Solo

I woke up to the chilly morning air at the bottom of Lee Vining Canyon, wondering what I was doing today. I was supposed to climb with a new partner today, but we hadn’t talked about it since Wednesday and I wondered if she was even up in the Meadows. I piled back into my car, shivering violently as I started the motor and cranked up the heater, even though the temperature gauge was sitting below C. Whatever.

A stop at the Mobil filled my coffee mug with wake-the-f-up juice, and I was on the road again to the Meadows. I pulled through the gate and fell in love with Toulumne Meadows all over again.

At the TM Store I bought another cup of coffee and left my maybe-climbing partner a voicemail, before pulling over to the visitor center and re-organizing the incredible pile of junk that was overflowing from the back of the Subaru. By the time I was done she had called and canceled – injuries to a ring-pulley and motivation-psyche to blame – so I got ready to commit to a solo climb I’ve thought about for a while.

I called PG from the carpark, who grilled me: where? what? Thankfully, she didn’t try to tell me that I shouldn’t go. I clipped a pair of shoes and chalk bag to my belt, put on a pair of headphones, intentionally left my watch in the car, and started hiking.

About 30 minutes later I was cursing as I realized that I missed the climbers’ trail and started running back down the trail, stopping and scanning carefully each time the faintest mouse track slipped away from the main trail. I ran into three guys, who suspiciously had that “look”, and opted to take the trail that they were debating about. Five minutes later they slipped in front of me from a second trail and I slowed down a bit to give myself some solitary and enjoyed the walk up gray slabs and through the dry woods. Climbing the slopes near the bottom of the tower, I passed one of them armed with a very threatening and professional-looking SLR camera. Hmmm.

At the bottom of the face I ran into the other two fellows – we said our greetings, made jokes about how all the cool kids were here, and then looked up at the audience. I counted at least three teams ahead of us, using traditional methods to protect their climbing. We quietly strapped on shoes, said our goodbyes, and one-by-one we started to solo up the cracks and overlaps. I caught up with the first team on pitch one, and then took a left-hand variation to avoid a second team on pitch two. I pulled through a flaring corner over a bulge while an older climber watched silently as he belayed his partner. On pitch three, the famous chimney, I climbed a thin crack and knobs to the left again to avoid getting entangled with the third team, who cheerfully let me pass on the fourth pitch. I had to really focus on the next five feet, committing to the knobs and edges and ignoring the feeling of 400 feet hanging under my heels. The fifth pitch featured an unprotectable knobby face finish and I was suddenly on the summit, still on the heals of the two soloists in front me.
When we descended, they broke right to join their photographer friend on the ridge while I 3rd-classed over to the smaller Eichorn Pinnacle, a 2-pitch 5.4 that featured 200+ feet of exposure. Fun moves past ancient pins lead to a pedestal finish, with the win whipping my shirt and hair. How cool. I looked over and saw the photographer pointing his camera my way, and waved.

Just as I finished down-climbing, I felt something slide down my shirt and watched in dismay as my prayer-bead bracelet – a gift from PG – slide down the sloping ledges. I watched intently until it stopped on a ledge about 75 feet below, retrieved my approach shoes, and headed down to get it. As I descended, I watched the two other soloists and the cameraman begin to step down the west slopes – a maneuver not mentioned in any guidebook.

I decided to follow their lead, suspecting that the descent would lead to a trail following the bottom of the valley below. Sure enough, cairns led to open forest and then the trail appeared unexpectedly. A fun run down the trail, around the north buttress wall, and soon I was back to my car.

Statistics: South East Face of Cathedral Peak and North Face of Eichorn Pinacle, 7 pitches up to 5.7 with variations. 5:10 hours car-to-car. Musical accompaniment by Built to Spill.

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