Castle Cliffs (Yosemite)

I used to hate pickles. Sharp, tart, and soaked in vinegar… No way, but you see: a vertical death-march up 3,000 feet of loose rock, labyrinthian corridors, and impassable brush can change a man.

Most of you have probably never heard of Castle Cliffs. It’s to the right of the Yosemite Point Couloir… No? Okay. Let’s start with Yosemite Falls, above the Lodge (you know the one). Follow it east, to the Lost Arrow Spire. From there, the valley rim bends north, into a great notch, known as the Yosemite Point Couloir. This steep canyon splits Yosemite Point from a broken ridge cleft by pinnacles and chimneys, and studded by a hanging pine forest. This is the Castle Cliffs.

We never wanted to climb it. Nay, we set out to climb the Couloir. Adventure, however, might best be described as a grand voyage where something, inevitably, goes wrong.

Do you follow?

It started one day, when I walked into the Mariposa County Library, looking for something to pass the time. Unsurprisingly, our Yosemite-Gateway town had an entire section on The Park, and I was drawn towards it, naturally.

“I wonder if they have any guidebooks,” I muttered as I bent my neck to peruse the shelf. Something green caught my eye. No way, could it be? Holy shit, the Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley, by Steve Roper! I glanced over my shoulder, had anyone seen me take it? 

Treasure. Adventure. Indiana Jones. That’s who I was. That’s what I had found. 

This belongs in a museum, I stroked the cover. Truly, it didn’t belong here.

“How much for the book?” I carefully laid it on the counter. The librarian looked at me curiously,

“It’s free. This is a library.” Duh.

“No, how much to buy it.”

The woman shook her head. Buying the book wasn’t an option. But she assured me I could probably order it online for cheap. Frustrated, I pulled out my phone and showed her a quick google search. The first few hits all priced the book at $200, give or take.

“It doesn’t belong here,” I urged, “You guys should keep it somewhere special: a non-rental section, or something.”

Impressed, the lady still shrugged, “You got two weeks.”

I poured over the book for hours. Unlike all modern guides, this one didn’t boast a single map. No topos: only short, written descriptions. Page after page described various routes that likely hadn’t seen an ascent in years, even decades. Imagination took hold; vagueness allowed my mind to conjure up all kinds of history and scenery. Eventually, one route stood out:

Yosemite Point Couloir (Grade III, 5.7)

This is the impressive canyon to the right of Yosemite Point Buttress. Various ways can be found through the bushy lower section of steep headwalls. The upper half is most easily climbed by keeping usually left of the main watercourse. When it is necessary to enter the watercourse, the main problems are chimneys and chockstones.

A rim climb. Grade III… Problems… Bushy… Watercourse… Chimneys… Better call Elliott. Thus far, Elliott Robinson and I had racked up a vibrant portfolio of adventures together. Big, committing, and obscure; our motives usually involved some combination thereof.

Turns out, Mr. Robinson already owned a copy of the book. Of course. Regardless, he was game, and we soon made plans for attack.

Let it be known that, the day before, Lance Colley and I climbed The Freeblast: a 1,200-foot line up El Capitan’s central buttress. While not enormously difficult, I was a tad sore, the next morning, as Elliott and I threw our packs over our shoulders. We left the Churchbowl parking area at 8:00AM exactly.

Two hours later, and after 1,000 feet of elevation, dirt, and meandering, we found ourselves scratching our heads more often than the manzanita bushes did (which was often). 

“Maybe this way,” one of us pointed up a series of ramps.

“Around that corner, perhaps?” Said the other.

Before we knew it, we had scrambled up a series of ledges, steep cliffs, and vertical forestry to a point where retreat appeared- at best- sketchy.

“I don’t think we’ll be climbing the Couloir anytime soon,” said Elliott, pointing down and standing over a massive drop.

Indeed, we had come to a ridge, and the Yosemite Point Couloir was now in view. Unfortunately, the base of the couloir was several hundred feet below us. We were way, way off-route. Puzzled, I gazed down the cliff, and surveyed our situation.

“That’s where dad used to work,” I chuckled, pointing down to the office of Yosemite Search and Rescue. The trucks looked like toys.

“Let’s smoke a cigarette,” we agreed. TIme to think.

I pulled out my phone, and looked at the picture I had taken of the route’s description. Suddenly, an alternative appeared. Below the paragraph for the couloir, was another one.

Castle Cliffs,” I announced, “Grade II. Between Yosemite Point Couloir and the Arrowhead Region lies a brush-covered wall cleft by many chimneys and gullies. The route lies on the westernmost arete. Two or three pitches comprise the roped climbing. Because of the length of the approach and the descent, and because the route is aesthetically uninteresting, this route is not recommended.”

Elliott and I strained our necks up and tilted our heads this way and that. Indeed, we appeared to be on the westernmost arete.

“What do you think?” I looked to my sensei.

“Let’s do it,” he grinned.

What followed next is difficult to describe: a haze of memories cut by bushes, choss, and vertical sandboxes. Events fall in and out of place, but I certainly remember a healthy supply of wide cracks. At one point, I stumbled upon an ancient piton, and I would have tried to extract it for its historic value, were it not my only point of protection against a rather nasty fall.

Pitch after pitch fell below us, and we laughed at our situation. Two or three pitches? Not so. We hadn’t even brought real climbing shoes; in an homage to history, we wore our approach shoes. Both the Couloir and the Castle Cliffs were pioneered by David Brower and Morgan Harris who, in the 1930’s would have only had stiff leather boots and a few pitons. Accordingly, we only brought a single set of cams, and a set of nuts for protecting our leads. Our rope, normally a 200 foot cut, was just 120 feet.

“Elliott, will you take the next lead?” I was a bit unnerved, and in need of a mental break following the myriad of obstacles we had thus far overcome.

“You bet,” he took the gear, and crawled up a tree, stepping out of it and onto yet-another crumbling wall.

As I fed out rope, I gazed over to the west, across the couloir, and to the Yosemite Point Buttress. Memories and parallels crept in to haunt me; Elliott and I had climbed the accursed YPB years ago, and our unexpected journey now was starting to feel very familiar.

“Oh shit,” I whispered to myself. Directly across the void from me, at eye level, was a chimney. It sliced into the cliff for thirty feet, and abruptly narrowed into an obvious wide crack which shot upwards to a familiar oak tree fifty feet above. As sure as hell is hot, I was looking at Pitch 3 of the Yosemite Point Buttress, which meant the valley rim was (give or take) some 1,100 feet above us. 

What time was it? Somewhere around 2:00PM… What time is sunset in March?

“Watch me,” Elliott called down. The tree was dense, and difficult to see out of, so I carefully paid out rope and attention to my fearless leader. Minutes later he shouted down,


“Off belay!”

The rope slithered up, and came tight against me.

“That’s me,” I called.

“Belay on!”

“Climbing!”

I crawled up the tree and stepped out onto a large pinnacle. The tower was some 70 feet high, and inset into the main cliff with a massive drop on either side. Above me was a great pine tree, growing straight out of the granite. Carefully, I climbed the crumbling face to the base of the tree, which Elliott had surmounted to the right, and up into a sharp corner. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. No holds existed; the face of the tower was a sheer vertical wall that seemed to have been constructed with white ball bearings and superglue. Instead of handholds, the tree cast out a web of roots, each about four inches in diameter, and spaced perfectly every three feet. In essence, the tree’s roots had lashed the trunk all the way around the pinnacle, and offered a perfect (albeit horrifying) step-ladder. Five rungs up, I reached for a sharp fin of rock at the base of an in-cut corner, and gave it a gentle push. The whole thing flexed perceptibly, and I regarded Elliott’s lead with admiration and terror. Up until this point, he had not placed any gear for protection; there simply were no options. The tree was too big; he wouldn’t have been able to throw a sling around it. Had one of its roots failed, or had the fin broke, he would have plummeted some sixty feet into a gully that ran along the base of the tower. It would not have been pretty.

Pull down, not out, I chanted  as I surmounted the sharp fin. Two moves later, I was standing on top of it with my right foot. Pulling down on the next hold, I brought my left foot up to match the stance. Instead of placing my foot delicately on top of the fin, I kicked it. The entire left-half of the rock exploded like glass, sending shards down into the gully. Holy shit. Ho-ly shit.

“Dude,” I stared up at Elliott, “Nice lead.”

“It was a bit spicy,” he allowed.

Some time later, I took the lead up yet-another loose chimney, which evolved into an even-looser offwidth. Stepping out onto a ledge, I found myself staring up a blank and overhanging cliff. Dead end.

“I hope you’ve got something left in your bag of tricks,” I looked to Elliott upon his arrival. Surveying our environment yielded nothing. We were forced to reverse the pitch and find another way. Already, I was getting frustrated, and was not in good spirits as we climbed back down those 70 feet of hard-earned rock.

“In here,” Elliott pointed into another chimney to the left. This narrow slit, barely two feet wide and eighty feet tall, stretched into the mountain for over a hundred feet. Deep into the chasm we went, to a point where Elliott felt satisfied with the rock’s quality, and started leading. Heaps of dirt and grains trickled down from above like beads in a rainstick, and I had to keep my head down to protect my eyes. This was unnerving; should Elliott have dislodged a sizable rock, I wouldn’t see it coming. We hadn’t brought helmets.

As Elliott slithered onwards, I looked out towards the entrance of the chimney, and the framed image there was sickeningly beautiful. Directly across the Yosemite Valley from us, stood Sentinel Rock: a great monolith, steeped in history, and revered by climbers world-wide. However, reverence was not what had caught my eye. The Sentinel was glowing. Gold and ruby hues irradiated from its huge massif, and the surrounding trees cast long shadows to the east.

God damn it, we are not getting benighted on this route, I cursed to myself.

Obviously, we were about to get benighted. Damn it all, however, we were not going to spend the night up here. I had promised to Elycia, my girlfriend, that I would take her up Snake Dike for her birthday. The deadline for making good on that promise was in two days, as she and I were set to leave Yosemite for good. This was my last hoorah before returning to Monterey. If Elliott and I fell prey to an unplanned bivouac, Snake Dike would surely never happen.

“Off belay,” Elliott shouted down. I took another look out to Sentinel, and took to climbing with alacrity.

Darkness fell soon thereafter, and onwards we charged up our rugged corn-maze. Several hours later, through brush, dirt, and chimneys, we came to a point where we could unrope. Still, our problems were not over yet. Higher still, we scrambled through steep terrain, often on our elbows and knees under manzanita and oak who gnashed at our skin relentlessly. At numerous points, we committed our entire lives to the integrity of skinny tree limbs while we stepped over cliffs and pulled onto ledges. Climbing up near-vertical dirt, with absolute-death-fall potential below, we kicked our feet into the soil as if it were snow, and punched handholds into the face, clawing away as though our paws were ice axes.

The moon and stars lit our shoulders as we hunched over my phone, digging for clues. I had a picture of the couloir, taken from below, and on the right side of the image was the Castle Cliffs.

“I think we’re right here,” I said, pointing at a large patch of vertical forest. “Looks like we want to keep trending right.” My head torch lifted up to a series of narrow ledges, trending up and right over massive cliffs. At this point, our biggest concern was getting “pinnacled-out.” Castle Cliffs was a series of columns stacked on top of one another; we feared that we might climb to the summit of one such pinnacle, and then have to rappel or downclimb loose terrain to correct the mistake.

Onwards we scrambled. More dirt, More brush. All the while, we clung to whatever we could, facing drop after drop. 

“Let’s take a break,” one of us said. We hadn’t eaten anything all day, nor had we touched the water; the YPB had taught us to conserve. We selected a sizable ledge for our midnight-picnic, and dropped our gear into the dirt. Lighting a cigarette, I stared out into the void as Elliott extricated our rations. After a few sips of water, he handed me a bag of sliced pickles.

Pickles. I hate pickles. I shrugged, Oh well. Elliott took the cigarette, and I reached into the bag: fingers recoiling at the cold and slimy things. The stench of vinegar was accentuated by hunger and darkness. As I stared down to the Valley floor, awash in moonlight and brimming with lights in the parking lots below, I slid a slice into my mouth, and something magical happened. Suddenly, I loved pickles. Salty, juicy, succulent pickles. My synapses frantically re-wired themselves to adapt to the situation, and I shoved a handful more into my mouth. Fighting the urge to eat the whole bag, I reluctantly handed it back to Elliott who handed me back my cigarette. I took a drag and burped, savoring the aftertaste. Pickles. Fucking love pickles.

After sitting still, the cold crept back in. Zipping up our jackets, we saddled up, and soldiered on. The final climax of the ascent came soon thereafter, when a narrow ramp seemed to be leading us to nowhere. We followed it up, committing ourselves to quite-the-folly should it dead-end. By some miracle, I noticed a gully below rising up to meet us as we traversed or way east. Just when we thought we had reached an impasse, a few holds appeared around a ridge, which required some tenous climbing, but deposited us safely onto the other side of the gully. From there, obvious Class 2 and Class 3 terrain led to the rim.

Some time later, we found ourselves sitting on a log, basking in moonlight and marvelling at the stars, who irradiated the snow around us in a pale blue. The wind bit frigidly, though we were invincible, and the trees whispered in the breeze as we laughed and laughed over a cigarette.

“I can’t believe that just happened,” I giggled, passing the smoke to Elliott.

“Yeah, good stuff,” Elliott smiled, content.

“Funny thing is,” I pondered, “That was definitely worse than the YPB, but it didn’t feel like it. Easier climbing for sure, but some damn loose rock…”

“Never knowing where we were going,” Elliott sighed like he was remembering some shapely girlfriend in his youth.

Burl points had just been won, along with obscurity and adventure. Satisfied, we rose to our feet, brushed off some dirt and leaves, and commenced down the death march that is the Yosemite Falls trail for the fourth time in my life. To this day, I have never gone up it, By and large, it is my least-favorite descent in the world. Just as one passes the falls, the view opens up, and you can see all the way down to the valley floor, which laughs at you as you descend for miles of endless switchbacks. Gazing down to the lights of the lodge, and to the moonlit trees that resemble blades of grass who never get any closer, you swear that you will never do this to yourself again. That’s a lie, some corner of your brain laughs, you always come back.

Only a climber knows that feeling, when you first lay eyes on the car after a long adventure. A real adventure. We stumbled back to Churchbowl at 3:30AM, no longer mountaineers. We were astronauts: forsaken on Mars and, after scouring alien landscapes and fending off interstellar monsters, we had found the ship back to Earth. Our vessel. Our salvation. We threw ourselves inside, and Elliott started the engine.

Take us home, captain.

Elliott’s knees. He had been wearing pants.

The next day- or same one, technically- as I lay in bed and as Elliott left for Monterey, he told Elycia something that I wouldn’t have expected him to say in a million years. Apparently, the king of death marches confided something to my lover,

“That was pretty fucked up. If Zay is too tired for Snake Dike tomorrow, I’d give him a pass.”

Now the land that I knew is a dream,

And the line on the distance grows faint,

So wide is my river, the horizon a sliver,

The artist has run out of paint.”

4 thoughts on “Castle Cliffs (Yosemite)”

    1. Thank you so much. Agreed, there is so much CHARACTER up in those cliffs. Every rock in this park has a personality, haunted by history and woven in story… everytime i drive by Sentinel i feel like i should avert my eyes

      Like

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