HISTORIC ROOT FOUND ON WASHINGTON COLUMN

Tags:








 

HISTORIC ROOT FOUND ON WASHINGTON COLUMN

 

For a few decades the Direct Route on Washington Column received frequent ascents, and was originally a significant milestone in Yosemite climbing, dating from 1940.  Only 5.7 and 11 pitches, it had nonetheless certain legendary chimney pitches such as the Reigelhuth, Fat Man, Charley Brown, and Great Chimneys, as well as a subtle, intimidating and airy friction step that got you access to one of the cruxes.  By the late sixties it had become a trade route and was usually included in spring training, sometimes unroped.  It was harder and steeper than the Arches and could be used as a link to North Dome routes above.  These Dome routes are currently some of the Valley’s finer and popular routes.  The Column route had lots of trees, ledges at all belays, and some route finding challenges, kind of an adventure climb from way back.  This route still exists, can be climbed in the original manner, although there are a few bolts and pins on it now and I imagine that months and months go by with it seeing no one on it.  You either descend North Dome Gully or hike down the Y. Falls trail.

 

 

So by 1965 I had done the Column, and had a great time on it as a 17-year old.  The historic aspects of the climb were thrilling to experience for a young aspirant.  There really weren’t traces of prior climbers on the route--- except for some unusually cleaned out cracks. But very oddly the only fixed point on the whole route was one soft iron vertical piton pounded into a root,  freakishly bent over on it, high up in the decomposing second pitch (p8) of the Great Chimney.  At this point the once noble polished chimney has deteriorated into a large gross seam with all the inner stone guts having fallen out of it, revealing tree roots that had grown in the cracks of that mess, forcing the blocks out into the void who knows how long ago, and so forming a shallow granular chimney with some danger to it.  Some of the roots thus revealed were kind of square and flat from growing and forcing their way through these fissures now long gone.  And perhaps on the first ascent, this pin had been driven desperately into a root to provide the only protection in many feet in the rotting mess.  And as time went by, this root got weaker and weaker and although used as a handhold by hundreds of parties, the poor thing was ready to give up when in the early 70’s I was up there again, unroped, alone and flashing through on my way to summit North Dome as well one spring.

 

So of course I tore that thing right out of there, throwing it down the Great Chimney, which about 200 feet below, had this nice sand floor and alcove at its base.   I thought it was just dangerous and a scary nuisance to lesser climbers who I imagined would be freaking out in this rubbishy upper section, feeling they needed to have at least something to pull on, only to have it break off.  I rushed on towards the wonderful open South Face route of the dome above, a crazed young athlete craving many things, forgetting all about this root.

 

But Royal was up to the same thing, soloing the Column and North Dome on a regular basis and it turned out that in ‘75, he and I actually unroped this together, including the variation of Charley Brown Chimney, pushing the route to 5.8 and went on to North Dome as well.  But I also worked for RR at times a few years earlier, when he would receive big containers of climbing equipment from Europe and would have to distribute it out to all his retail climbing store clients all over the country.  This was the little operation he was running in the basement of Valley Paint which his father-in-law owned, although sometimes we used vacant retail spaces on the main drag too.  So Vandiver and I would spend a week or more doing this, periodically in the early ‘70s.  We would stay with Liz and RR at the house on Durant in Modesto, where they hosted us in a generous manner, every night involving lots of wine, Liz’ great cooking and the unique friendship and mentoring of these two unique and powerful characters.  Sometimes we would play tennis too, usually for many hours, in the Modesto heat, as if on a big wall route in summer.

 

One week I arrived, and in the living room was the root with the flatten piton in it, resting on the mantel.  RR had clipped it on to his sling not long after I had brusquely thrown it away, both of us on crazy unroped outings, unbeknownst to anyone.  It had been waiting in the sandy alcove for Royal’s keener sense of its meaning.  He even doubted my story of throwing it away,  probably because it seemed too coincidental or perhaps he thought I would hungrily, pretentiously,  lay claim to it or worse, try to insinuate some personal importance in this little piece of history now enshrined in his house, the father of modern American rockclimbing.

 

But shifting his approach quickly, he went on to say that Chouinard had been collecting all kinds of historic items for years. He remembered  observing this in Yvon and originally thought it was petty.  But he soon realized the provenance and joy of these things and began another hobby.  So I kicked myself mentally, understanding too how wonderful the old squarish root really was, with this thirty-year-old piton flatten on it.  I saw in the living room, how much it told, how much it meant to those of us who had climbed past it for decades, and that it was of a time when such things were done in the dawn of our history.  And I also quietly played a cinema to myself of Royal dragging this oddly shaped root clipped to him, all the way up the rest of the climb, through the forest, and then much further, up the South Face of North Dome, rounding the spectacular arch and reachy stretch, unroped with this wierdosity hanging off him, totally committed to bringing it back to the Central Valley and his living room, his home, his friends.  And how I had not been in that movie.