What if he falls?

What if He Falls?

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin produced, directed, and shot the movie Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s free solo of the Freerider route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California. This behind the scenes piece for The New York Times is incredible and the movie will no doubt be incredible as well.

Zoom it out. Wow!

Two Nineteen Forty Four

Two Nineteen Forty Four from Tristan Greszko on Vimeo.

Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds setting a speed record for climbing the Nose route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. They climbed it in 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 44 seconds.

To me, speed records seem insane but hey, I’m an old fart who climbed in traditional ways. But, this video is well worth watching because it’s a great piece of work in itself, documenting an amazing achievement.

[via PetaPixel]

More Lost Arrow Spire fun

A few interesting things I forgot to put in my post on Climbing the Lost Arrow Spire. If you hunt around on the internet in various nooks and crannies you’re bound to find a lot more.

Lost Arrow Spire, Tyrolean Traverse from Mark Smiley on Vimeo.

Mark and Janelle Smiley doing the Lost Arrow tip and Tyrollean traverse back. The Smiley’s are an adventurous couple and worth following: Blue Square Productions.

Here is a collection of their excellent videos.

Here’s a blog post by ? And Shirley Choss that documents this couple’s climb of the Lost Arrow Spire and Tyrollean traverse to get off. It’s 2004 so not super up to date but a lot more up to date than my 1976 climb: Lost Arrow Tip.

They’ve done a lot of climbing all over the world over many years: Choss climbing images.

Climbing the Lost Arrow Spire

This post is part three of a three part story: Thinking about the Lost Arrow Spire (1977), Climbing the West Face of Monkey Face (May, 1979, and this post which takes place in July, 1979. If you missed the first or second, I recommend reading them first before reading this one. The images posted here were shot with an Olympus XA (film) camera on cheap movie reversal film. A number of years ago I realized that the slides were in bad shape so I had them professionally scanned. The original images weren’t great and years of dust and rough handling did them no good. But, they do help tell these stories so I use them without much cleanup. Doing a search on Flickr for lost arrow spire Yosemite or a Google image search or a youTube search will give you many more modern and clearer images and videos although of course, not of our time there in the 1970’s.

I wish I had more pictures of this climb but in fact, when looking at the slides on a light table only about half of them were scannable, the rest had faded terribly or were so damaged as to not be useable.

The other interesting piece about all of this is that at this point in my life, over forty years after doing this climb I didn’t remember many details until I looked at the images. Having the images, even less than wonderful images, helps bring back the memories. In fact, these images warp time and allow travel through a wormhole to an experience that happened a long time ago. In all seriousness, I get a bit creeped out (scared) thinking about various parts of this climb when I look at the images and think back. That’s powerful.

Not all photographs have to be works of art to help tell stories. Those of you reading this who consider yourself photographers need to remember that. Snapshots are useful and important as well as images that might be framed and put on a wall. This is one of the many reasons point and shoot and smartphone cameras are so important: you always have them with you and they’re easy to use to take a picture.

Both Faye Nakamura (my then girlfriend and climbing partner) and I were both potters (ceramic artists) at the time of this climb. Faye was to go on to become a well known and successful artist in the Pacific Northwest, I was to go on to other things.

Lost Arrow Spire and Yosemite Point

Looking up at Yosemite Point (right prow) and the Lost Arrow Spire from Yosemite Village. Yosemite Falls (the highest waterfall in the valley) is just left of the left edge of this frame.

When we first decided to do this climb (1977) we’d hiked up to Yosemite Point with day packs, lunch and water. To actually do the climb, we’d need to do the same hike with both camping and climbing gear. Because we were going to fix ropes (leave them in place) from the rim to the notch (between the cliff and the spire) we needed four ropes: two to fix, and two to do the climb (a lead rope and an extra rope for the long rappels (two ropes tied together).

And, given that this climb had been done initially with pitons and the main crack was pretty messed up from larger and larger pitons being pounded in and removed, we’d need to bring a variety of protection, including some pitons and hammers (one to put pitons in, one to remove them).

Richard (me) sorting gear

Richard (me) sorting gear for the hike and climb: stove and white gas, some pitons on the ground beside me, knee pads (we didn’t use them), hooks (under knee pads) for extreme aiding, large chocks, two hammers, stoppers, ascenders and a lot more not shown. It was a load.

The hike up the Falls Trail is a real slog: 2000 feet of climb and many switchbacks. When the falls are running one can get a bit wet in places; the falls were dry when we did this. We left the valley mid morning and were up at the bridge across Yosemite Creek (which forms the falls) by about 2:00 pm.

Richard resting at Yosemite Creek

Richard (me) resting and eating beside Yosemite Creek which isn’t running. Note the packs, they were extremely heavy.

The creek was inviting and there were other folks swimming there so we figured it was early enough and only a short walk east along the rim to Yosemite Point so we decided to cool off.

Richard (me) swimming in Yosemite Creek

Richard (me) bouldering to the edge of the pool on Yosemite Creek.

Richard (me) swimming in Yosemite Creek

The water was cold as I remember but we were hot.

Faye swimming in Yosemite Creek

Faye swimming in Yosemite Creek.

Upper Yosemite Falls (dry)

Yosemite Falls (not running). Our swimming hole is just beyond the notch.

After we were done swimming we packed up and hiked the rim trail toward Yosemite Point. It’s not far but as we approached the place we’d been at the year before it felt different: this time we were going to do the climb.

I can honestly say that during the hike up neither of us was dreading the climb but as we approached the area on the rim just above the Lost Arrow we both got the willies. There was no one there, no one on the climb, and it was getting cooler and a bit breezy.

We looked around and found a spot behind the rappel point (a lone tree) to set up camp.

Campsite on rim above Lost Arrow Spire

Richard setting up camp on the rim above the Lost Arrow Spire. Note Sentinel across the valley. The rappel into the notch is directly behind me and that tree is the single anchor point for the rappel and the fixed rope for the return from the notch.

We’d come to Yosemite from Eugene, Oregon to spend two to three weeks climbing and this climb was one of many we’d do on this trip. Still, it was one we’d planned for a year and it had more exposure (it was higher off the ground) than anything we’d ever done. It was also probably (we didn’t know) the hardest aid climbing we’d ever done and this had me, in particular on edge.

Richard (me) looking down on Lost Arrow Spire

Richard looking over the edge down at the top of the Lost Arrow Spire and the notch below. It was starting to get cold and windy (why I was wearing shorts I don’t know) and it creeped us out.

Honestly, I don’t remember if Faye and I slept much that night. I’d like to think we did being tired from the hike but we were both nervous about the climb.

The next day we got up although no doubt were in no rush to get started, had to let things warm up a bit. And, we had to sort out the gear and get the camping stuff stowed so animals wouldn’t get into it. I’m pretty sure there was no way to do that so it’s possible something ate whatever food we left behind but I don’t really remember. That was a common occurrence in Yosemite when a pack with food was left on a ledge for even a short time.

We also had to run through the logistics of the climb: fixing the ropes down to the notch, doing the climb, rappelling back down to the notch (two rappels) and climbing back up to the rim. We re-read the Roper guide description of the climb just to make sure we were fully prepared.

Lost Arrow Tip
From the 1971 edition of Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley by Steve Roper

Grade III, 5.5, A3. First ascent in September 1946 by Fritz Lippmann, Jack Arnold, Anton Nelson and Robin Hansen. This party gained the summit after engineering a Tyrollean traverse. The first climbing ascent was masterminded by John Salathé who, with Nelson, climbed the pinnacle on the fifth day of their route from the base. From trees 300 feet west of the railing at Yosemite Point, rappel 130 feet to a large flake. Next, rappel 115 feet into the notch. Both these ropes must be left in place for the return; the lower end of the lower rope should be secured in the notch to prevent its swinging out of reach.

From the sinister notch walk out a narrow ledge on the east face. Nail and free climb 35 feet to a good belay ledge. Climb left around a rotten corner, then nail 20 feet to Salathé Ledge, an excellent, relaxing belay site. The 3rd pitch is the crux: traverse left a few feet, nail for about 20 feet, then move left and nail up to a sling belay at the base of the “flint-hard and flawless Arrow tip.” On the last pitch, use bolts and 2 pitons for aid. Two rappels (125 feet and 70 feet) lead (back) to the notch.

The nailing on this magnificent route is continually changing and challenging. Nelson, speaking of his 1946 ascent, has written: “as we further diminish the crack’s possibilities, it becomes doubtful that many others will ever climb the Lost Arrow.” By 1970 the pinnacle had been climbed over 200 times and the cracks were still getting worse. What were horizontal piton cracks in 1960 are now inch-angle cracks. The rating remains the same, but the hardware changes. A 1971 selection should include about 15 pitons: one- third horizontals and the rest angles to 2″.

Topographical Maps
When we did this climb there were no published topographical (topo) maps/charts of climbs, just verbal descriptions in guidebooks like the Roper guide above (no internet). A few years later a great book called Yosemite Climbs by George Meyers came out and it had topo drawings of all the climbs in Yosemite. It was extremely useful.

Here is the topo of the Lost Arrow Spire climb minus the pitch ratings from a newer edition of the Meyers book (I don’t have my original copy of the book anymore):

Lost Arrow Spire topo (old)

Here’s a topo map I just drew, also minus ratings but with notes on pitches and belays:

Lost Arrow Spire topo

We got everything sorted and we tied the first rappel rope around the tree (this rappel point has been replaced with bolts to save the tree) and tossed it over the edge. While we were both a bit creeped out, I loaded up the extra ropes and gear and started my rappel to the notch. I had Faye belay me on a second rope (not a normal way to do a rappel) although given that I wasn’t sure exactly where the ledge I was rappelling to was, it wasn’t a bad idea. One doesn’t want to rappel off the end of a rope!

Richard (me) rappelling into the notch, Lost Arrow Spire

Richard rappelling over the edge into the notch with the arrow tip behind.

Why I wore shorts on this climb I will never know. Idiot! Oh well, I lived. I found the little ledge at the bottom of the rappel with its anchor bolts for the second rappel into the notch. I clipped in so Faye could take me off belay. I then uncoiled a second rope, tied it into the anchor and tossed it out and it fell to the floor of the notch.

I waited for Faye to reach me before tying the lower end of the upper rope to the anchor point. It would have been a real drag had there been enough wind when we returned here so that the end of the rope was blown out of reach. Thankfully the Roper guide route description (above) recommends this for the bottom rope, I decided to do it to both. I’m not sure we’d have thought of it otherwise.

Then we each rappelled into the notch and fixed the bottom of the second rope to some rocks there.

So far so good and while the rappels were a bit scary we’d done them without problems and we felt a bit less nervous and a bit more energized for the climb in front of us.

Richard (me) in the notch, Lost Arrow Spire

Richard in the notch gearing up for pitch 1 of the Lost Arrow Spire. My late parents had this picture blown up and had it on their wall. My parents lived in Los Angeles and visited Yosemite often and had taken me there as a kid (we saw the fire fall off Glacier Point). They were both in awe of my climbing and it also frightened them. The standing order was to call home at the finish of any climb that took a whole day or more.

The first pitch out of the notch follows a thin ledge around the east side of the Arrow. It’s mixed free and aid although given that you’re stepping out into 2000 feet of exposure without having acclimated by having climbed up to that point, it’s “breathtaking” and if memory serves, when possible, I used aid to stay in the comfort of my stirrups.

Richard (me) on pitch 1 of the Lost Arrow Spire

Leading the first pitch out of the notch on the Lost Arrow Spire. Note the hammer, slings, and all sorts of junk hanging off me.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

That awkward place between free and aid climbing. There was enough exposure behind me so that I doubt I pushed the free climbing all that much. Easier on the brain to stand in stirrups.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Getting clipped into the first bolt on pitch 1.

Richard at the first belay, Lost Arrow Spire

Looking down from the top of pitch 1. The rope is fixed and Faye is coming up.

We did this climb in the big wall style we’d done the west face of Monkey Face: leader leads on belay from second, anchors rope to top of pitch, second uses ascenders to clean pitch while leader hauls pack and/or rests.

Faye ascending pitch 1, Lost Arrow Spire

Faye cleaning pitch 1. Note the exposure below her. Also, the dark “hole” off to the right of her in the frame is the base of Upper Yosemite Falls.

Faye leading pitch 2, Lost Arrow Spire

Faye leading pitch 2.

The first two pitches on this route are short and relatively easy mixed free and mostly aid climbing. The protection was good and while communication was difficult around a corner, it wasn’t too bad. Had the waterfall been running communication might have been tough. These days these pitches are free climbed (leader uses the rope and protection in case of a fall but not to hang onto) but in our day it was common to aid the entire climb. We no doubt made a few easy free moves but for us, just being out on that exposed place, even with the security of slow aid climbing was quite something.

The top of the second pitch is Salathé ledge, a very nice belay ledge with plenty of room and a nice anchor point. This would be where Faye would spend the next few hours (maybe more) as I struggled up the last pitch.

When this climb was first done, climbing ropes were 150 feet long and it wasn’t possible to do pitch 3 in one go. Because of this there’s a two bolt sling belay (no ledge, you hang from your harness and stand in stirrups) about three quarters of the way up the pitch which can be used if one runs out of rope. We had two 165 foot ropes and we were pretty sure they’d make the last pitch in one go. The problem with that is that a pitch that long that goes around a corner is bound to have rope drag (the rope is tough to pull through the protection because it’s not hanging in a straight line) and I brought extra slings to extend protection to avoid this. As I was to find out, the rope drag remained terrible.

Looking down at Yosemite Villiage from Salathe Ledge, Lost Arrow Spire

Looking down on Yosemite Village from Salathé ledge.

We took a bit of a break on Salathé ledge. It’s comfortable with a breathtaking view and frankly, I was no doubt a bit un-nerved about what I was getting into next.

Faye setting up belay, pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Faye settling in for what was going to be a long belay.

Richard (me) starting pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Richard on the west end of Salathé ledge getting started on pitch 3.

Pitch 3 works its way both up and left around a corner so almost immediately there’s potential rope drag. There’s no other way to set it up; the belay bolts are on the other end of the ledge where it’s easier to sit down and wait.

Pitches like this that go around a corner not only make for rope drag, they make it difficult to communicate. Each time I’d put in a new piece of protection I’d ask Faye to give me slack so I could pull some rope up and clip it in. At times, the calls for slack were within a few minutes, at other times when things got rough it was a lot longer.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Working my way up the beginning of pitch 3.

The exposure on pitch 3 is breathtaking and while I was to go on and do many more exposed climbs in the years ahead, this was my first experience of this kind of “air” and it was really something: both scary and amazing at the same time if you can imagine that. They say once you’re up a hundred or so feet you’ll probably die if you fall off so what’a another thousand or two? It’s not the fear of falling that’s a problem, it’s the feeling of being untethered (even though you’re well tethered) and being in a very unfamiliar place. There is no doubt that the more of these big climbs I did the easier this got, including taking falls in exposed places.

Faye and I were more than ready for this climb: we had the skills and fitness to do it but the psychology of being on something like this was new to us.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Almost disappearing around the corner on pitch 3.

Richard (me) leading pitch 3, Lost Arrow Spire

Looking down on the belay from the beginning of difficult climbing on pitch 3. This was the last time Faye saw me for many hours.

We don’t have pictures of the last pitch. She had the camera and frankly, I was too busy to stop and take pictures. But, since our climb lots of people have done it and I found a video that documents part of it (the goPro ran out of card space just before the top). The video below, shot in 2013 will give you a good idea of what the pitch is like: the protection is very tough. No doubt it was tougher when I did it than it was when this video was shot simply because tools have improved and the climb is done more and better documented but needless to say, it was hard when we did it, definitely A3 in places. That’s tough aid climbing and relatively dangerous in that there are numerous marginal placements in a row so if one pulls, the ones below it will most likely pull creating a zipper fall.

This is shot with a GoPro on a helmet so it can be a bit dizzying as his head moves around. Also, the didgeridoo soundtrack, well, use your discretion but I turn it down as it gets annoying after a while. The last pitch starts at about the 3.0 minute mark but the whole video is worth watching.

All of that said, this is one of the best documentation videos of what it was like for us to do that climb, especially the last pitch. They did a Tyrollean traverse to get off where we rappelled back down the route but this video will give you a good idea of both the exposure and the difficulty of protecting the last pitch.

Here’s another video, shot in 2014. I like the way they set up their Tyrollean with a big dip in it making ascending on the cliff side a lot easier. Smart. A tight clothesline is much more awkward. But, we didn’t do that when we did the climb.

We did this climb during a transition in the climbing world, from the use of pitons to protect climbs to the use of nuts, stoppers and expandable protection and other pieces of metal on wires and slings that one can wedge into cracks so as to hold falls.

In the early days, pitons were made out of soft iron and because of this, they bent and deformed when pounded into cracks. They held well, but it was difficult to take them out and if one did remove them they were usually bent up and distorted, difficult to reuse on a climb.

This meant that in order to do a long climb, one needed to either carry enough pitons for the entire thing, or, climb up a few pitches, then retreat to the ground to pick up more pitons to go higher.


Three types of pitons: on the bottom is a soft iron knife blade. I never used this one, found it on a climb in the Grand Tetons. Center: Chouinard angle piton made of chrome-molly. Top: Chouinard bong (big angle) made of bent sheet aluminum. It’s called a “bong” because of the sound it makes when pounded in. I bought the two Chouinard pitons (among many others) from Yvon Chouinard at The Great Pacific Iron Works in Ventura, California in the early days, before he sold it to Black Diamond and branched off to start Patagonia.

In the 1950’s the Yosemite climber John Salathé (who Salathé ledge is named after) made some pitons out of high-carbon chrome-vanadium steel. These pitons were extremely hard and didn’t distort when pounded into rock. This was great for climbers (for a while) in that they could climb a pitch using pitons, then the second could remove the pitons and they could be used again higher up. This made it easier to do big walls and much longer climbs in Yosemite and elsewhere. Yvon Chouinard learned how to make these pitons from Salathé and continued making and selling them as “Chouinard Equipment” part of The Great Pacific Iron Works.

The problem with hardened steel pitons is that they are so tough that when you bang them out (back and forth and wiggle them out) you break of a bit of rock with them. In time, wider pitons need to be used in the same placements and over a long time, what started out as knife blade pitons ended up 1″ angles. In other words, pitons destroyed the cracks.

By the time Faye and I got to the Lost Arrow Spire the cracks were in bad shape and tough to protect without at least a few pitons which we carried.

Chouinard Rock Hammer

A Chouinard Yosemite rock hammer for placing and removing pitons and other “hammerable” protection.

Both Faye and I carried rock hammers, one to place protection, the other to knock it out.

Bashies, hook, RURP, nut

A variety of odd placement tools we took on the Lost Arrow climb.

One of the transition tools between pitons and completely clean climbing was something called a “bashie.” Take a small block of aluminum (soft metal), drill a hole in it, pass a sling through the hole. I made my own, pictured above. They were small enough so I used parachute cord to sling them. They could just hold body weight but not much more. One did not fall on these things. Used solely for aid climbing when things got tough. I used and left at least four of these on the Lost Arrow. I doubt they lasted long but who knows? You can see some in the rock in the videos in this post.

In the early days of the transition away from pitons, climbers in the UK who climbed routes near railroad tracks would pick up stray steel nuts, pass a rope through them and use them as artificial chockstones, wedging them into cracks above constrictions such when they pulled down on the sling, the nuts would wedge tighter. I almost always carried one just to bow to the Brits and the one I carried and used on the Lost Arrow is pictured above.

The term “chock” is used for any artificial chockstone. These are also referred to as nuts.

Later Chouinard extruded aluminum in an odd hexagonal form so it was easier to wedge and torque into cracks (hexes). And, for thinner cracks he (and later many others) made smaller aluminum tapered blocks on steel cables called “stoppers” that we had many of for this climb and they’re still used to this day. Place a stopper, clip a carabiner to the loop of cable at its end, and clip a sling and another carabiner onto that and the rope through the last carabiner.

At the time we did this climb, in the mid-1970’s there were many climbs in Yosemite and elsewhere that were done completely clean, without carrying pitons or a hammer and we did many. The first one, put up by Royal Robbins was called “Nutcracker” for good reason. But, for big wall routes, pitons and hammers were carried just in case, even if they were avoided.

You’ll notice in the first video above the lead climber is using a hook creatively (torquing it rather than using it as a hook). The hooks I had (pictured above) weren’t big enough for that kind of placement but I did use the hook above in the traditional way to hook a flake and stand on it. Not for the faint of heart.

RURP pitons were made by Chouinard and while I carried the one above on the Lost Arrow, I never used it there. RURP = Realized Ultimate Reality Piton. In other words, a RURP is used almost as a last resort when the crack is so thin nothing else will work. I used the one above one time and one time only. That was enough.

Carabiners have been around a long time and are one of the most essential tools in a climber’s collection.

A carabiner allows the connection various other climbing tools. A piton is driven in, a carabiner is clipped into the hole in the end of it, and the climbing rope is clipped into that carabiner protecting the climber. A nut is placed in a crack, a carabiner is clipped to the loop in the end of its sling, and the climbing rope or another sling and carabiner is clipped into it.

On Salathé ledge, Faye tied a figure eight knot on a a loop in the end of the rope and used a carabiner to clip it into the bolt she found on that ledge (she actually used two for redundancy). When I got to the top of the Lost Arrow I used a carabiner to tie into the anchor I found there (again, two).

Every piece of protection we placed on the climb had at least two carabiners associated with it. The belays on each end had four or more carabiners used to set them up. It’s not uncommon to carry as many as fifty or more carabiners on a climb like the Lost Arrow Spire.


Two carabiners. Top: a Chouinard solid aluminum carabiner. Bottom: A Robbins hollow aluminum carabiner made by the German company Salewa. Climbers mark their gear with colored electrical tape so as not to get it mixed up when partnering. The yellow and green taped carabiner came to me from my old climbing friend Dale Allyn long after I stopped climbing and was using carabiners for arborist work. The red-taped carabiner is mine and was used on most of my climbs, including the Lost Arrow.

The two carabiners pictured above will hold the same amount of weight (they’re equally strong) but the hollow one (the one with the red tape on it) is a bit lighter. When you multiply that slight weight savings times fifty or more carabiners that savings is significant. Because of this, I bought as many of the Robbins/Salewa hollow carabiners as I could find (they were only made for a few years and tough to get). At one point I had one hundred of them but most are gone now. I still have about fifteen.

Modern carabiners that are used today are better yet: lighter, stronger, and better shaped to allow easier use with one hand under extreme pressure of hard free climbing.

Belaying and rappelling
When Faye and I started climbing we were taught a technique called a “hip belay” to hold the rope for both a leader and a follower. The hip belay uses the friction of the rope running around one’s body (hips) to hold a fall. During the time we were using this technique thank god neither of us took a big leader fall but we did get to hold falls of folks on top ropes and followers and trust me, it’s not comfortable. Couple that with the fact that we were using “Goldline” (twisted nylon) ropes back then and it wasn’t fun.

Rappelling (descending a rope or a doubled rope) was done with six carabiners with a technique called a “6 carabiner brake” and it worked just fine although took extra time to set up.

In time manufacturers started making devices dedicated to both belaying and rappelling and the two pictured below are the ones Faye and I used on the Lost Arrow.

Belay and rappel devices

On the left is a small belay device that one runs the rope through so it can be pinched and locked off. It works very well. On the right is a tool called a “figure 8” which one or two ropes are threaded through for rappel. It creates the necessary friction so that one can descend a rope safely without having to set up a carabiner brake. The small end of the figure 8 can also be used as a belay device, similar to the one pictured here.

As I said above, when Faye and I started climbing the least expensive rope we could find to learn how to climb at our local top-roping place was called “Goldline” which was a nylon twisted rope that was very stiff and not great for holding leader falls. Coiling it was like coiling a stiff garden hose, awkward.

There was another kind of rope around although it was more expensive: kernmantle. “kern-mantel” (core-sheath) was a great improvement over Goldline. Kernmantel ropes cover a twisted core with a woven mantle that makes both rope handling, and designing custom rope strengths possible.

In the early days of climbing when leaders climbed on hemp ropes, leaders could never fall because the rope didn’t stretch, it broke or, it broke (injured) the climber. The invention of nylon allowed ropes to stretch which for leaders, allowed falls without as much damage to the rope or the climber. However, one doesn’t want the rope to stretch under body weight (Faye or me ascending a pitch to clean it). One only wants the rope to stretch under the heavy load of a leader fall and then, not too much or the leader might hit the ground.

In our day, if a leader took three good size falls on a rope, the rope was retired. The nylon/Dacron fibers in the rope can only absorb so much stretch and then they don’t stretch anymore, they break.

Over many years rope manufacturers have designed climbing ropes that can absorb more falls and good thing because sport climbing has pushed leaders into numerous attempts on hard pitches and a lot of falling.

And, in case you think there is no place for static ropes, they’re used in both arborist work, caving and yachting. Rope stretch is something to be avoided if you’re descending and ascending a deep cave or climbing a rope to top a tree or pulling in a boom on a sailboat.

For our climb and most of the climbs we did, Faye and I used an 11mm lead rope and either a second 11mm haul/rappel rope or later, a 10mm second rope to save weight. On the Lost Arrow Faye and I had four 11mm ropes with us: two to fix to the notch, two for the climb and rappel back to the notch.

Ascenders are mechanical devices used to climb a rope. Before these devices were invented various friction knots were used to climb ropes. The most common among climbers was the prusik knot.

The idea of both the knots and mechanical devices is to easily slide the device up the rope, but through friction (the knot or a cam in the ascender) have the device lock on the rope when pulled down. With two ascenders (or friction knots), each tied into one’s harness and aid slings for one’s feet, one can climb a rope by sliding one up, putting weight on it, then sliding the other up once weight is removed from it.


Two modern ascenders, one with the rope attached, the other with the cam disengaged so it can be attached or removed from a rope.

Once weight is removed from an ascender the cam can be retracted and it can be slid down the rope, or, by retracting a safety mechanism, detached from the rope completely.

Mechanical ascenders made big wall climbing much more manageable and with the use of a pulley, one can use two ascenders to haul heavy loads up a rock face. By hanging one ascender upside down to hold on the downside of the pulley, and placing the other one on the upside of the pulley, a climber can use body weight to lift a heavy big wall bag up and the ascender on the downside will stop it from going back down.

Back to the Climb
I’m reposting an image I shot of another climber finishing pitch 3 below:

Leader topping out on the Lost Arrow Spire

A climber finishing pitch 3 of the Lost Arrow Spire

The last fifteen or so feet of this climb is relatively easy free climbing on a smooth slab. The climber in the image above has just stepped out of his aid stirrups and is probably faced with a some rope drag because the rope is running down and around a corner.

When I was in the position the climber above is in I thought for sure I’d fall off trying to pull enough slack in the rope so I could finish the climb. And, I wasn’t sure Faye was hearing me when I yelled for slack, or if she was, maybe the reason I wasn’t getting any slack is that we were out of rope. While that climbing was relatively easy, I remember having a tough time there. Thinking about that now makes me nervous.

When I finally got to the top car horns in the valley below went off and the sound of it all, even at a distance startled me. I had no idea that folks were following us with binoculars but in fact, a lot of folks were and I was wearing a red shirt which made it easier (I hadn’t chosen the shirt for that reason).

I tied into the belay and yelled down to Faye that I was off belay so she could start up.

My guess is it took Faye an hour to get the belay cleaned up and come up the pitch with her ascenders cleaning all of my weird aid placements. She was a fast climber (faster than me), but I was no doubt cooling down after settling in on my perch at the top. Faye had our small pack with sweaters and a hat for me but I’m guessing I got pretty cold up there waiting. Again, stupid me for wearing shorts.

Once Faye reached the top and got clipped in I remember her saying that she had wondered what took me so long, but after seeing the weird protection I had to put in she got it. It was impossible to see what I was doing from Salathé ledge.

Richard (me) on top of the Lost Arrow Spire

Richard on top after Faye came up behind him.

Faye took a shot of me before we rappelled back down. We didn’t stay up there long, it was getting cooler and we still had to get back down to the notch and back up our fixed ropes, which we could now see (still there, thank god) on the wall behind us.

Coins in a pothole on top of the Lost Arrow Spire

There’s a small pothole on top and folks have put coins in it. Wish we’d had some coins to leave.

Richard (me) rappelling off the top of the Lost Arrow Spire

The start of the rappel off the top. Note, you can see the knot tying both ropes together and its placement means we would need to pull the orange rope to keep the knot from jamming into the anchor ring.

We needed both ropes tied together to get back to Salathé ledge. The ropes are knotted and it’s important (essential) to remember which side of the rappel anchor the knot is on so you pull the correct rope and don’t jam the knot back into the anchor. The anchor was two bolts with nylon slings running through their hangers with a steel ring on the end. We cut one of the old slings off to make room for one of our newer slings.

I might have tied a knot in the end of the doubled rope so I couldn’t rappel off the end but I don’t remember. Frankly, to this day I’m not sure what climbers do when rappelling into unknown territory. No doubt they bring ascenders with them so they can go back up if they get in trouble.

I remember taking this rappel slowly because there wasn’t a lot of rope left when I reached Salathé ledge. Once on the ledge I clipped into the anchor there and yelled to Faye to come down.

Richard (me) on Salathe ledge, Lost Arrow Spire

Faye took a picture of me waiting on Salathé ledge as she came down.

After Faye came down we tied one end of the pull rope into the anchor so we wouldn’t lose both ropes over the edge as they came down, and pulled the other rope through the anchor on top. There was a lot of rope drag but we did get it down.

As I remember, we were able to rappel pitch 1 and 2 together in one go as they were short. It was an awkward rappel as it spiraled around the spire back to the notch.

Richard (me) ascending fixed ropes, Lost Arrow Spire

Using ascenders to climb the rope we’d left fixed down to the notch.

In the image above I’m climbing a rope and tied into a second rope. Faye might have been belaying me although it did no good. Had the rope I was ascending failed I’d have fallen back down to the notch. Maybe it was a mistake because we were tired, who knows?

When I got to the ledge I tied in and she used her ascenders to come up. Maybe I used the second rope to belay her, I don’t remember.

Richard (me) ascending fixed ropes, Lost Arrow Spire

This is our last picture of this climb. Me ascending the second fixed rope back to the rim. Again, Faye is probably belaying me for no good reason.

When I got to the top I signaled for her to come up on her ascenders behind me.

As I remember, after we cleaned up our gear and got things loaded back into our packs we had just enough daylight to get back on the falls trail and head down. I don’t think we were using headlamps in those days but we had flashlights and probably made it back to our camp which was my VW bus in the dark.

I don’t have a clear memory of the rest of that trip but I’m guessing we took a day off to rest and then got back to climbing. Probably nothing as serious as the Lost Arrow but we did do a lot of great climbs in Yosemite over many years.

I posted a shorter version of this clip in my first installment but I’m posting it again because it’s one of the clearest looks at what the Lost Arrow Spire is all about. It was shot in 2017, our climb was 38 years earlier. I’ve included all of their Lost Arrow climb this time, not just the drone footage at the end (they also did the “snake dike” route on Half Dome which is the first half of their video. Rewind all the way if interested). Note the waterfall in full force. Same place we were swimming.

I love looking back at this but to be honest, it’s tough to imagine having done these things in an earlier time of my life. I know myself well and I was never a natural at any of this (in fact, I’m a polio survivor), but over many years with great instruction (thanks Bob Ashworth) I got into it and improved. While I never took it as far as some of my other climbing partners I feel good about how far I got.

I climbed for another eight years and I’ve got plenty of other stories to tell; the slides have been scanned. Stay tuned.

Thinking about the Lost Arrow Spire

This post and story is part of a three part story: getting the idea for a climb, preparing for the climb, and doing the climb. Stay tuned for parts two and three. The images posted here were shot with an Olympus XA (film) camera on cheap movie reversal film. A number of years ago I realized that the slides were in bad shape, so I had them professionally scanned. The original images weren’t great and years of dust and rough handling did them no good. But, they do help tell these stories so I use them without much cleanup. Doing a search on Flickr for “lost arrow spire” or a Google image search will give you many more modern and clearer images although of course, not of our time there in the 1970’s.

Just to whet your appetite and give you a sense of what this is about, here’s a small piece of a youTube video shot with a drone above the Lost Arrow Spire in 2017. This is a modern day look at the same formation this post is about. The images in this post were shot in 1977, 45 years earlier.


In the summer of 1977 my then girlfriend Faye and I were in Yosemite valley on a climbing trip. We were what would have been called, solid 5.8 climbers (not beginners, but not hotshots). Occasionally we did harder stuff, but we were both leading moderate climbs like The Nutcracker, Royal Arches (the rotten log was still in place) and a variety of great climbs on the Glacier Point apron.

We both had Volkswagen buses which had camper interiors and we travelled and stayed in one or the other on these trips. It made it possible to get some sleep and avoid the all-night Camp 4 climber parties.

Faye in her VW Bus


Faye in her VW bus in Yosemite Valley, 1977

Both of us had done easy aid routes back at Smith Rock in central Oregon (the Pioneer route on Monkey Face) and had practiced aid climbing at our local climbing spot in Eugene, the Columns, but we hadn’t done a big wall or a route in Yosemite with a lot of exposure.

From almost anywhere in the central part of Yosemite Valley (the “village” as it’s called), you can see Higher Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point. If you know what you’re looking for, between the falls and the point is a detached pinnacle called The Lost Arrow Spire. It’s like a thumb sticking out from the cliff face, about 200 feet tall from where it detaches.

The Lost Arrow Spire from Yosemite Valley


This is the scouting picture I took from the valley floor in 1977. The falls (dry here) is behind the tree, Yosemite Point is the high point and the Lost Arrow is between.


The complete Lost Arrow (from the ground to the tip) was one of the first big walls climbed in Yosemite using modern methods: pitons, ropes, carabiners, webbing stirrups (aiders), a leader and a belayer. It was done in 1947 in a five day push by John Salathe and Anton Nelson. They went up the chimney on the west side (left in the image above) of the arrow from the ground to the top. When they got to the notch, where the pinnacle becomes detached from the wall, they camped out there and spiraled around to the east side, making their way up two ledges and then precariously, up the last 150 feet to the top.

Since then the popularity of the complete climb, from base to tip has diminished as the lower climbing isn’t all that aesthetic. The tip has remained a bit more popular although during the 1970’s, an era of extreme free climbing, this particular climb was not done often, maybe ten times a summer, if that.

To do the tip by itself, climbers hike up the Falls trail to the rim of the valley, just west of Yosemite Point. There they set up a rappel into the notch and climb the arrow tip. That climb is documented in the 1971 edition of the Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley, by Steve Roper. No doubt later editions of the Roper book and other newer guidebooks have updated route information but below is the route information that Faye and I had as we contemplated this climb.

Lost Arrow Tip

From the 1971 edition of Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley by Steve Roper

Grade III, 5.5, A3. First ascent in September 1946 by Fritz Lippmann, Jack Arnold, Anton Nelson and Robin Hansen. This party gained the summit after engineering a Tyrollean traverse. The first climbing ascent was masterminded by John Salathe who, with Nelson, climbed the pinnacle on the fifth day of their route from the base. From trees 300 feet west of the railing at Yosemite Point, rappel 130 feet to a large flake. Next, rappel 115 feet into the notch. Both these ropes must be left in place for the return; the lower end of the lower rope should be secured in the notch to prevent its swinging out of reach.

From the sinister notch walk out a narrow ledge on the east face. Nail and free climb 35 feet to a good belay ledge. Climb left around a rotten corner, then nail 20 feet to Salathe Ledge, an excellent, relaxing belay site. The 3rd pitch is the crux: traverse left a few feet, nail for about 20 feet, then move left and nail up to a sling belay at the base of the “flint-hard and flawless Arrow tip.” On the last pitch, use bolts and 2 pitons for aid. Two rappels (125 feet and 70 feet) lead (back) to the notch.

The nailing on this magnificent route is continually changing and challenging. Nelson, speaking of his 1946 ascent, has written: “as we further diminish the crack’s possibilities, it becomes doubtful that many others will ever climb the Lost Arrow.” By 1970 the pinnacle had been climbed over 200 times and the cracks were still getting worse. What were horizontal piton cracks in 1960 are now inch-angle cracks. The rating remains the same, but the hardware changes. A 1971 selection should include about 15 pitons: one- third horizontals and the rest angles to 2″.

Notes from this description

The grade (in this case III) is the length the overall severity of the climb. Very few three or four pitch climbs are rated grade III and the fact that this one is is because of it’s location: 2000 feet above the valley floor. That means that while the climb itself is challenging, the exposure from doing the climb at that height is part of the challenge. Given that Faye and I had not done climbs with similar exposure, this certainly gave us pause. We had done the Royal Arches Route, another grade III but that climb, while over 1000 feet long is low angle and has little exposure (except for what was the rotten log pitch which was terrifying).

The free climbing rating, 5.5 was well within each of our abilities to lead although doing anything like that with exposure certainly adds to the difficulty. Free climbing ratings work like this:

3rd class: no rope, not too dangerous but don’t fall.
4th class: leader has a rope, no protection used. Follower is belayed up.
5th class: leader has a rope, is belayed, uses protection in case of a fall.

Because most climbing is 5th class that class has been divided into a decimal system to describe the difficulty of the climb. 5.0 is very easy, initially 5.10 was the toughest, but as climbing has advanced, the decimal system has expanded to 5.10 a, b, c, and 5.11, etc.

For those reading this who don’t know, free climbing works like this:

The leader and belayer tie into each end of a rope. The belayer anchors himself to the rock such that if a leader falls from above won’t pull him up or off the rock. The leader climbs up, say, 20 feet and puts in a piece of protection (piton, chock, clips into a bolt, etc.) and attaches a carabiner and most likely a sling and another carabiner to it, then clips the rope into the end carabiner. If the leader then climbs up another 5 feet and falls, the belayer holds the rope and the leader will fall a bit over 10 feet: double the distance to the last piece of protection plus some rope stretch and slack and the length of the sling. When the leader gets to the top of the pitch (a bit less than a rope length or a convenient stopping point) he anchors himself and brings (belays) the belayer up with the belayer taking out all the protection). This is how all roped climbing works. With free climbing, the leader just uses the protection as protection, he doesn’t hang onto it to advance. With aid climbing, the climbing is hard enough so it can’t be free climbed and so, protection is also used to hang onto to advance. Of course, over many years, what was aid climbed now might be free climbed, as free climbing standards have pushed on.

Many pitches have mixed free and aid on them: a few free moves, hang on a bolt, a few more free moves, stand on a piece of protection, etc. This is all determined by the skill of the climber and how good the protection is in case of a fall. Bad protection means less risky moves.

The aid rating, A3 is what gave me pause. Given the description and the rating I wasn’t sure we had the equipment or the skill to do aid climbing at this level.

Aid climbing can be as simple as climbing a bolt ladder: clipping into a series of expansion bolts, each about 5 feet apart (placed by earlier parties). Clip into one, attach a nylon ladder or aid stirrup to it, climb up as high as possible, clip into the next and repeat. Or, if there are no bolts, aid climbing can involve inserting various things into a crack to hang off of. Pitons, chocks, hooks, mashies, bashies, copperheads (some of these are soft pieces of metal on a swedge wire that are hammered in) or “rurps” (“realized ultimate reality pitons”). These last gadgets are precarious and many placements of these will hold body weight but won’t hold a fall. This means if you place two or more of these in a row to advance and the top one pulls, you’re looking at what is called a “zipper” where a whole line of them will pull out and you’ll fall further.

Given the Roper description of the crack on the Lost Arrow becoming messed up through years of piton use, I wasn’t sure what shape it would be in when we found it and what gear to bring. Most importantly, I wasn’t sure if either of us had the skill or guts to place the gear to get to the top. Once you’re in the middle of an A3 pitch, turning around is difficult so I didn’t want to do this climb if we weren’t prepared. Also, at this time, 1977 climbing was going through a transition from the use of pitons (dirty, destroys cracks) to the use of stoppers and hexes (clean, leaves cracks un-harmed). Later expandable protection would be invented but we didn’t have it at this point and most people carried a mix of pitons/hammer and chocks for a climb like this.

So, all of this gave us pause but it’s great to have dreams and we decided to do a scouting trip up to the Arrow itself to check it out.

Checking it out

We packed water and lunch and hiked up the Yosemite Falls Trail, crossed the stream that forms the falls and hiked over to Yosemite point. To our amazement and luck there was a party of three doing the climb so we were able to watch how they set it all up.

Remember, there was no internet in those days so looking up pictures or videos online wasn’t possible. All we had to go on was the Roper guide. There was an early version of George Meyer’s Yosemite Climbs topo guide out but we didn’t have it and we didn’t know anyone who had done the climb. This made it quite a bit more “adventurous.”

The climbers had helpers who were staying behind on the valley rim. We later learned why: they were going to toss a rope to the climbers once they reached the top of the Arrow so that the climbers would do a Tyrollean traverse to get off the tip. This seems like a scary proposition but in fact, while very strenuous it’s not as scary as it seems. Still, Faye and I decided we’d try to do it the traditional way by doing the climb and then depending the outside of the spire back to the notch and leaving two ropes in place to climb with ascenders. This is what the Roper guide recommended and it seemed doable to us.

It was tough to find a good vantage point to watch the three climbers from but we found one just west of the rappel point.

Rapelling into the Lost Arrow Spire notch


Rappelling into the notch

Here you can see the first climber rappelling down. The rope he’s descending is hard to see but its there. The ledge he’s going to stop on is just below him. Note that he’s got another rope over his shoulder. He’ll anchor that rope to some bolts above the ledge and drop that rope into the notch below. Then he’ll rappel into the notch and the other two climbers will rappel down. Traditionally these ropes are left in place to ascend out of the notch when the climb is done. These folks got off the Arrow tip via Tyrollean traverse (below). You can see a small piece of the Arrow in the lower right of this image.

Aside: The ledge he’s going to is almost exactly level with the arrow tip and slack liners set up a slack line between that ledge the arrow tip and walk it. That wasn’t done in 1977 but it’s been done for the last 25 years or so. Search around on Google and youTube, you’ll see many images and some videos of folks walking the line here.

The first two pitches of this climb were out of our sight; they’re on the east and southeast face of the spire. The next time we caught sight of these climbers they were at the second (last) belay ledge in the lower right of the next frame. Because of foreshortening it looks like they’re close to the ground but in fact, the boulders under them are about 2000 feet below.

Climbers on the Lost Arrow Spire

Climbers on Salathe ledge

The long aid pitch above Salathe ledge is the crux of the climb and it took the leader many hours to climb it. In the Roper guide its recommended to stop before the top and clip into two bolts and do a sling or hanging belay to bring the second climber up. It was essential to do this on early climbs because climbing ropes were 150 feet long, not the later 165 feet. That extra fifteen feet makes it possible to do this crux pitch in a single push but it also makes the rope drag at the top tough.

The next image is the leader doing the last bit of free climbing up the arrow tip. Given the length of the pitch below him and the amount of protection he had to put in, the rope drag (the friction he’s got to work against) is horrendous as he makes that move. It’s easy climbing but between lack of protection (the last bolt is ten feet below him), rope drag, and exposure, it’s tough although when I took this picture I had no idea and if memory serves, he made it look easy.

You can see a red nylon sling to his left near the tip, that’s the belay point and there are at least two bolts there. He’ll tie into that and belay the others up.

Leader topping out on the Lost Arrow Spire

Leader doing the tip of the arrow

In this next shot the leader is on top, not doing much (not belaying) because the rope is tied off and the second climber is ascending the rope with devices called ascenders. You can see the second climber on the right edge of the arrow. Ascenders are metal handles with enclosed cams that allow a climber to slide one up the rope but the cam will pinch the rope and not allow the handle to slide down. Attach stirrups to each of the ascenders and you can easily climb a rope. This is how big walls are done and in this case, the second climber is cleaning the protection from the pitch and the leader doesn’t have to hold the rope for him.

Climbers on the Lost Arrow Spire

Follower cleaning the pitch

The next image shows two of the tree climbers on top and the Tyrollean traverse is all set up. The folks on the cliff side have already tossed a rope over and pulled ropes back and the “clothesline” is all anchored and ready. The third climber has already crossed and two climbers are getting ready.

Tyrolean traverse off the Lost Arrow Spire


Tyrollean traverse set up

This last image shows the leader crossing the Tyrollean traverse. He’s using his ascenders and pulling himself across. As he gets closer to the other side it gets steeper and tougher. The last person will go across and then they can retrieve the ropes by pulling them through the anchor.

Tyrolean traverse off the Lost Arrow Spire


Leader on the Tyrollean traverse

We stayed until the end and talked with them. I made notes on the gear they’d used on the crux pitch although if we did the climb a year from now that might change if the climb was done a lot. No way to know for sure.

The next step was to get back to Eugene and find someplace to practice. I had an idea and Faye agreed: The west face of Monkey Face at Smith Rock. A three pitch aid route with exposure and we’d haul a bag and camp out in the back of the monkey’s head.

Stay tuned.

Climbing the West Face of Monkey Face

Alex Honnold free solos Freerider on El Capitan

Alex Honnold has become the first climber to free solo Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan wall

This is an incredible achievement. It’s a landmark in the history of rock climbing. Honnold is an exceptional climber and has free soloed (no rope or other equipment) many difficult routes before but this route is in another category.

I climbed the Nose Route on El Capitan in the late 1970’s in slightly slower than what was then the regular time: 4 days (an extra day) and with about half the climb using aid (using gear to advance, not just protect a fall). The route Honnold has done is much harder than the Nose route and he’s done it free solo. Freerider is a variant of the Salathe Wall route put up by the recently deceased Royal Robbins in 1961.

I’m a long retired climber but I’m interested in how the sport has advanced over the many years since I did it. This is a very large advance.


Remembering Royal Robbins

One of the fathers of modern rock climbing, Royal Robbins died on March 14, 2017. Somehow this news escaped me and that fact has been bothering me for the past few weeks since learning about it.

I haven’t climbed in over thirty years but I can say without a doubt that Royal Robbins influenced my climbing more than anyone. Actually, he influenced more than my climbing, he influenced my life.

Basic and Advanced Rockcraft

Robbins wrote two small but extremely influential books that remained the instruction manuals for climbing for many years (they’re dated now although collectors items): Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft.

What these books have in common is an emphasis on process: getting to the top is less important than how one gets there, clean climbing (at the time we were moving away from pitons), spare equipment to save weight and keep things simple, and, most importantly for route pioneers, finding routes that follow crack systems and have an aesthetic sense about them (as opposed to bolting straight up a face). Robbins’ nemesis, Warren Harding played the wild, bad guy to Robbins’ good guy. Truth be told, they both pioneered great routes in Yosemite although in very different styles.

Another thing these books have in common is that they are illustrated with great humor by Sheridan Anderson (best known for The Curtis Creek Manifesto one of the best fly-fishing books ever written). Without Anderson’s illustrations the books would have fallen flat, very much like the collaboration of John Muir (writer) and Peter Aschwanden (illustrator) in How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot (also called “the Idiot Book”).

I’ve used Anderson’s drawings of Robbins to illustrate this post. Note that Robbins routinely wore a white flat cap and Anderson’s illustrations usually have him in glasses and said cap.

Yosemite Method

Robbins used Yosemite Valley as his climbing laboratory because it has stable weather, and large, glacier-carved cliffs of incredible exfoliated granite with crack systems that make building spectacular routes possible. He climbed all over the world but Yosemite remained his home base for much of his climbing career and his particular methods and style are aimed at the type of rock climbing found there.

I got into and almost out of climbing before Steve Jobs and Apple came out with the Macintosh but Jobs and Robbins had something in common besides both being from California: they both worshipped process. As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon Fine Arts department I used to hear: “the process is the product” which is another way of saying what Steve Jobs said about building the Macintosh: “the journey is the reward” which is another way of saying what Robbins said: how you get to the top is more important than getting to the top.

This meme has been a running idea in my life since first encountering it in the early 1970’s.


Robbins “put up” (made the first ascent) on hundreds (thousands?) of climbs but what marked and marks his climbs is that they, for the most part, have become classics: people want to repeat them because they’re beautiful, fun, and interesting.

The one Robbins climb that most aspiring rock climbers have to do is called Nutcracker. It’s on a cliff known as Manure Pile Buttress (seriously) and while it’s not as epic as something like The Northwest Face of Half Dome (another Robbins first ascent), it’s a great climb of moderate difficulty.

Robbins and his wife Liz first climbed Nutcracker in 1967 and it was the first climb of any significance that was done without pitons: Robbins only used wedges of aluminum on slings called nuts stuffed into cracks to protect the climb, thus the name (a first ascender gets to name the route and Robbins was known for having fun with route names).

In the history of climbing without pitons, the thought is that British climbers approaching cliffs beside railroad tracks picked up steel hex nuts, passed pieces of rope through them and used these like chockstones to protect climbs. When Yvon Chouinard (another Yosemite pioneer and founder of Patagonia) heard about this he decided to make irregular hexagonal shapes out of aluminum which in my day, we called “hexes” for climbers to stuff into cracks instead of pitons. These days there are still stoppers, wedges, and hex nuts although they’ve been all but replaced by expandable protection.

The fact that Robbins and his wife did this climb without pitons in 1967 was significant and it led to a push in Yosemite Valley to do away with pitons all together, even on longer big wall routes.

I first climbed Nutcracker in 1975 with my friend Rod Orlando (image on the left with me leading) and climbed it numerous times in later years with a variety of partners. I loved that route and even as I started climbing longer and more serious routes, I almost always came back to Nutcracker. It was like paying my respects to Royal Robbins, a pioneering climber who was one of my role models.

For more on how Robbins fits into the history of climbing in Yosemite, I highly recommend the movie: Valley Uprising. Valley Uprising on Netflix. Valley Uprising on Amazon.

Other writing about Royal Robbins

There is overlap in the obituaries but they’re all worth looking at as they each have a slightly different take on Robbins’ life. If you’ve got a great source, please post it in comments, I’ll add it here. Thanks.

Base Camp Magazine: Royal Robbins Dies at 82 (this is where I first learned of Robbins’ passing)

Outside Magazine: Catching Up with Royal Robbins

Climbing: Royal Robbins

Climbing: Royal Robbins: A Timeline and a Bibliography

Royal Robbins, Conscience of Rock Climbers, Dies at 82

NPR, All Things Considered: Royal Robbins, Pioneer Of American Rock Climbing, Dies At 82

The Washington Post: Royal Robbins, celebrated rock climber who left no trace of his ascents, dies at 82

Outside Magazine: Obituary: Royal Robbins (1935–2017)

Modesto Bee: Rock climbing pioneer, Modesto’s Royal Robbins, dies at 82

Alpinist: 1935-2017: Big-wall pioneer and world explorer Royal Robbins remembered

Adventure Journal: Climbing Pioneer Royal Robbins Dies at Age 82

Hear and Now (NPR): How Rock Climbing Legend Royal Robbins Influenced The Sport

Climbing reference: Nutcracker, Manure Pile Buttress 5.8

Nutcracker Guide

Summit Post: Nutcracker topo

Flickr (photos): Climbing Nutcracker in Yosemite

Remembering Warren Harding

Warren HardingWarren Harding in Portland, Oregon in 1979.
Image by either me or Faye Nakamura*

You may have followed the story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson doing the first free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite Valley but with all the media buzz the pioneer of that route and it’s controversial history seems to have gotten lost (not by Caldwell and Jorgeson, by the media and the public at large).

To understand what Caldwell and Jorgeson have done in context, one needs to understand how climbing works.

Free soloing is climbing without a rope or any protection. Free climbing (what they did) is using a rope and a variety of gear to climb safely up a wall. If either party falls, the rope and belayer is there to catch them. Aid climbing is standing or hanging on the gear to make progress, also tied into a rope.

Almost every route on El Capitan was first climbed with mixed free and aid climbing. As climbers have acclimated to doing harder things on big walls, at least partly because ropes can now absorb multiple falls without failing or hurting the person falling, climbers have started free climbing pitches on climbs that were once climbed only with aid. Climbers are more willing to risk a fall when they know the gear will protect them.

When the Dawn Wall was first climbed aid was used on almost every pitch. Over many years, things have changed such that Caldwell and Jorgeson have climbed the entire route without the use of aid.

The Nose

The first person to climb El Capitan by any route was the late Warren Harding and the route he pioneered in 1958 was at the very prow of the huge cliff and he named it The Nose. He climbed it “expedition style” in 47 days over a period of a year and a half with a variety of partners (most climbers were freaked out to go up there and Harding himself scared them). He’d go up, explore a few pitches (rope lengths), leave some gear hanging there, then come down and rest up as well as get drunk (he was a drinker).

When he did this climb most of the technology which climbers now take for granted didn’t exist. He had to cut the metal legs off of wood stoves to make pitons wide enough for what are now called “the stoveleg cracks.”

Harding on completing the first ascent of The Nose:

I suppose this article could be titled “The Conquest of El Capitan”. However, as I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered: I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.

In following years, another Yosemite pioneer Royal Robbins did the Nose Route with Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost in a continuous push over seven days.

When I was in Yosemite, the Nose route was routinely climbed in three long days with mixed free (up to 5.10) and aid climbing.

One of the best ways to see what climbing El Capitan looked like during my time there is to watch the film: El Capitan which was shot in 1968.

The Nose route saw its first fully free ascent in 1999 by Lynn Hill. Hill’s accomplishment is probably one of the most significant steps toward what Caldwell and Jorgeson have recently done.

The Nose Route is the most popular big wall route on El Capitan and while modern climbers have honed the style by which it is done, Harding pioneered the route and got over what was a huge psychological barrier.

The Wall of Early Morning Light

By 1970 there were many routes on El Capitan pioneered by a variety of Yosemite climbers and earlier routes were being repeated with more free climbing and with faster times.

In 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (not related) decided to climb a relatively blank section of El Capitan to the east of the Nose Route where the sun first hits the cliff each morning. Harding named it: The Wall of Early Morning Light. No one was interested in this seemingly contrived route: it didn’t follow natural crack systems but instead, followed acres of blank wall. This appealed to Harding (probably at least partly because others disliked it) and he and Caldwell decided to do the route in a single push from the ground. Harding invented the “bat tent” (covered hammock) for this route as there were no ledges to rest or camp on.

In order to get over the blank sections Harding drilled holes (with a rawl/hand drill) and pounded in hundreds of expansion bolts. The over-use of these was considered bad form by most of the Yosemite elite climbers, especially Royal Robbins who was irritated by Harding’s renegade attitude.

With bolts you can climb anything by brute force and this was counter to Robbins’ idea that it wasn’t about getting to the top, it was the style in which you did it that mattered most.


I was climbing with some hotshot Brit in Yosemite once, and he said, “My God, Harding, you can’t do anything!” I said, “I know, but I can do it forever.”

The climb took 27 days and in the middle of it, during a storm and with no communication with the climbers the Park Service organized a rescue which was rejected.

When Harding and Caldwell topped out the media was on top waiting for them, something that had never happened before. This pissed off Royal Robbins who no doubt thought other, more aesthetic climbs done by more wholesome climbers deserved media attention, not this contrived bolt ladder done by Harding.

Robbins decided to take decisive action and went up on the route with the intention of erasing it by chopping out the bolts. Once he got part way up he realized that Harding had put up another masterpiece and even though it was done with what Robbins considered too many bolts, the route was a great one and Robbins thought it should remain intact.

Over many years those bolts have been replaced and the route’s name has been shortened to the Dawn Wall.

Tommy Caldwell, who has no doubt climbed every route on El Capitan and is considered one of the best rock climbers in the world, decided to attempt to free climb the Dawn Wall and over many years he worked out the moves and on this latest effort along with Kevin Jorgeson he did it in one, continuous push.

Harding died in 2002 but I’m guessing that wherever he is, he’s delighted that his route turned into the hardest free climb in the world.

This entire history is beautifully documented in the film Valley Uprising which I highly recommend.


*In researching whether the above image was taken in Eugene or Portland, I asked my old climbing buddy Chris Jones to comment:

I never climbed with him, but, considering that it’s Harding, I had a more classic (if not classy) one-time episode with him – I got stinking drunk with him (and a few others) at the Telluride film festival in 1985. Might have been the high point of my climbing career, although he barely remembered me the next day.

Valley Uprising

Valley Uprising is a well produced, entertaining, and informative history of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley, California.

I climbed there in the mid to late ’70s, know this history well and I think they got it right which is amazing for an old “trad” like me to say.

Excellent archival images and footage, great interviews with many of the historic figures (Steve Roper is hilarious), toward the present show extreme free climbing and free soloing on big walls, timely given what Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have just accomplished on the Dawn Wall on El Capitan.

If you’re a Yosemite climber from any part of it’s history, you’ll enjoy this excellent documentary. Even my wife watched the entire thing and I was pretty much done with climbing by the time I met her, although we visited Yosemite Valley in 1990 as a family.

You can buy the DVD from Sender Films or on Amazon.