June 27, 2017

Summer update

I'm a little over two weeks into my summer and a lot has happened, so I thought I would write up an update. Jesse Laniak was encouraging me to put together a blog of my trip so here it is. I'm trying out Ghost as a publishing platform for the first time, which is fun as it uses Markdown unlike the clunky HTML of Wordpress.

The van's cross country trip

The adventure started off with me finishing my MIT Unified finals on May 26th. They went well enough, and I started working on finishing up my van build that afternoon. I'll do a full post about the van build that I did, as there were quite a few things I screwed up, and tips that I have for others. Van builds take forever, but are really fun! It was finally done on May 31st, or more like 3am the morning of June 1st. I was trying to meet up with some friends out in Yosemite before they left I was way behind schedule, I meant to leave more like the morning of the 30th. I think it's definitely a wise idea to pick a conservative construction schedule, and then healthily double that. The roadtrip didn't start too strong, as I drove only about an hour to the nearest Walmart in Framingham before crashing at 4am.

I woke up motivated from that comfortable bivy though to go into full highway trucker mode and blast across the country. I think my goal for that day was Chicago, but given that the furthest I had driven before that was the White Mountains in NH, that was way too ambitious. Staring at a road is surprisingly tiring. I got a copy of Yvon Chouinard's Let My People Go Surfing through Audible's free trials, and his musings on the environment and business were good for keeping me company on the way. Didn't quite make it to Chicago that day, instead I only made it to just below Toledo, for a day of around 800 miles finishing up at 3am. It was cool to drive past Erie, where I ran my first marathon, and near Niagara Falls. I made some killer peanut butter pasta at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center to a nice sunset. The van was making 20-21 mpg at 70 mph, great stuff for a ~5500 lb V8 home!

Nerd note: I would highly recommend the Torque app with the Fuel Economy plug in for people who drive monster things long distance, the speed-gas tradeoff is interesting, most vehicles have a certain speed they seem to be optimized for and then it starts to taper off. I'm a bit of a mpg nerd now, it's kind of interesting seeing how different things like engine temps and hills affect the fuel flow. My van is technically only meant to get 11 accoording to the EPA, but I think all the weight I stripped helped fix that. Also, having an OBD app allows you to tell whether a check engine light means your home is about to die, or if it's some minor problem that you already knew about.

The early morning stretch (I think I jump started a guy at that Blue Heron Service Center, he waved me down because he knew that sketchy vans have monster engines and a Corolla didn't manage to jump his car - he was a mechanic, nice guy):

The Walmart that night was in the middle of nowhere and super quiet, deserving of its Allstays reputation. I was kind of inspired to link the major cities, so after failing the Chicago objective I picked Denver as the next one. I almost made it, getting to Grand Island, Nebraska after around 900 miles.

At around this point things started to get grim on the temperature front. My van's AC works great, it's just that the front doesn't have a blower, and I tore out the roof and basically all the other insulation. So even though it's white, if it gets under the sun, it can easily reach 100F inside without cooling. That is no fun for 6 or 7 hours straight roadtripping. Having a broken blower in most cars means you're going to cook. But because the van I have was originally a passenger bus, there's a second AC thing in the back that blows like crazy. You could use it as a wind tunnel for sure, it's stupid windy (that is a technical term for mass flow that I learned this semester). Though because of the monster radiator metal roof and the holes in the engine insulation that act as auxilary feet warmers in the winter, there was no way it was going to chill the van just sitting back there. I needed a local cooling system for me (or more technically, just a fan to do evaporative), so I got some dryer ducting from Qlmart, taped it up, put it on top of my curtain rail and voila, turbo AC!

Alternating between this and an open window got me through the baking parts of Nebraska. I also tried rigging a fan to suck out the air from the front blowers, but that was super dumb and I promptly returned the $10 piece of junk to get more ducting power. You can see my Walmart stops on the way to figure out the whole ducting thing. That day was awesome, cruising through the Rocky Mountains and Utah, the real American West stuff. The bivy that night was fantastic too, at the Black Dragon Canyon Lookout, which looks like this:

Image cred

I didn't see any of that because I arrived and left when it was dark, maybe next time.

The next day was the crunch, I wanted to meet my friends in Yosemite so I had to pull off a pretty monster drive to make it happen. I left at 5am from Utah and got in at 7:30pm to Yosemite, but it still felt big. Most of that had to do with the shenanigans in Nevada. Google Maps is great when you have service, but can get pretty dangerous when the reception is dodgy as you tend to just make navigation up. That was what I did and I soon ended up in a world of hurt. The way you're meant to go to Yosemite (at least when Tioga Pass is closed) is dip down through Las Vegas and LA and then come back up and into the park from the southwest. Easy, fast and freeway. I ended up in the middle of Nevada on these country roads that went for hours without seeing any civilization.

It was out there, at one point Area 51 was only a 20 minute detour. I think the screw up happened somewhere around Scipio due to failing cell reception, and before I knew it I was on what is literally called The Loneliest Road in America, US Route 50. It's this thing:

It feels more like being in an airliner than driving when you get on that, you just cruise and it's just this steady hum through space, super wild. Because there is only another car every hundred miles or so, you can take rad photos too:

That shadow annoys me

Eventually I got to the Valley after a lot of winding through California bypass roads. Driving in that first day, the view isn't too bad at all, especially in the evening. It was so satisfying to pull it off, especially as a lot of people didn't trust in the mechanical powers of late nineties Dodge engineering. Those powers are super strong.


I don't have dreams of becoming an endurance driver, so it was nice to quit that career and start climbing in the Valley. The first day was about the chillest thing around, Munginella (5.6, 3 pitches) in the Five Open Books Area of the Valley. I do just fine around 5.11-5.12 in the gym usually, even though with the climbing team we spend most of our time bouldering. So a 3 pitch 5.6 was meant to be a formality, but I'd heard that the Valley humbles the crap out of you, and it is so true! My buddy Harry Bleyan took the first pitch and when I started following, I could see what people were talking about with the slick glacier polished granite. You just slide right off if you aren't careful with your feet! You have to be very delicate with it. On the second pitch I was leading and actually got sketched out enough by it that I had to back off. Ego in the trash, we had a good dinner in Camp 4 after a way too long day as we got lost on the approach and descent. The MIT crew rolled out the next morning leaving me with a bundle of food (I'm still eating the Craisins and honey weeks later!) and some homemade guidebooks. That day I figured out the van parking for Yosemite (not going to publish it, it's something to be worked out by yourself) and did some lax bouldering. The next day was even more lax as I drove down to Merced to get a phone that would work in the Valley and see whether spare tires were a thing for the van. Spare tires were way too much given that I have free towing and nowhere to really put it (the previous owner cut off the hanger behind the back wheels, wtf).

First picture of the valley I took, from the top of Munginella

Figuring that my I had no idea how to climb Yosemite rock, I needed to get some practice laps in before hopping on more multipitch so I went down to Swan Slab and met Kat from the Netherlands and Alex from Australia. We did Oak Tree Flake (5.6) and the Unnamed Cracks (5.8-5.9) just around the corner left of the oak tree. Figuring that I know knew how to not slip off the granite Alex and I did Swan Slub Gully (5.6) and then went and ticked the Camp 4 Boulders Largo Lounge (V0-) and The Jimmy Hendrix Experience (V0), both at the Bachar Cracker Boulder. Watching people work Bachar Cracker (V4) was insane, I could barely pull on, I don't understand how it's humanly possible to cruise up handcrack roofs.

Half dome in the distance from Swan Slab Largo Lounge

The next day it was over to Manure Pile Buttress for After Six (5.7), which I got halfway up the first pitch before running out of pro (it's a very consistent crack and I only have a single rack), which was pretty dumb. I should have read the topo, and probably should have made a belay instead of bailing (because there was a party waiting, I felt pressured and didn't think of that). It was back to Swan Slab for more practice on the 5.8 flared crack and West Slabs (5.8). I wanted to at least lead something harder than a 5.6 so Alex and I went out to Knob Hill and I did Sloth Wall (5.7), which is still my favourite pitch in Yosemite. Maybe because it isn't like most Yosemite climbing, you just climb these mega knobs, it's so much fun compared to the granite crack slipperyness.

Me cruising up Knob Hill, though this would be a typical Valley runout, I think I was cleaning at this point, the runout on this one wasn't anything like that.

By this point it was June 9th, and a failed attempt to start Alex's car in the morning was followed by a failed attempt to climb Sunnyside Bench (5.4), which was blocked off for peregrine falcon nesting. We wandered over to find Jamcrack but got thoroughly lost so ended up climbing two random sport routes that were probably around 5.8-5.9. I wanted to build some runout, and also go see the biggest attraction in the Valley, so that afternoon we headed over to El Cap and cruised up The Footstool, Right (5.4 R), which definitely deserved the runout rating. It was easily 30-50 ft in between placements, and very chossy rock. From there we had a nice view of Alcove Swing (A0), which we also gave a quick burn, including the skateboard variation. Did some more random Swan Slab Boulders, up to a V2 that I don't remember the name of, and as we were heading back I met Zach from Illinois, a motivated recent grad who wanted to get up The Nose.

After the Footstool, my introduction to alpine climbing, where if you're not in groundfall all the time and it's chossy, you're doing it wrong.

Alex takes the lead on The Alcove Swing.

The next day was epic, Zach and I met up in El Cap Meadow and then I led Royal Arches (5.7). Mountain Project says it's more like a 5.9-, but who really cares, when it's of the "classics". Supertopo said it was 15 pitches, but I think we did it more like 8 or 10, as a lot of the "pitches" can be done unroped, well under 5.4. We didn't see much traffic either due to our late start, though that start meant that we did the bulk of the rapelling in the dark. About halfway through the endless rappels, my 60m Mammut rope crapped itself and broke out of the sheath near the middle for no real reason. It was clean through two rap rings, Zach and I both couldn't figure out what happened.


Zach isolated the break with an alpine butterfly (I think, I am still bad at knots), and then we continued down. The raps went forever!

The day after, June 12th, had poor weather going up anything committing, with rain, wind and cold, so Zach taught me how to aid climb near Housekeeping Camp, on A0 and A1 bolt ladders. I had real trouble learning how to step on the aiders, use the Fifi and balance at first but got a little faster by the end of the day. Jugging also didn't come naturally, so we just practiced most of the day, up and down, up and down.

With some basic aid skills in my head, we started up South Face of Washington Column (5.9 C1, 11 pitches). This was definitely the biggest rock climb I have ever done, so it was good to have someone more experienced along for the ride (Zach has climbed Moonlight Buttress (5.8 C1)). He took basically all the pitches, and I flailed on a couple. The first day didn't go super well, as we went one pitch up, then ran into a monster amount of humans (4 or 5 parties?) and then decided to rap off, leaving some water on the first pitch ledge. From the fixed line that day we were able to get up to Dinner Ledge, and then 3 pitches past it, to fix to the top of Pitch 6. I learned that jugging, cleaning and hauling is a pain in the ass. The rap at the end of the day was monster, down nearly 500 feet, it went forever! we had a comfortable bivy on Dinner Ledge with epic views. The next day was the summit day, as we had spent way too long on Washington Column. It's meant to be a two day wall! We jugged up in the morning to the top of 6, then Zach led right through the C1 to 7. I tried the 5.9 lie back crack thing but couldn't figure it out, aided half of it then came down. Zach finished off pitches 8, 9, 10 and 11, and we topped out around 6 pm.

Zach has a lot of gear, I do not.

Zach busy killing the aid game


Real mountain!

Then began the real fun. The first rap was uneventful, though I discovered my prusik made from Royal Arches tat didn't really work (a prusik cord needs to be flexible, doh). This was reassuring when rapping with an ATC. I think I switched to my dodgy sling method at this point (I have since made myself real prusiks). I'm pretty sure the next rap was where things went south. I got to the bottom, ran a pendulum to the anchors and then started pulling whilst chatting to Zach. Because of the pendulum, I didn't notice the knot still in the rope, idling up, hidden by the slab. Jammed rope! Instead of cutting I elected to jug up my stuck 70m whilst using Zach's line to lead off of with the aid rack. It was kind of sketchy as the rap route goes over a granite ocean area with very few places for pro. At the top there was about half a foot of tail left in the jammed eight, so it was fine. Still not advisable though. On the next rap the rope got stuck on a flake at the bottom just above Dinner Ledge. Zach soloed half the pitch to get it. Then it got stuck on the ant pitch (pitch 2). Zach did the same thing I did to get it, jugging with a lead backup. He then hooked a flake to get off. By this point it was nearly midnight so we decided to hang around on the 1st pitch ledge again after some solid mountain house (I broke my vegetarianism, and ate stroganoff because I was pretty hungry). Also, there was much riding of the pig that night:

In total Washington Column took us 4 days, and I was pretty happy to get down, get an icecream from the village store and start reading Freedom of the Hills at the Yosemite Library to learn about all the stuff I did wrong. In general I felt very underskilled and not quite as strong as I would have liked. Big wall is tough!

The day after Washington Column I still didn't really feel like climbing, so I decided to have a look at the other Yosemite stuff, the stuff most people are here for. Eating my oatmeal in the parking lot I looked at some hikes and picked out Yosemite Falls as a good one. Hiking can be pretty boring, so I like to get it over with as soon as possible. I think Yosemite falls has a recommended hike time of 3-4 hours one way, so it's a whole day thing to do it return. I put on my running shoes and got to the top in 1:07:25, and was back at Camp 4 in 2:15:09. Pretty dope to go that high that quick! It's not quite the speed record by Hari Mix (43:04), but I think this may be possible with less crowds, water, no pack, early morning instead of 9am, etc etc, so I would like to give it another go soon. In the afternoon I cruised around Swan Slab yet again, doing laps on the West Slabs and tried out Penthouse Cracks with some new friends from Touchstone Climbing who worked for Hans Florine. The 5.11a crack even started to feel doable.

Cleaning at Penthouse Cracks

After a day lost to rain, Sarah, Kacie and I (Sarah and Kacie are part of the Touchstone crew and work in the valley) went to climb Commitment (5.9) in Five Open Books. I felt really good on this, had a little trouble on the first crack and second roof but otherwise pretty confident. The supposedly committing move at the end really wasn't that committing I found. I brought them to Knob Hill at the end of the day, and Sarah did her first trad lead up Sloth Wall (5.7) while I got my first valley 5.10 on Just for Starters (5.10a). I think I need to try higher grades, because I didn't even fall on it and got it first go, though it did feel insecure.

Chilling on top of Pitch 2 of Commitment, belaying up the gym rats.

That brings it almost to the current day, as yesterday I did Snake Dike (5.7 R) with Sarah, though it seemed like the main crux of the day was the ridiculous amount of hiking (around 18 miles in total!). After the approach shenanigans, I led the whole thing, and made a couple of screw ups, especially on the early pitches. On the first pitch I tried following the previous party to the right around the roof, but it turns out there isn't really a route that way (I looked at where they put gear and assumed that was where they went, doh) and I got stuck on some death slab. That made the first pitch take over an hour! Bad! The second pitch was cake, I'm not sure where it gets a 5.7 rating from, though maybe I went the wrong way. The third pitch was messed up, especially for someone with a slab soft spot like me. It involves a very unprotected slab traverse where you have to lean and trust a crappy foot in order to get from one slab ramp thing onto another slab ramp thing. Steph Davis has even written about it, though she was doing it in hard mode. At first I tried the move, but then thought I read the topo wrong so went lower, only to get stuck on what felt like 5.11 slab. So I moved back up and then cruised over to the next anchors. The rest of the route was so easy that the sometimes complete lack of protection, or maybe one bolt a pitch, didn't really bother me. I played The Wombats on my phone in my chalkbag and cruised. The best part was the third class at the top, though I got a bit nervous and panicky as the leader from the thunderstorm clouds gathering above an endless granite slab with no way down. It would be bad if it rained there, you'd probably be fine because you'd just plug some protection in and chill out, but it would still be scary. The top of Half Dome was awesome, looking down the northwest face was super exposed. The easiest descent from Snake Dike is to take the tourist cables down, and they are super steep! I found them scarier than most of the climbing on Snake Dike, people have some guts to come and cruise them. Also swapped out my handyman belay gloves for leather gardening belay gloves at the glove pile at the base of the cables. Belay gloves are the stuff, even if they make you look like a grandma. The hike down was so long that I couldn't really walk straight by the end of it. I even fantasized as I was walking back about hiking up one of those little fold up bikes, to make the descent half an hour instead of 4-5 hrs. I was back at the car by around 10:30 pm, after leaving at 4:30am. The climb took 5.5 hrs, not too bad but still way over what the topo said, I need to work on leading speed and transitions.

Snake Dike gets a little runout.

But it's chill enough that you can just sit down waiting for a belayer to figure out rope. Not often that's possible.

Good old Half Dome selfie

So that's all the climbing I've done so far. I recognize that I'm a pretty bad climber still, and my dreams of doing stuff like The Nose (5.9 C2) are still probably a ways off. But I'm improving and getting more experience every day, and that's pretty much all that matters!

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