, nylon step ladder. My foot extended to test the cam; bouncing it would reveal if it would hold my body weight or, even better, a fall. I declared it “bomb-proof” and committed to it, swinging into the void. I gazed down for a second, then upwards, and moved up the crack. This was aid climbing: using tools to assist in progress 

To belay myself, I had a device called a Grigri, which would act like a seatbelt. If rope pulled through it too quickly, it would seize. In a real fall, this seizure wouldn’t happen until I had fallen below my last piece of gear. Normally, a Grigri is used by one climber acting as a belayer, who pays out slack in increments to a leader above. If the leader falls, the belayer holds the rope, and the locking function serves as a backup. By clipping the Grigri to myself, that function became my lifeline. As an extra measure of safety, I tied a backup knot to my harness with bight of slack in the free end of the rope. If the Grigri failed to arrest a fall, I would be saved by the knot… hopefully before hitting a ledge.

Higher up, I was greeted by an old, rusty piton in the crack. I glanced it over to see if it bore the shape of a ‘“P” inside a diamond: the insignia of Salathe’s own Peninsula Wrought Iron Works. I knew I would find no such pitons here; anyone with a sense of history would have extracted it immediately, and it would be worth a small fortune. Still, I enjoyed playing archeologist on such an alien landscape, following the treasure map of a great explorer long since passed. 

After a few more moves of direct aid, I faced a blank section. Blank, as in my mechanical trickery would not help me here. No cracks for cams or nuts; no small edges to hook; I had to go free. This meant climbing above my gear using only hands and feet on the rock, and such a  transition is always exciting. Stepping high in the ladder, I reached up to a deep pocket in the rock that offered a fantastic handhold. The rock face here was still quite steep, though I could at least spread some of my weight onto my feet by pasting them against the wall. With both feet now out of the ladder I hung, suspended on one arm, long enough to reach down, and retrieve my aider from the gear below. Using both arms, I then pulled myself up onto a good foothold where I could stand quite comfortably. Just above me, and well within arm’s reach, was a bolt which allowed me to return to aid mode for a while. Another easy free section, followed by more aid, brought me to a ledge, about three feet wide and eight feet long. Staring me in the face like a pair of eyes were two bolts side-by-side. This marked the end of the first pitch, and meant I was standing on “Salathe Ledge,” from which whose namesake it held retreated on his first attempt. 

Though I had just climbed half of the elevation of the route, I had really only covered one sixth of its ground. Without a partner, I would have cover each pitch three times. 

Normally, a leader would tie the rope to the anchor here, and the second climber would ascend the rope, removing the gear that had been placed for protection by the first. This allows the team to leap-frog their way up the wall in a single push. Since I was alone, I had to tie the rope to the upper anchor, rappel back down to the lower one, and retrieve my gear along the way. Then I had to release the lower anchor, and climb back up the rope to Salathe Ledge with everything clipped to me. There, I would again pull tight on the tree rope, still fixed to the rim, and tie it off to the bolts like last time. After all that, I  had to re-stacked the leftover rope, reorganize my gear, and start over.

I had rehearsed this procedure in my head countless times, and even drew a few diagrams of the process. The execution was a joy. I relished the exposure, the position, and the strange, adventurous tasks.

The air had finally stagnated, and the late morning sun had me sweating. I reached into my pack and checked my water, nearly a full gallon. I took a few gulps, ripped my shirt off, lit a smoke, and sat to relax with my feet dangling over the ledge. It was nice to be so warm after such a cold night. Tiny lines of cars slowly rolled along Northside Drive. Glacier Point cast its oppressive shadow on Curry Village. Business as usual below while I sat on Mars.

I mashed the cigarette, and stuffed the butt in my pocket. The next bit of climbing was quite easy; several bolts in the rock led the way, and each could be clipped within reach of the last. I followed them up and left, which brought me back over the void until they ended in a blank spot. I looked up, then left, and spotted the next bolt: too far out of reach. Then I spied a small pocket in the rock, about the size and shape of an in-cut strawberry. I reached out to it, and felt it with my finger. The bottom edge was very pronounced, and my finger curled over it slightly. This called for a hook placement. I rummaged through my metal apothecry, and found it. About the size and shape of a curled pinky finger, hooks can be a bit scary to use: they hold your entire body weight with only a few millimeters of contact with the rock. Worse yet, they do not work for protection; it will hold your body weight, and no more. The second you step off a hook, it ceases to be useful, while a cam or a nut can be left behind to catch a fall. Regardless, the lip of rock was so pronounced that my hook would obviously hold it well. Clipping my aider to the hook, I stepped out, and carefully swung left onto it. 

Bomber. 

From there, more bolts led the way up, interspersed with some thin cracks for cams. Each placement of gear was so reliable that if I did somehow fall, I might drop fifteen feet at the most. With no ledges to hit, it would be a clean vertical ride into space. With my Grigri and my backup knot, I was safer here than on a freeway in Los Angeles.

Tilting my head upwards, I saw an immense field of blue; I was running out of rock. The bolt ladder ended, and thirty feet of blank, low angle slab stood before me and the summit. Here, I was faced with one last transition from aid to free climbing. However this time, there was nothing to hold on to. The slab was steep enough that I couldn’t simply step out of the aiders and waltz to the top. Instead, I was faced with what climbers call “friction slab,” where the weight of your body on the rubber of your shoes creates just enough friction that your feet don’t slip off the incline. To the uninitiated, this style of climbing is the most perplexing. As apes, we naturally cling to edges. Cracks, though less natural, are at least secure. Friction climbing challenges everything your brain understands about what you can stand on, and what you can’t. Only with specialized rubber are its harder grades even possible.

I lifted one foot out of the aider, and placed it on the slab with the ball of my foot. Locking my ankle, I activated every muscle in my calf to hold a strict position while I transferred all of my weight onto it. My fingers could only poke at the rock for balance. I badly wanted to climb out of this position, but my aider kept me tethered to the bolt by a sling of nylon. Tenuously, I crouched, reached down, and uncliped the aider from the bolt. As fast as I could, I started climbing. Immediately, the angle eased back, and I could trust my feet. Ten steps up, and I was on top of the Lost Arrow Spire.

My planet was isolated in all directions. Ahead, the valley rim was devoid of life. To the West, I could make out some humans by the top of Yosemite Falls. A full panorama swept over to Eagle Peak, Sentinel Rock, Glacier Point, and finally to Half Dome, with all of the High Sierra behind her. Far below, the treetops resembled a field of grass. Anyone by The Lodge could look up to my perch, half a mile above, and I would be too small to identify. I was the man on the Moon.

I let out a long, sharp howl. It echoed back in full from the Falls Wall and, a second later, again from Sentinel.

I wanted to drink it all in, but I wasn’t done yet. I still had to rappel down to the lower anchor one more time, and retrieve my gear. Twenty minutes later, I was back on the summit. My rope, still fixed to the tree at the rim, was nearly horizontal as I pulled it tight to the summit bolts, and clipped it in. 

The sun stood erect over Sentinel Dome, I had made good time, and had nowhere else to be. I crept over to the edge, towards the valley, and sat down. My feet dangled over the meadows like a child in a high chair. With my water and my cigarettes, I was king.

My phone buzzed sometime later. I checked it to see a message from my girlfriend Elycia. She wanted to hike up and meet me, but she had to be back in Mariposa at 6:30 for work. I checked the time, almost 2:00.

Time to go.

I messaged her back, “Bring Ibuprofen.”

I shot up from my perch and made for my escape. Glancing over to Yosemite Point, I saw its first signs of life: two men, and one had a camera.

“Yo!”

“Holy shit!”

“Will you shoot this!?”

“I’m all over it!”

I rounded up my gear, and stuffed what I could into the pack. My final act would be to transfer myself safely off the tip, and back to the valley rim. I pulled the tree rope tight, and clipped my Jumars to it. These would hold the line fast to my body, and I could slide them up the rope to climb it, soon enough.

Using my second rope, I fed it through the rappel rings until it was even on both sides, 100 feet off each end. As I lowered off the rappel rope, the tree rope would pull me away from the spire, across the gap, and settle me against the valley rim 100 feet below the tree. From there, I could climb straight up, and retrieve the second rope later.

Finally set to go, I glanced over my system one last time. The tree rope sagged across the gap, with the notch three hundred feet below and from there, another thousand feet to the first tier. The midday sun was warm and bright, with an occasional breeze for a quick chill. Ground control to Major Tom…

Down I went, and in moments I was pulled away from the spire, hovering in space. Though a slow ride, I let out another howl. With every inch of rappel, I was brought closer to the rim. All too soon, I was resting against the main cliff, and the fun part was over. Now hanging by the tree rope, I pulled the rappel line until it was free of the spire. The wind was now quite strong, and it sent the floss whipping towards the falls. To prevent it from snagging on a protrusion, I pulled up the bulk of the free line and bunched it to me. From there, I had only the cumbersome task of ascending the remaining rope with the weight of all my gear.

Ten minutes later, I was back on the rim, safe.

The sun had just shifted to the west, and the trees began to glow, but there was no time to soak it in. Elycia had a turn-around time; my victory smoke would have to be on the go.

With 50 pounds back on my waistbelt, I stumbled down the trail as fast as I could, passing the occasional downhill traffic. My knees were ablaze, but if I could just get Elycia to take some of the load, it would be worth it. 

Step after step rattled my body, until looking up, I could see the whole of Upper Falls, and my phone rang.

“I called work, I got an extra hour.”

My mouth quaked and my throat seized as I collapsed to the ground, and wept. We were good on time.

After a short rest, the switchbacks resumed, though much slower this time. 

Suddenly, a dark figure jumped out from behind a rock: a beautiful woman with wild, black hair… and she brought a backpack.

Darkness fell as we were finally level with the forest floor. Somewhere ahead, twin fantoms of light weaved through the trees with a soft rumble. Civilization was an alien world, and a massive beast with bright, glowing eyes stopped to let us pass. I think they call them busses.

More lights, more metal monsters… and human beings materialized in the darkness. Voices, engines, brakes… was I dead?

My backpack fell from my shoulders, and I lay myself on the earth. A large, dark dog leapt from Elycia’s car, and stood over my face, sniffing. I reached up while he licked, his fur was warm in my fingers.

“Hey boy.” 

Elycia started the car; it was time to go. I’d get my gear from her tomorrow.

“See you later.” She said with a smile.

I shuffled towards the Lodge with knees that would not bend. High above in the moonlight, the Yosemite Point Buttress stood, holding hands with the Lost Arrow Spire. Two primordial gods nodded in approval… and every step brought me inches closer to the Mountain Room Bar.

-In loving memory of Supertopo.com

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