Nested at the back of the Yosemite Valley with a big 4-5 hours hiking approach, Mount Watkins is pretty remote with no tourist bus coming by to snap pictures of climbers, no hikers walking at the base of the route and pretty far from help if you were in trouble. To top it off, there is a 3-4 hours or 800ft of fixed ropes guarding the start of South Face of Mount Watkins. The guidebook says 4 pitches of class 4 – 5.8 climbing and I could see how all those fixed rope could be done in 4 super long pitches.
Kelly and I’ve been wanting to climb the Mount Watkins since last August, but have to bail on the plans as we have more work to do in US than expected and we ended up climbing the Lost Arrow Spire. Which was a great climb but the big obstacle of getting to the back of the Valley with huge loads, spending 3 nights on the wall and possibly getting the summit late on the last day with no daylight to find the hikers trail continues to make Mount Watkins a challenging yet attractive wall to climb.
We decided that we wanted to get on this beautiful wall and quickly made plans to hike our first load up the base of the wall. Supertopo says 3hrs on the approach and 4 hours on the access pitches and as usual I find the guidebooks in America is always very optimistic or just superhuman, nuclear powered timings.
Kelly and I took close to 5 hours with 4 gallons of water, 2 ropes and some gears. We thought we were pretty slow as the trail after the bridge on Snow Creek Trail is hard to follow and we stray off the trail onto the river bed a few times. The key to getting on the right way is to wall along the river till you come to a huge boulder on your left with Watkins right behind it. At this spot it was great to pick up water and head in for a cold dip!
The mosquitos were the crux of the hike as we stood at the base of the access pitch, that could be like 250 mosquitos swarming around us and on average I could kill 4 mosquito with one swap on my back.
It was pretty late at about 6.30pm when we got there we we brought the bags to the top of Pitch -4 and hung it on the tree. The job was done and we ran down the trail and marked the trail with cairns and sticks avoiding the blood donation drive.
We rested the following day, cooked a lot of food and water parade like NSFs during BMT knowing that we will be thirsty during the 4 days on the wall. The climbing preparation for such a big mission is to be have enough water, food and gears to get you up there and stick it out on the wall till the job gets done. So after the big rest day, we hiked our gears and empty bottles to the base of the wall again. This time we use purification tablets and about 9 litres of water from the river. In total we would have 25litres of water for 4 days on the wall, that includes a leaking water bag which we tried to duct tape together to prevent the leak.
Here’s our gear list -
- Singing Rock Guru harness and Nara
- 2 x Arc’teryx Atom hoody jackets
- 2 x Arc’teryx Hybrid SL Goretex jacket (I know its summer but the Sierra storms do come)
- 2 x light down sleeping bags from Campers’ Corner
- 1 x 65m New England KMIII 9mm static rope
- 1 x 56m Tendon 9.8mm
- Double rack of c4 with triples of .75,1,2
- Single rack of c3 – 0,1,2
- 1 x Talon, med and large Cam hooks
- 1 x offset master and 2 x offset TCU
- Singing Rock Cam clean
- 2 Juma and 1 mini traxion
Its mostly our regular rack for big wall with nothing extras except for a size 5 camalot.
The first 800ft of fixed ropes to the ledge is brutal. We packed 2 haul bags and one Arc’teryx FL 30 pack and had to shuttle the bags in a leap frog method in order to have enough rest. However the bag with the most water was too heavy for Kelly to carry and jug and I figured that it would be much faster for me to make a few more round trips to get the bags higher than to have my wife suffer with a bag that is close 1/2 her weight.
3 hrs on the fixed ropes to get to the nice bivy spot at the base. Time was 7pm and we hung around drank water rested a little and head off to the base of the climb. At this point of time the guidebook had a huge error with a pitch to the pendulum and the 5.11d variation starts right off the ground. It’s actually 250 ft of climbing to the pendulum anchors and 2 raps to the ledge. There is also a old leaper bolt in the middle of the first rap which you will need to clip in order to stay tensioned on the rope to get to the next anchor. We took much longer than expected and was on the wall without headlamps until 10pm. Kelly wasn’t pleased about that, however we have to full moonlight as our headlamps! Super beautiful and bright night!
There were a lot of trash on the wall and at the base of the wall, that includes 2 shit paper bag(which we burned), pillow, first aid kit, toilet paper, 2 pairs of hiking shoes and a Gerber knife. We managed to clean up some of the mess but have to stash the rest of the rubbish at the corner of the first pitch since our fixed ropes for the first day doesn’t go there.
The second day’s plan is to jug up to pitch 2 and climb to pitch 8 of Sheraton Watkins ledge which was a huge sloping ledge with 2 good spots for bivy. The climbing or the aiding in these 8 pitches are easy but the wall is super glossy! Pitch 7 have got a lot of confusing anchors but it doesn’t really matter which one you haul or climb to, they will work out pretty much the same. Our bags were heavy and hauling is painful of the low angle wall before Sheraton Watkins.
Kelly and I got to Sheraton Watkins at about 7pm with 2 more hours of daylight we could have fixed pitch 9 but decided we want to chill out and enjoy the view of Half Dome in sunset.
The decision was wise as we started the next day late since we know the next bivy is at pitch 11 which is kind of close to where we are actually. So we took our time, enjoyed breakfast as a leisurely pace and move on to pitch 9. Pitch 9 starts off with some grassy cracks which I french free and got to another huge ledge where I made a terrible mistake of going too low instead of the ‘belly crawl’ on top. There was also a huge mess of bad bolts, broken slings and broken wires which we tried to clean up and replaced some of them. At this point there is one hard free move after the bolts to the right and that gets you a much deserved rest with a 2 beefy ASCA bolts on a great ledge!
Kelly led pitch 10 which was her first successful big wall lead (great job Kelly!) and I quickly dispatch pitch 11 to get to our bivy ledge. It was 4pm and the sun is out of the way with nice cool temperatures, we decided to fix as many pitches as possible. So I went with the 10b variation of pitch 12 and it was sweet fingers that was a little pumpy but not hard and that pitch went pretty quick.
Next pitch is the pendulum pitch which most of us are familiar with as shown in Reelrock 7 where they filmed Alex Honnold . The moves off the belay to a large expanding flake is a huge runout without gears a fall means you will hit one of the ledges below you and the creaking sound from the expanding flake just freak the hell out of me. I think I was mentally ‘pumped’ and gave up on free climbing to aid all the way to the pendulum, while Kelly quickly jug the pitch.
We fixed our rope on top of pitch 13 and our 65m static rope was too short as we tied it to the anchor of pitch 11! Rectify the problem and head back to bivy and dinner. Easy day with some scary moments =D
Last day on Watkins, started off with jugging that ‘180’ feet rope back to pitch 13 and a big day ahead of us. Pitch 15 onwards, the wall starts to get really steep and bolt ladder on that pitch needs some work. Clipped a copper head on the first piece and just dinosaur era bolts all the way to some free climbing and pass a ASCA bolt to the anchor. Way long pitch and a funky hook move in the middle of the bolt ladders since the shorty me couldn’t free that face move.
The 10d off width and the 10c hand cracks at the top of the route are truly the pitch of the route, with long 120-150feet pitch with just perfect hand cracks soaring to the top of Watkins. It already felt like the beer keg is waiting for you at top. But when you top out and realised that the walk down is 7 miles down with knee busting switch backs, its a good idea to drink up all the water you have and have some dinner before heading down for the 5 hours walk to the car!
We stole a shower from Curry Village at 1am and drove to Oakhurst for supper at 2.30am! Double serving of breakfast at Denny’s! Awesome!
Salathe wall is up next and I’m going to lose some sleep over hollow flake. Hopefully I do not die if I fall out of that flake!