Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Oddyssey to Shangri La

“We climbers are tribal. It sounds trite, but it is true. The brotherhood of the rope is real. It spans the globe, cultures, bitter national rivalries, languages. Climbers from the world over gather around a fire and by virtue of common experience and shared passion, they know they sit with brother and sister.” –DMT

Red – FFA Brutus of Wyde Memorial Route (IV-V 5.11a) – free version of Et Tu Brute (V A2 5.9+)
Orange – FA/FFA Parasitic Nematode (III-IV 5.10+)
Right skyline is NE Ridge which was first climbed by Fred Beckey and partner(s)
 I never got a chance to meet Bruce Bindner—or Brutus of Wyde, as he’s known. I got into climbing a few years after Brutus passed away in 2009. Nonetheless, I feel linked to him through the brotherhood of the rope and the numerous reports he has posted online. Even without photos, the excellent writing and quality content of his reports are more than enough to seize the reader’s interest. I have spent hours browsing through tales of his adventures, which included first ascents on backcountry walls, climbing ice routes in Canada, aid climbing in Yosemite, general mountaineering, and much more—Brutus was one of the few people I would label as a true climber. I value climbing as more than a weekend activity; I see it as a method of self-expression, an art. Unfortunately, he stopped producing masterpieces, but without a doubt he left his mark. As an artist, Brutus influenced me greatly.
Awesome pool for soaking during warm summer days
The valley has other goodies, not just rock climbing
Parasitic Nematode (III-IV 5.10+) goes up the right-leaning crack and corner system in the middle of the photo.
 While reading an article DMT wrote in tribute to Brutus, I came across a reference to Shangri La. My curiosity instantly grew. A beautiful place in the High Sierra that people rarely visit? A rugged thousand-foot wall? There were no photos posted of this mysterious wall, but the drawing done by Brutus pushed my curiosity to an unbearable level. As a kid I had dreams of exploring different worlds and reaching new dimensions. Finding new places and figuring out a way to pass challenges is what lured me into climbing. The adventurer in me wanted to experience the serene valley, spend time exploring an area few had seen, and hopefully find an easy way to scramble to the top of the peak only a handful had summitted. Problem was that Craig kept the location of this valley a secret. My attempts to ask him for clues were ignored, however I kept faith. This was back in 2010, the year when I got hooked on scrambling around the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. This passion grew into an addiction—the most satisfying high. Back in 2010, climbing the face of that mysterious wall was beyond my deepest dreams, or abilities, but the obsession with finding Shangri La grew stronger as the years passed. Over time my passion for peak-bagging grew into a love for taking difficult routes up mountains. Acrobatic movement over rock added the needed variety when simple scrambling got old. I rock-climbed often, and by the time I discovered Shangri-La, I had scaled over a hundred peaks in the High Sierra, multiple big walls in Yosemite Valley, high altitude death traps in Cordillera Blanca, and had even put up my own routes.

Shangri-La—Lost World. A fictional land of peace and perpetual youth.

Tip of the monster illuminated by first light
Me, Gleb and Max after climbing the NE ridge in 2013. Photo by Daria. A fun day in the mountains.
Something my mom would like...
Doing the approach for the first time was a torture. Would we see a steep wall or a chossy crag? Was this area seriously serene or was it all a bit puffed-up by the writer? Were we going up the same valley? Was the object of my imagination becoming real? The approach followed a raging river, passed several beautiful meadows, and rewarded us with a seemingly infinite amount of redcurrant. With berries all around, the approach took us longer than expected, but after several hours of hiking we spotted the menacing wall. As we got closer, my excitement grew and my fearless attitude vanished. The wall was steeper than I imagined, and I did not feel comfortable attempting the direct line on it during shorter days of autumn. We climbed an easier ridge route to the summit, had a great social outing and none of my friends left the valley disappointed. We were rewarded with exciting climbing, great views, meadows full of alpine flowers and a true adventure. By the time we returned to our cars, my aspirations had grown. I was not only planning to repeat the direct route (“Et tu, Brute!” V 5.9+ A2)—I wanted to find a free-climbable path up the rock face that I found too frightening a few hours prior.

Crux of the approach - a V5 dyno over a stream. On the way back we did not send.
Caitlin following the fun first pitch on Parasitic Nematode
Celebrating good climbing before hitting a few crux overhangs (Parasitic Nematode)
Looking up at the intimidating wall from the base
As winter approached, I began fantasizing about the wall and increased the amount of time I spent on rock. I couldn’t hold back the excitement and emailed Craig Harris. Along with Brutus and a few more, Craig was one of the first ascentionists of Et tu, Brute. His reply fueled the fire: “The face will go free, we were close!” Given that finding the wall had been a mysterious journey, I kept the spirit going and did not request beta. Finding the free route and picking the appropriate gear was up to me. Free climbing this face turned into the most significant rock-climbing goal I had for 2014. That was before I found Bubbs Creek Wall, but that's another story...

“Standing there in Shangri La as we came to call that place, we might have been in Pakistan or even on some other planet. No other hikers, fishermen, no body at all, came up this canyon the whole time we were there. We had it to ourselves. We were a short twenty minute hike from the base of the first pitch of a thousand foot tall, dead vertical to massively overhanging chunk of orange granite and we as far as we knew were the only climbers on the planet who knew anything about it.” –DMT

Somewhere in the middle of a giant wall
About to traverse right into a cool hand crack
I did not know when the appropriate time would come. Only a few people were excited about a trip to a thousand foot rock-face with vertical walls, questionable rock and no beta. It happened unexpectedly. After one of my partners bailed, I included a trip to Shangri La as one of the options to my friend Caitlin. She had less than two years of rock-climbing experience and only a few multi-pitch routes under her belt. “First ascent in a secret valley?! That sounds really fun,” she replied. I was not sure if posting this option was wise, but the train was off and running. On the few outdoor routes we had done together, she had proved to be safe, but most important of all, I knew she was excited about having a true adventure.

As Bay Area desk jockeys, we had way too little time and way too much on our agenda. The itinerary I proposed involved an absurdly busy weekend. On Saturday, we would haul our gear seven miles and attempt a first ascent of a different line I had scoped on the first trip. On Sunday we would try to find a free climbable variation to the grade V route “Et tu, Brutus,” summit, hike out, and drive back to the Bay for five hours. All without much chance to acclimate. Saturday’s climb did not give me much hope for a successful Sunday. The approach took a little longer, the first ascent we completed turned out to be a full value climb. As a result, we got back to the camp pounded. Though she had led a few 5.10 sport climbs, it was Caitlin’s longest route, first time following on a FA, and her first alpine climb. She deserved a lot of praise, so I honored her with picking a name for our new route!  Since Caitlin is a neuroscientist at Stanford University who spends her workdays playing with worm DNA, our route got a sexy worm-inspired name –Parasitic Nematode (III 5.10++ PG13).

Another view of the wall. Rock seemed fairly loose in most spots
Cool chimney with a cruxy roof on pitch 3
Good views and exposure on the route

The pristine setting, a simple dinner, and our warm sleeping bags would have to be enough to bring our psyche up again. We woke up to a windy morning and ominous sky. Our chances for getting on the route seemed slim to none, but by the time we finished our coffee the sun had begun to illuminate the wall. I had mixed emotions about coming face to face with the climb I had dreamed about for so long. I felt a mix of excitement and fear of the unknown: fear of being unprepared, not finding a free-climbable way, loose rock, climbing with a much less experienced partner and not having enough protection to feel safe enough to continue. In addition to standard double rack to #3, we brought a single #4 and a #6 cam, and I was glad we did. Brutus of Wyde sure loved the offwidth; on photos from his various first ascents it was evident that his arsenal of big bros and giant camming units was as impressive as his tick list. The first pitch was a warm up for a sustained wide crack on pitch two. The original 5.9+ rating was likely spot on for technical difficulties, but it did not speak to the level of required exertion. Fists grew into stacks, which transformed into a squeeze chimney below the third pitch – an intimidating roof.

Fun overhang - making my way up to the double roofs and a perfect steep splitter
SICK two pitch variation with a 40 meter overhanging splitter! And a roof!
Looking down at the splitter (photo by Caitlin)

Climbing stayed fun for the whole duration
I made a solid 5.10 move to pass the crux of the third pitch and fought horrific rope drag to combine the next two. Another moderate pitch with a solid 5.10 crux put us on the exposed arête. I could see the next bolted anchor above a crack system to our left, but straight up was a beautiful splitter that started close to the exposed arête. It looked steep, passed two roofs, and continued up into the unknown. It looked harder than the original option. Part of me did not want to jeopardize my free ascent, but those who don’t take risks never taste champagne. This climb was about challenges, adventure, and the unknown, so I decided to test my luck. After doing a few spooky moves to gain the arête, I got into a fingercrack and worked hard to pull the first roof. As I had no idea how long the next pitch would be, I set up the belay right under the second roof. It was a great decision: it gave me a chance to rest, and the next pitch turned out to be about fifty meters long.
Caitlin with sweet exposure below.
Me on somewhat loose last pitch of the face. One that was aided on the FA
Looking down the NE Ridge - First climbed by Fred Beckey and partner (what a surprise!)
By the time I got to the anchor, my forearms felt like Jell-O. This crack was likely the best splitter I had done in the High Sierra. I pulled the roof on thin hand jams and ring locks. The crack then widened to accept hero hand jams, but only for a short while. It grew into cupped hands, and the angle never allowed me a rest stance. This crack belongs in the Cookie Cliff, and it made Outer Limits feel slabby by comparison. I led the ninth pitch and came face to face with the crux. I knew it was the last pitch that was aided on the first ascent, but by this point I was not sure I had enough juice to put up a good fight. The previous two days had not exactly been restful. The only way was up, and I did not see any alternative. The last pitch began with a game of “choose the right block.” If I chose the wrong one, I was fairly certain the house of cards was going to come down. When I got above the loose section, I found myself staring down the crux — getting over a bulge and into an offwidth crack. Even though the move was incredibly hard, for the first time on this pitch I felt secure—the #6 camalot was in a perfect spot above my head. The pitch kept throwing burly bulges in my way, and while locking off on a jam I began to cramp. When I finally traversed to the anchor and saw the sunny ridge a few feet above, I wanted to cry with joy, but we still had to scramble another 500 feet to the summit. Combination of easy scrambling, low fifth and a few steps of 5.7 took us to the top. The sun was setting, the wind was chilly, and we still had to descend, gather our gear, hike out, and drive home. We did not stay on the summit as long as I would like, but we did have enough time to snap a few photos and sign the register.
Caitlin on the summit ridge
Summit glory after the climb :)
Our register entry
It would be impossible to pick one factor that was responsible for our success. Was it my obsession and hard work? Was it Caitlin’s willingness to suffer and jump way out of her comfort zone? Was it the well-written tribute to Brutus that gave us the inspiration to travel off the beaten path? I am not sure, but it is hard to ignore the fact that the day we drove out for our adventure coincided with the five year anniversary of Brutus’ passing. Perhaps we weren’t alone in Shangri La that weekend, but even if his spirit does not roam those valleys, it will forever be linked to our climb, the Brutus of Wyde Memorial Route (V 5.11a). We decided to maintain the location of the valley a secret. Not because we are greedy, but because we want to preserve the mystery of Shangri La for those who seek a voyage into the unknown.