By Eric Angus
Primo and I awoke to bright clear skies of Yosemite October and previous plans of a day off the stone evaporated. Hotcakes and saskatoonberry jam, mugs of coffee and hickory brews appeared briefly and we lazed bout, stretching in the streams of sunlight trickling through the trees. I quickly scrawled out the topo for Snake Dike, packed some water, rock shoes and chalk bag then roared out of the camp through the chilly morning. Stashed the bike at the trailhead at 10:30 and started a fast lope up the path, startling hikers on their wall to Vernal Falls. The trail climbed gradually, switching back and eventually rounding Nevada Falls. I broke off the main trail for a more direct scramble up a crude groove to find a well cairned trail, only to lose my concentration and nearly my balance atop some rotten cliff bands.
Picked up the path again as well as a royal blue fleece shirt then got to steeper ground below the SE face. Talus trail and manzanita bushes, hot sun and white granite.
Startled a golden rattlesnake at a bend in the trail and watched him slither partly into the bushes. I squatted on my heels and waited, but he remained halfway on the trail so I lofted a stone in his vicinity. A defiant rattle and he glided off – I wish you well. Faint voices ahead, can’t see anyone yet. The trail curled around and stopped at a sloping plateau with old fire rings and trampled granite dust. One party above.
Deep breaths. Stretch the hips, flanks, legs. Some nuts and chocolate and casting the gaze about the Valley, misty yellow autumn air easing around. The hands feel dry and ready to steer the way. Head check: focused, alert, quiet and certain. Pull on the slippers, stow my sandals and fleece. A last glance at my paper, out of habit, and I start up. Spread my fingers wide and palm the warm gritty stone, step high and press my foot into a divot and the flame begins.
The belays pass by and I pause before the crux – a traverse on depressions but it feels no different than the rest, so I pad and cross feet to gain the iconic dike, all pink and orange and grey and whipped into horns, ears, pockets and handles. All feels solid, burning blue and exhilarated. I catch the party above.
- Good day.
- Howyadoin’? I suppose you want to pass us.
- Thanks, I will, after you get to the belay. Maybe you can let me take off before you continue.
- Hey, do you have any extra water? That approach took us hours.
- I’m afraid not . .
He climbs up slowly, a little scrabbly – hope it’s not because I’m here. I sidle away from under his fall line and climb the face to get to his partner.
- Good day.
- Rest day for you?
- I thought I might only walk to the base but had time to spare.
- Do you know what belay I’m at?
- Sorry, no. Never been up here before. I do have a topo, let me fish it out.
I lean my belly into the stone and pull out my scribble.
- Looks like you have two or three more pitches to go, I would say. Mind if I go ahead?
- You bet. Can I link the next two?
- No idea, friend. Be seeing you.
I tiptoe up the dike until it peters out to slabs, then meander from flake to flake towards the top. Have to stop a couple of times to catch my breath, it goes on forever. On top after 60’. Alone to explore, I walk around several ornamental cairns. Crawl on my belly to the NE face and stare down at the testpieces. Can see four forest fires burning. Cathedral Peak, Clouds Rest, North Dome, Watkins – all mine for a moment.
Spy the cables down and head over, thinking to ignore them but the rock is startlingly slick from the countless hiker feet so I hand over hand the thick steel down to the saddle. I ask a fellow where the trail down is and he looks blankly at me before pointing to a small notch. I scamper through then start the lope down, running the flats and easy descents, stutterstepping the rooty loose bits. Back at Nevada Falls to find some Frenchmen lurching up the Mist trail. It looks more direct than the way I came up so I step past and it’s pretty casual except for some greasy steps. Water gone! Tank up at the fountain a mile off the Valley floor then thunder down the trail, knees feeling it a bit now. Unlock the bike. 4:30 PM.
My little idea that’s been floating about presents itself for formal consideration. Motion passes so a 10’ pedal to the other side and I’m at the base of the Royal Arches, do a stretch and a breathing reset and start up at 4:45. Climbing too fast at first, getting winded so I slow down and reassess: Hands feel proud, just realign my cardiopulmonary and ignore the chlorinated water in my bag. Stop at the start of the piton scar pitch to rest, take off my shoes and knead my feet a bit, fill my vision with the glowing afternoon haze to the west. No one on the route.
Steady up – smear paste edge lean twist jam catch pull brace chalk, wipe my shoe. The second chimney, I get my feet too high once but recover easily and haul up the plated face to the pendulum – never done it before. Grasp the last loop of the fixed line and lean to the left – my left hand is nowhere near the hold. Retreat and take a mild run across, the feet skate a bit but I touch the hold but can’t quite latch it. Swing back across, settle. Chalk up a little, grasp the cord and launch left, driving up to snare the hold and pull up.
Casual up the crack and to the last slab. Have to be careful here, there is nothing to plug a hand into to get steady. I climb high, blowing pine needles off the holds and scrutinizing my feet, weighting the edges and divots that afford passage. I touch the rappel station then slowly pick my way down, leave the shoes on for the scramble to the rim and it’s been an hour. The trail is well cairned but I’m not dallying – I’m the only one up here and Hogan wasn’t informed of Plan B. Loping and climbing over Washington Column and still east until I see a team in the gully. The trail remains adequate although loose at times (I can’t believe I went up this trail once to get to North Dome) and I catch the group on the slabs. Light is failing but I reach the forest beside a cairn before using my lamp. Small fluorescent discs on the trees help me as I descend, eventually hitting the horse trail which leads west. The Ahwahnee lights gradually peek through and I peel off my sodden black jersey as I walk. Find my bike and wearily pedal up to camp, where I find Hogan, who has also had an excellent rest day.