Text and pictures © 2003-2019 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"My next climb is going to be a tourist troll in a wheelchair." — Allen Steck to Salathé during the 1st ascent of the north face of Sentinel Rock.
Left: With El Capitan (left) and Half Dome (center background), the Sentinel is the 3rd major structure visible from Yosemite Valley (visible between Half Dome and the Cathedrals).
Right: The Sentinel seen from the Valley. The Steck Salathé follows the major crack system on the pillar on the right and then on the main upper face.
One route that is not on Jenny's extensive ticklist, knee injury or not, is the Steck-Salathé. Now I've heard so many legends about this route that I want to climb it: hard approach, 15 pitches of which 12 are either offwidth or squeeze all followed by a hard descent. But most of all this route hosts the most famous squeeze in America: the infamous Narrows. When I bought the #6 friend and the #4 BigBro a year ago I must confess that I thought about that route. But I also remember the two strong australian climbers who did it 8 years ago and came back with scars on the sternum. Or the story of another 5.12 climber who fell off the approach. Or Tim O'Neil, holder of the speed record on the Nose who fell (and was held) in the Narrows pitch while soloing. Or the great soloist Derek Hersey whose body was found at the base many years ago... But I have no trouble convincing an ignorant frenchman to go with me on that seeming monstrosity.
Left: Vincent getting out of the Wilson Overhang squeeze after failing to retrieve my cam.
Right: Vincent finishing the Wilson Overhang with, as usual, a short offwidth section.
After I finish oiling my large cams, we leave the campground at 6am and follow the trail to the base [Note, follow the 4 mile trail until after it passes at the base of the face, then continues till it crosses a stream with water, then backtrack 50m to a cairn and a climber's trail], then the climbers trail to the ramp where a few exposed and dust covered 4th class moves bring us to the base of the route. Nothing much to the approach. Hmmm, but the start is offwidth already.
Left: One of the many chimneys of the Steck-Salathé where I have to drag the pack behind me.
I hide a rock in a hand and Vincent choses the wrong one, so I 'win' the 1st pitch. On the left a variation looks easier if longer, so that's where I start. 10 minutes later I'm sweating on offwidth after offwidth on gritty rock that flakes off under my soles. The rock has few holds, it's mostly large rounded cracks. Vincent leads the easier 2nd pitch but then I connect pitch 3 and 4 and lead the Wilson overhang with already 50 meters of rope drag. That's where I see the rope push the cam I placed deep into the rock. I cringe knowing that Vincent will never get this small shinny DMM out and I'm right. I have plenty of lousy cams I've found over the years, but the first one I ever loose has to be the most recent one I bought, damn ! Seeing how much the rope pushed it, he's lucky he doesn't have to untie to go past it.
Right: Vincent belaying on a boulder stuck into one of the many chimneys of the Steck-Salathé.
After we rap down off the Flying Buttress there's a dilemma: who leads this first pitch won't lead the Narrows. With a perverse sense of expectation I let him start. A pitch higher I already regret it, being runout on the only slab pitch of the route, which he would surely have enjoyed. And indeed he shows up running: "what took you so damn long ?" Now comes the official crux of the route: an awkward flared chimney offwidth combination (how does that sound ?). After much yelling and bitching up this 10b he makes it to the belay with a: "and where does it go from here ?" Through the Dark Side of the roof. Narrows, here we are.
Left: The chimney gets narrower: Vincent doing a butt jam.
Right: Arm bars and knee bars are on the menu.
A roof blocks the chimney. In it a dark tiny opening of smooth rock does not look very inviting. We place a #4 Camalot before I even start. I hang my helmet and rack on a long sling below my harness, keeping only #6 Friend, #3.5 and #4.5 Camalot and the ultimate weapon: the #4 BigBro. I start with my feet against the wall and my back against the other side and slowly inch my upper body into the narrow gap. The Narrow's gap. Then my thighs reach the roof with my legs still horizontal and then what...? I walk the #4 up and try to pull on it, but it's too far on the side to do me any good. I do a double arm bar and release my feet. Vincent takes a picture of my feet hanging down. With my big nose, I can't turn my head. I try to do a knee bar but it's too narrow to give me much purchase and my feet are still outside. Then, hanging awkwardly on a single arm bar and no feet, I whip up the #6 and with a cam in each hand manage to worm my way up, but even so it's a hard grunting job: after 10 minutes, I can claim only about 2 meters and a liter of sweat. Higher the #6 is not large enough anymore but I can place a #3.5 on the other side. Then I actually have to climb for lack of gear to pull on.
Left: The hole on the top-right is the most famous squeeze in America, the Narrows pitch.
After 10 meters I place the BigBro and walk it up 3 times before the crack gets too large even for it. I see plenty of marks of passage going deeper left into the narrow part of the crack but, feeling somewhat claustrophobic, I traverse out and feel glad to find a few hold to rest on. When I exit the crack it's like being born again and seeing the light of day for the first time. I grab the rack still hanging between my feet to put some pro shortly before the belay. After he starts, I hear Vincent yell and grunt a lot inside the slot; being bigger than me I guess it's a tighter fit. It takes him so long, him who's usually a pretty fast climber, that I start translating him Ropper's history of the route from our SuperTopo Xerox. He come up drenched in sweat saying that he grabbed the #4 BigBro from the wrong side and fell off and then had to pull on the rope and he bursts the expected: "How in hell can this be rated 5.9 ?" You are right, the old guidebook gives it a meager 5.8 !
Right: My feet dangling uselessly from the Narrows while I'm grunting my way up.
Okay the rest should be a piece of cake now. On the next to last pitch the sun hits me just as I start the last 5.9 offwidth section. I'm tired and out of large gear with 50 meters of rope drag, and now the thirst gets suddenly unbearable. I have a hesitating moment where I consider just letting go and finally reach the shade of a tree and do my final belay. While thirstily waiting for the backpack I reflect that the last time I took a sip of water there was only one liter left out of 3 and I'd barely drank anything all day. I tell that to Vincent who hurriedly hands me the pack before taking off for the final easy pitch. I open it up to find the last water bottle gone too, except for an inch at the bottom. I scream obscenities at him and feel like yanking his rope down.
Left: Vincent on the summit of the Sentinel, with El Capitan in the background.
Right: Running spring on the descent from the Sentinel. Never mind the giardia, I'm thirsty.
The descent is quick (if loose) and I'm particularly delighted to find water in the spring at the end of the descent gully; I soak in it like Salathé must have done 50 years earlier (never mind the Giardia). At 7pm we are back at Camp 4 with Jenny preparing pasta for everyone and not jealous at all of my little outing without her. Surprisingly for a Yosemite route I did not find the Steck-Salathé as sandbag as expected; but I was prepared for the worst. I don't even have any scar to show for my efforts. Now that this is out of the way, we can do some things more in the open air.
"To practice for the Steck-Salathé, crawl across asphalt parking lots in the summer, on your knees and elbows." — Dingus Milktoast.