Summer 2003: I should have enjoyed the waves of golden knobs, the cold thin air of the Sierra, and the 500 feet of granite swimming below me, but I couldn't. I was terrified by a 5.9 pitch, identified on the topo as the Sea of Knobs, on Sorcerer's Apprentice (5.11a R), Fairview Dome. Seeking protection, I had veered rightward from the belay toward a quarter-inch bolt, away from the correct line of good, albeit massively runout, knobs above. My soft shoes balanced on a cracked protrusion. Even from 20 feet away, I could see the rust on the bolt below.
No signs of protection above, to my sides, or anywhere. The cracked knob beneath my feet crumbled. It broke slowly; but I fell quickly. A blur of gray swept across my vision.
I mostly remember being scared before, then still terrified after I whipped 40 feet onto the old bolt. It held, but for how long?
I rushed back to the belay, physically unscathed but mentally destroyed. I had no desire to climb the unprotected 30 feet above the belay, following the real line, and neither did my partner. We rappeled, leaving carabiners, slings and a bit of our pride.
For the next seven years, the routes on the rounded granite domes of Tuolumne Meadows, in the high Sierras of California, intimidated me. The prospects of breaking a knob, of losing the plot on a heinous runout, of peeling forever down a long, knobby slab all kept me clinging to the few well-protected climbs. I wondered if dying and Tuolumne climbing were synonymous.
Yet today's Tuolumne is a juxtaposition of the bold and the safe, new and old. For three decades at West Farthing Dome, the large slab by Lower Cathedral Lake, archaic quarter-inch bolts hid sparsely among the many knobs. The bold-school nature of the initial routes turned them, in time, into artifacts, revered but not (or rarely) touched. In 2009 Linda Jarit and Bryan Law ventured into the unexplored black streaks on the southern expanse of the dome. Taking turns, they drilled six new bolts and an anchor on a new 5.8 knob climb, Angry Dwarf. At the belay, they scanned rightwards to see that the first bolt of the next route, Zephyr, a 5.7 put up by Alan Bartlett in 1984, sat even with their belay 120 feet off the ground.
Law and Jarit are participants in a new movement in Tuolumne Meadows. In reality, despite the area's rich history, over the years bold climbers in Tuolumne have become fewer and farther between, and a growing number of climbers are establishing and doing accessible routes. In the past, first ascentionists like John Bachar climbed 5.12 regularly and established 5.8 routes that required the ability to run it out on easy ground. To climb 5.9 routes, a leader needed to be confident on 5.11 because of all the unprotected climbing. Today, an area that was once largely known as a mental proving ground has broadened.
"It used to be that if you wanted to climb 5.8 in the Meadows you had to be scared shitless," says Law, who has since 2006 put up over 50 new routes here. Now there are moderate well-protected routes. There's still the Tuolumne flavor but no 100-footers, no broken bones, and if you don't want to climb [these routes], there's always the Bachar-Yerian. Or Sorcerer's Apprentice, Zephyr and a hundred other routes that now stand as testaments to an era.
"In the early development of Tuolumne," as the longtime denizon Ron Kauk says, "People were trying to define themselves, and their vehicle was the extreme distance between the bolts." His contemporary Bachar not only defined himself, but the prevailing ethic of Tuolumne with a vision of climbing that included mental and physical mastery. By stance drilling and hanging off knobs, Bachar established climbs with 50- to 90-foot runouts. These routes are justly famous but see few repeats. Dubbed the most famous psychological testpiece in the U.S. by Supertopo Climbing Guides, the Bachar-Yerian sees approximately half a dozen ascents a year, mostly by top climbers from around the world seeking to test their mental stamina.
"People don't go climbing to die. They go climbing to have fun," said Mike Waugh, a 26-year veteran Tuolumne climber, one of the few people to have climbed both the Bachar-Yerian and another Bachar route, You Asked For It (5.10c) more than once. In the 1990s, though, Waugh fell a hundred feet after botching a move at the end of You Asked For It. He received 15 staples in his head, and has since scaled back on such climbs, though when asked at a recent late-night campfire whether he'd go back, he said, "You never know ... I wish I could say no."
In 1998, Greg Barnes, a Meadows climber and leading member of the American Safe Climbing Association, started replacing old bolts on many of the horror shows. Barnes began a movement for safer and more moderate climbing in the Meadows, initially by replacing existing bolts and then by establishing his own routes.
"At first it was just because I didn't want to get killed when an anchor blew," he says. "Then I really got into it because no one else was doing it and loads of bolts were super sketchy!"
In 2001 he bolted Shagadelic, a four-pitch 5.8 route up a gray streak on the middle of Medlicott Dome with a view of the Valley's Half Dome. Barnes, a solid rock climber and guidebook author with a family that keeps him busy, is more interested in having his routes be repeated than testify to his ability to run it out. When his partner deemed Shagadelic too scary, he retrobolted his own route, which is now a modern miniclassic.
Barnes and other new-school first ascentionists began regularly retrobolting their climbs. Their first-ascent method has developed into one in which they head into unknown terrain, quickly placing quarter-inch bolts, establish an anchor, then rebolt the line with beefy 3/8-inch bolts, adding others at runouts. Since 2004, four other regular route developers -- Bryan Law, Linda Jarit, George Ridgely and John Shewchuck -- have joined Barnes, spending their nights camped outside of the national park, their mornings in the Tuolumne store parking lot, and their days at the crags. Working with dedication, they have established over a hundred new routes at the mid 5.10 and lower grades.
I met this crew in a small parking lot next to a campsite at Warren Creek. Law, a 38-year-old amateur geologist, had placed his laptop on the tailgate of the Death Star, his monstrous black truck. Pictures of different rocks glowed brightly on the computer screen.
Ridgely, a 63-year-old retired accountant, glanced at the screen, tipped his Sierra Nevada back, then gazed at the bottle. "Looks like cereal. Looks like oatmeal," he said.
"With raisins," Shewchuck, 50, a finish carpenter, said with a smile. He and Ridgely had just returned to the campsite after celebrating John's milestone birthday at the nearby Mobil, a gas station that sells pale ale, bug spray and lobster taquitos topped with tomatillo-pineapple salsa.
Bryan Law pointed to the root-beer-colored minerals displayed on the computer screen.
"That's calcium titanium silicate," he said of the image.
"That was right on the tip of my tongue," Linda Jarit, 48, a DUI counselor from the South Bay, said amicably. "I just couldn't get it out there."
Nicknamed Minerals, Law spends his winters in the nearby Reno desert studying rocks. His obsession with Tuolumne stems in part from its variety of rocks: the Half Dome and Cathedral Peak granodiorite and more specifically the potassium feldspar megacrysts.
The conversation shifted towards climbing, and, soon, to accounts of smearing on stances and of broken drill bits. Calling the laborious task of placing 3/8-inch expansion bolts (the current standard) difficult is a huge understatement -- power drills are illegal in the wilderness of Tuolumne. The sequence of a hand drill goes: hit the drill, turn the bit and repeat, making tiny indentations in the rock until you have a bolt hole. Law, with a couple of hundred bolts drilled under his belt, can drill a bolt in less than four minutes (his friends have timed him), but others don't have his experience or his 6' 3 frame. In August of 2007, John Shewchuck spent 20 minutes hand-drilling one into the hard granite of Dozier Dome. He managed to finish the first anchor bolt on a classic arete but when he tried to place the second, he broke the drill bit and started swearing. The cursing gave the arete its name: Tourette's.
The next morning, over biscuit sandwiches from the Tuolumne Meadows store, my climbing partner, Lucho Rivera, 30, a San Francisco native, and I weighed our options of where to go climbing for the day. Two opportunities for second ascents presented themselves: Bob Jensen's Captain Fairview, a new 5.11 on Fairview Dome, or Lucho's difficult traversing crack route Simba's Line, in the backcountry. Considering Jensen's route, I shuddered, channeling a memory of my huge whip on Fairview. A veteran Tuolumne Search and Rescue member, Jensen has an old-school ethic; he once established a 5.11b route on the roadside Lembert Dome and named it Sandbag, giving a 5.10b rating. Jensen has done more routes on Fairview than anyone, even establishing Separation Anxiety, a girdle traverse. He was Captain Fairview. I was more of a Captain Crater, though, so within half an hour I was following Lucho between domes in the backcountry.
My ankle, from an old injury, swells when I hike too far, a card I play at mere mentions of long approaches. Around my 25th complaint, we rounded the back side of Geo Dome and came upon Lucho's route, a 5.12 traversing crack. Excitement lubricated my stiff ankle. Simba's Line split a perfect diagonal across the back side of the dome. I crimped along the bottom of the crack, traversing toward a two-foot-wide dike. An X marked a perfect rest where the crack and the dike crossed. Small but good gear fit into the crack at the crux. I relaxed; the gear was solid. While resting, I stared at the dike, which ran from over a quarter-mile away and into Geo Dome. The quartz band exited the top of the dome and into the expanse of the Sierra.
Simba's Line, with good natural gear and bolts only at the anchor, is just another route to confound the stereotype that Tuolumne only contains scary face routes. There are solid crack climbs out in the Sierra -- their discovery just involved some hiking. Still, most Tuolumne routes continue to follow intricate series of knobs on vertical terrain, and rely on bolts.
"There's been a specialization," said Ron Kauk, who established the vertical testpiece Peace (5.13c) on Medlicott in the early 1990s, during Tuolumne's heyday of technical pebble pinching. The style and angle of climbing in Tuolumne does not lend itself to many more difficult grades established since.
Mikey Schaefer, a longtime Yosemite climber and guide whose FAs include Fairview's hardest route, 2004's Night Shift (IV 5.12), said of Meadows climbing, "It's not bouldery or powerful. It's a latent form of climbing, almost passive."
And that brings us to the other juxtaposition, a normal one in history, that of rising standards. Pushing standards in the Meadows has meant expanding to other, nearby crags.
One of the chief developers of new crags is also one of the few people to have repeated Peace, and that is Ron Kauk's 27-year-old son, Lonnie. A professional snowboarder, Lonnie splits his time between hucking off enormous snowy peaks and sport climbing on the East Side of the Sierras. In the past five years, he, Lucho Rivera and Matt Ciancio of June Lake have resurrected a granite crag called Private Property, or Tioga Cliff, located at 9,000 feet, three and a half miles outside of Tuolumne's eastern entrance.
Private Property sits below the road and features vertical granite with big roofs. Powerful moves separate large flat holds. Lonnie has established a slew of 5.12s, a half dozen 5.13s, and the cliff's only 5.14, Thunder Heart. While the upper section of the wall boasts the hardest routes, the lower section, called the Gold Wall, saw an increase in activity in the past two years since first ascentionist Dan McDevitt began retrobolting a number of his routes, making his scary 5.10 and harder routes safe. Though Dozier Dome, West Farthing and the Razor Back area have also seen significant development in the moderate arena, Private Property has the best concentration of new difficult sport climbs in the Tuolumne area.
At 8,000 feet, Tuolumne Meadows is close to heaven. Perhaps that is why Bachar and others felt able to push their psychological limits. The Meadows will always offer its bold sense of adventure, and the younger generation, as any does, will continue to push the limits of difficulty. In the middle, and equally important, climbers like Barnes and Law have made the Meadows a pleasant place to climb. Tuolumne has finally reached a stage where the bold and the fun can exist side by side.
James Lucas lives in Berkeley, California. He says he is 110 percent spray and 5 percent climbing.